I took the ferry into Victoria this past dreary Saturday to take the “Odd Bits” class at The London Chef with Jennifer McLagan, chef and and award-winning author from Toronto whose past books include Bones and Fat, winner of the 2009 James Beard Cookbook of the Year.
After you’ve covered fat and bones, what’s left? The offal, of course. But as Chef McLagan explained at the beginning of our class, The Offal Cookbook is bound to become victim to an almost endless number of awful puns (sorry), so instead, we have Odd Bits.
For a rainy day spent inside talking about how to cook and eat the feet, blood, organs and glands of various animals, it was enjoyable indeed. Chef McLagan is an engaging, passionate speaker and The London Chef’s bright, well-appointed demonstration kitchen is as welcoming as any I’ve been in. The glass of red to loosen us all up at the start didn’t hurt either.
Just some of the odd bits we talked about and ate. Ideas were everywhere in this class, from adding chicken feet to the pot to make stocks and sauces rich in collagen and thick with body, to a description of suet scones as the lightest and flakiest she’d ever tasted.
We touched on tripe, brains, kidneys and cheek meat. We ate trotter, tongue, heart, liver and ear.
After getting over the psychological hurdles many of us have to face when served a plate of offal, the next hardest thing will be sourcing the ingredients. Many butchers are simply no longer able to bring in many of the cuts Chef McLagan talks about because the abattoirs are either unwilling, because of economics, or unable, due to a loss of expertise, to harvest and sell them on.
Because of that, consumers have lost access to economical cuts that used to sustain families in leaner times. Part of her motivation in writing the book was to research, recapture and re-share the pan-cultural art of using the whole animal. The charcuterie craze has done much to bring the snout-to-tail concept to trendy urban tables, but the recipes Chef McLagan shares take us on a more complete culinary journey — the Michelin-starred restaurants are there, but so is the frugal reality of peasant kitchens across the globe — all presented with her own unique twist.
Our first dish — beef tongue with salsa verde — served both warm and cold. I preferred the cold tongue, which had been pressed overnight. The meat was delicious, but quite honestly, the star of this taster was the salsa verde, made by The London Chef owner, Dan Hayes. It takes a great amount of skill and experience to make some herbs, anchovies, olive oil and seasoning taste that polished. I’d eat almost anything with a dollop of that alongside.
Next up was blanched pigs ears, finely julienned, served with a vinaigrette — the cartilage running down the middle makes for quite the textural experience. I imagine they’re quite nice deep-fried, but then again, most things are tasty after a dip in oil, don’t you agree?
Some of what we sampled, such as the tongue, ears and trotters had been brined or salted, then pre-poached prior to the start of the class. The rest, like the beef and liver began their time with us still raw.
Some of the heart ended it’s time with us in the same state — as Heart Tartare — chopped by yours truly. Heart meat is dense — the knife almost bounces when you slice through — but there was no chewiness to the tartar, just a tender bite full of deep-beef flavour.
More beef heart — this time it’s pan seared and topped with a golden onion gravy (another delicious sauce from Chef Hayes).
One last important tip from Chef McLagan: once you have found a source for your bits, talk to the butcher to find out as much as you can about where the animal came from and how it was raised. Make sure it’s fresh. When you’re eating organs — especially raw, in the case of the tartare — it’s more important than ever to use fresh, toxin-free meat.
And then hurry up and eat your fill. Because, like sweetbreads and foie-gras before them, once the rest of the Odd Bits catch on, they won’t be so economical anymore.