While heads, tails and organ meats do not represent as much waste from an animal as the bones and fat, their concentration of minerals and fat-soluble vitamins makes discarding them a huge waste of nutritional value. And, handled properly, they are fantastic.
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“Every earth-conscious home cook who wishes to nourish his or her family with sustainable, local, grassfed and pastured meats should be able to, regardless of income,” argues Shannon Hayes, radical homesteader and author of Long Way on a Little. The core reference for any home cook, Long Way on a Little examines the conundrum of maintaining a healthy, affordable and ecologically conscious meat-based diet, while simultaneously paying America’s small sustainable farmers a fair price for their food. In this excerpt from chapter 9, “Heads, Tails and Other Under-Appreciated Treasures,” learn about nose-to-tail cooking and how offal, such as chicken livers, lamb’s heads and oxtails, are packed with essential nutrients and often contribute the best flavor to home cooking. Then try some delicious offal recipes.
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“Heads, Tails and other Under-Appreciated Treasures,” is a foray into what most Americans consider the grisly side of prudent meat consumption. I, too, fell into this camp, balking at the very idea of cooking a pig’s head or skewering a chicken’s heart. The thought of tackling this chapter, frankly, filled me with dread. Having written it, I’ve come through the fog, and the recipes included are some of my family’s favorites. While heads, tails and organ meats do not represent as much waste from an animal as the bones and fat, their concentration of minerals and fat-soluble vitamins makes discarding them a huge waste of nutritional value. And, handled properly, they are fantastic.
Long Way on a Little represents the single greatest learning curve I’ve climbed in my understanding of grassfed meats and how to most thoroughly use them. It represents four years of studying cookbooks from the Great Depression and World War II eras, of experimenting in the kitchen, of writing and rewriting until I could outline a new cuisine for my family that minimizes our waste and maximizes our nutrition and our enjoyment. I hope you will find it useful in your own kitchen, and that you will join me in what has now become a permanent learning path, of perpetually exploring how we can use our food choices to heal the planet and change the course of history in this country, and how, ultimately, each of us can find the delicious trail to going a long way on a little.
I’ll admit it: I did not look forward to researching and writing this chapter of the book. Organ meats, heads, feet and other such odious (in my opinion) cuts were an over-glorified salvation effort—the affected cuisine of die-hard nutritional fanatics, stoic old-world hausfraus or pretentious epicureans. According to my own eco-sensibilities, if a person chose to forsake the organ meats, but made full use of the bones and fat of the beasts that gave their lives for our wellbeing, well, that was ample thrift to earn the omnivore’s atonement. As far as I was concerned, the kidneys, livers and hearts could go to the dogs, the heads and feet to the compost or the renderer. I have just enough customer demand for oxtails to equal our supply, so I rarely ate those, either (though they never repelled me as hearts and heads did).
I didn’t waste all of it. When my children were infants, I blended chicken livers with butter, onions, cream (and a splash of cognac), portioned it in small covered dishes, and carried the pate as their baby food when going to the market or traveling. When my customers at the farmers’ market noticed, then tasted it, they demanded I produce it for them as well. Soon I was making pate for market-goers’ consumption, and stopped making it for our own household. Organ meats had no place in our family kitchen for a good four years . . . until my eldest daughter, who rarely eats sweets, mysteriously began developing cavities.
My dentist commented that this was common in country kids whose parents refused fluoride supplements, but I could not reconcile myself to administering the pills to my child, nor could I accept that a human body was so imperfectly constructed that our teeth could not serve us for the full lifetime that we’d require them, let alone to age eight. Faithful to the nutritional principles proponed by the Weston A. Price Foundation, but abashed by my failure to adopt their enthusiasm for organ meats, I revisited their research, as well as the research presented in Ramiel Nagel’s recent book Cure Tooth Decay. One of the keys to re-mineralizing my daughter’s teeth (in addition to removing grains from the family diet and exploring a number of other environmental and health factors) could quite possibly be found in those very meats I’d spurned. Organ meats are rich in a wide array of macro and trace minerals, as well as fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K, all which aid in addressing biochemical disturbances in the calcium-phosphorus ratio, which is critical to dental health.
And so, eager to avoid the dentist’s drill and facing a pile of recipes to test for this book, our family embarked on (quite literally) this new chapter in our lives. And, much to our surprise, we discovered that we like these cuts. My kids still love pate and terrines, and they actually hop up and down with enthusiasm when they see me spearing chicken hearts on a skewer. At their encouragement, I dice heart into one-inch chunks and add it to stews, I reserve the cooking stock when simmering livers for pate and use it for refrigerator soup, and I dice organ meats into fine pieces and incorporate them into stuffed peppers. They relished all of it, finally emancipated from my anti-organ tyranny.
