Now that I’ve been perusing French cookbooks for about ten years, I can say that I’ve seen all sorts of recipes. Some are simple, some are complicated. Some are expensive to prepare, some cost next to nothing. Some can be done at the last minute, others require many days. Some use common ingredients, others are a bit more exotic. Maybe exotic isn’t the best word to describe abats, or offal. But what term would be best for the parts of the animal that most people nowadays don’t want to eat: tongues, kidneys, livers, hearts, ears, tails, stomachs, and the like?
Early cookbooks, such as Apicius,1 a Roman cookbook from the 4th century, are resplendent with offal dishes. Brains, livers, and hearts are all featured. Old French cookbooks also include many offal dishes. The peak of offal popularity possibly coincides with the 1938 edition of Larousse gastronomique2 which includes many, many recipes for every type of offal. But sadly, by the time the millennium edition3 of the same book was released, the volume of offal recipes is diminished, or it is hard to count them because they are no longer all gathered together in one place; the recipes are now organized by major ingredient. The Larousse gastronomique remains the best, current reference for offal recipes that I have found available in French publications. Additionally, I found one specialty book on testicles,4 but I haven’t found a book specifically for kidneys or ears.
What constitutes offal in French cooking? The current Larousse gastronomique has a detailed list we can use as a guide:
|Name (French)||Name (English)||Animal(s)|
|fraise||no English equivalent: the connecting membrane of veal intestines||veal|
|gras-double||tripe from the first stomach, sometimes called blanket or flat tripe||beef|
|pansette||base of the tripe from the first stomach, sometimes called blanket or flat tripe||lamb, veal|
|pieds||feet||beef, lamb, pork, sheep, veal|
|tête||head||beef, pork, sheep, veal|
|tripes||tripe, but can also mean intestines||beef, sheep|
|Name (French)||Name (English)||Animal(s)|
|amourettes||spinal marrow||beef, sheep, veal|
|animelles ou rognons blanc||testicles||beef (bulls), lamb (rams),
|cervelle||brains||beef, lamb, pork, veal|
|cœur||heart||beef, lamb, pork, veal|
|foie||liver||beef, lamb, pork, veal|
|joue||checks||beef, lamb, pork, sheep, veal|
|langue||tongue||beef, lamb, pork, sheep, veal|
|museau||muzzle or snout||beef, pork|
|queue||tail||beef, lamb, pork, veal|
|ris||sweetbreads||calves, lamb, veal|
|rognons||kidneys||beef, lamb, pork, sheep, veal|
But when attempting to prepare the odd offal recipes that you may encounter, it may turn out that it is easier to get the recipe than the key ingredient. This was my experience when I set out to write this article and test offal recipes. The store that used to have pig’s ears on the shelf all the time now doesn’t. The only way I could get lamb testicles was to buy a 25-pound box at $10 per pound—so I didn’t. But there was a bright side too. A rancher from the other end of the state was now selling lamb offal at one of our local farmer’s markets. In the end I was able to prepare a dozen dishes to add to the offal recipes already on this web site.
My favorite offal on the list—one that I’ve enjoyed since I was a kid—is sweetbreads. I’d prepare this gland more often, but it is a bit expensive—the most expensive of any of the offal tested for this article. The recipe, ris de veau aux champignons et aux fèves, consists of thick slices of sweetbread, dusted with flour and pan-fried until golden and slightly crisp. These are served over a mixture of mushrooms and fava beans. The results are quite colorful and tasty.
Tongue is another offal that I’ve been eating since I was young. My mother would purchase a pickled tongue and then simmer it for a long time until tender. We would eat it sliced with mustard for dinner and then I’d have the leftovers cold, on sandwiches, for a couple of days to follow. I especially liked it when the sandwiches were made on rye bread and included thin dill pickle slices. Three different animals—beef, lamb, and pork—were used in the four tongue recipes tested for this article. Although there is a difference in size between the various animal tongues, their flavor tends to be fairly similar. In some of the older books where I found tongue recipes it was noted that the animal was somewhat interchangeable. I decided to brine the tongues for all the recipes, not because the recipes called for it, but because I prefer the color: reddish pink versus grayish brown. The completed dishes simply look more appealing to me.
Both langues de porc braisées and langue de veau bourgeoise are examples of tongue that has been simply cooked, sliced, and served with a sauce, possibly the most common way to serve tongue. Mille-feuille de langue de bœuf is an example of an attractive dish that can be created from leftover tongue. Finally, salade de langue d’agneau, is a salad prepared with cold, cooked (but not leftover) lamb tongue.
The most fun offal dish to prepare was the soufflé de cervelle de porc à l’épinards. It was actually quite tasty, but it was fun to gross out my friends by telling them what I was fixing for dinner. I didn’t tell my recipe tester what the dish was before she tried it and said that she liked it. If the concept of pureeing pig’s brains by forcing them through a sieve turns you off, you probably should skip making this dish.
I was once at a two-star restaurant where one of their specialties was a whole, roasted veal kidney. The kidney had been cooked in the fat that naturally encased it. During the mad-cow scare days, the government in France outlawed the sale of veal kidneys encased in fat; I don’t know if this is still the case. During the prohibition, I knew a couple of chefs who would no longer buy kidneys because the fat was not attached. In the U.S., my problems are different. Kidneys of any kind can be difficult to find at times and sometimes they have not been purged properly, requiring me to get the urine odor out myself. Because local laws require that the interior of all kidneys be inspected, there’s always a slash in one side that may or may not affect the preparation. I did manage to get pork and lamb kidneys for the two recipes included with this article: rognons d’agneau à la Villandry and rognons de porc en casserole dijonnaise.
I remember my father, a traveling salesman, eating tripe once in a while when I traveled with him while he made business calls in the Central Valley of California. We were probably eating lunch at restaurants that catered to Portuguese farmers, but I don’t remember for sure. I never tried tripe until much, maybe 40 years, later. I liked it immediately. I was in Lyon, where butchers sell tripe precooked and ready to use. At one of my local Mexican markets, I can buy three different types of uncooked tripe: two from the first stomach and one from the second. Gras-double à la lyonnaise is a delightful and simple mixture of tripe and onion strips, both fried until brown and a little crispy, made with tripe from the paunch of the first stomach.
Liver is one bit of offal that most people remember from their childhood as tasting yucky and being as tough as shoe leather. My childhood memories are similar, but somehow as an adult, I’ve learned to love, and cook, liver that is at the most just pink inside and not chewy at all. In France I’ve been served thick slices of liver that was still cold on the interior. (Anyone for liver sushi?) Chances are that if you are buying liver already sliced, it will be difficult to undercook it because it will be sliced very thin. To prepare liver for French dishes, the liver should be about a centimeter thick. That is certainly the case for the two liver recipes herein: foie d’agneau grillé à la Bercy and foie grillé béarnaise. I used lamb liver for both because I was able to obtain thick slices, but veal, baby beef, or pork liver would work for both.
The last piece of offal I was able to obtain was pork hearts. The heart is just a muscle, albeit one that is used more than any other, and that’s what it tastes like. Also there’s essentially no fat in the muscle so it requires long, moist cooking to begin to tenderize it; although it will never become fork tender. And that’s exactly how cœur de porc braisée is prepared—long and slow.
You may be put off by offal dishes, but I’d definitely recommend giving a few a try. You may find that they are worth the effort, both to obtain the raw ingredients and to prepare them.