Then we moved on to the more grotesque forms of cookery, namely the heads and feet. There, too, came an ebullience I never expected. Saoirse and Ula stood on stools at the kitchen counter, fascinated as I worked a knife around the sockets to remove pigs’ eyes, peered into the pot as I added lemon and herbs to the head that faced back up at them, studied the muscles and bones of the pigs’ feet before joyously splashing them into the stockpot. The next day, after the headcheese had been prepared, chilled and ripened in the refrigerator, they tucked into it with enthusiasm, and they continue to enjoy it for farm picnics and pre-made meals, as do Bob and I. In her book How to Cook a Wolf, M.F.K. Fisher writes, “Why is it worse, in the end, to see an animal’s head cooked and prepared for our pleasure than a thigh or a tail or a rib? If we are going to live on other inhabitants of this world we must not blind ourselves with illogical prejudices, but savor to the fullest the beasts we have killed.”
It may be true that heads, tails and organ meats comprise a smaller percentage of the ordinarily wasted parts of the animal than the bones and fat, but they are proportionally nutrient-rich, and thus, I’ve learned, their waste is just as tragic, particularly in light of how critical they are to our overall health. And, yes, even I can attest that they are truly tasty.
Chicken Liver Pate Recipe
Makes about 1 pound
1 medium onion, thinly sliced
1 cup meat broth
1 pound chicken livers
3/4 pound softened butter
1/2 teaspoon finely ground sea salt
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
3 tablespoons good brandy
1/2 cup heavy cream
Place the onion, broth, and chicken livers in a medium saucepan. Bring to a boil over medium heat, then lower the flame and simmer until the livers are cooked through, about 10 minutes. Strain the liver and onions through a colander, reserving the broth for another use.
Once the liver and onions are cool enough to comfortably handle, puree them in a food processor with the butter, salt, pepper and brandy, working in batches if necessary, adding a small portion of each ingredient to each batch. Place the pureed mixture in a large bowl (mixing to combine batches if necessary) and refrigerate for 20 minutes.
Whip the cream until stiff peaks form and fold it into the pate. Allow it to set in the refrigerator before serving. It can also be molded like the previous pate. If you can’t eat an entire batch, refrigerate leftovers in covered glass containers for up to a week, or freeze for up to 3 months.
Homesteader’s Terrine Recipe
1/2 pound pitted prunes
12 ounces (1 1/2 cups) hot tea
2 tablespoons brandy
10 chicken necks, skins removed and reserved
10 chicken hearts
10 chicken gizzards, cleaned and trimmed (not diced)
2 whole chicken legs
Coarse sea salt
1 bunch fresh thyme
2 cups room-temperature lard
12 ounces diced pork belly
1/4 pound smoked bacon, finely diced
1 teaspoon ground allspice
1/2 teaspoon ground mace
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
14 ounces thinly sliced fatback (about 1/8-inch thick)
Two days before you plan to feast, place the prunes in a nonreactive glass or stainless-steel bowl. Pour the tea and brandy on top, and soak 24 hours.
On the same day, set the skinless necks (remember that you are reserving the skins for later), hearts, gizzards, and chicken legs in a separate nonreactive (glass or stainless-steel) container. Sprinkle generously on all sides with salt and thyme sprigs. Toss to coat. Cover and refrigerate 24 hours.
On the day you wish to prepare the terrine, preheat the oven to 350° F. Remove the meat from the salt and brush off most of the crystals. Lay it in a clear glass baking dish, then add the lard. Cover and bake 15 minutes, then check to see that the meat is completely submerged in the fat. If not, remove it from the oven and add more lard. Once you are certain the meat is amply covered, bake until the meat on the necks pulls easily off the bone, at least 2 hours.
Using tongs, remove the meat from the hot lard, reserving the lard. Let the fat cool, then pour into a clean glass storage container, cover, and refrigerate for another use. Allow the meat to cool slightly, and then pull it all off the bones and finely dice it. Combine it in a bowl with the pork belly and bacon, season with the allspice, mace and pepper, and mix well.
Spread a large piece of plastic wrap on your counter. Lay out the thinly sliced backfat so that it is as long as your terrine (if you don’t have a terrine, a 10-inch glass loaf pan is ideal), and about as wide. Set a row of prunes down the middle, lengthwise, then use the plastic wrap to help you lift the fat and fold it over the prunes, making a fat and prune roll that is the length of your terrine. Set aside for the time being.
Line the terrine with the reserved skins from your chicken necks, leaving flaps hanging over the sides. Fill the pan one-third of the way up with the meat mixture. Unwrap the prune roll and set on top, then cover with the remaining diced meat. Fold the chicken skin over the top and cover (use foil if not using a lidded terrine). If you have enough extra filling, put together a second terrine.
Fold a kitchen towel in half and set it on the bottom of a 9-by-12-inch baking pan. Set the terrine on the towel and set the pan in the oven. Carefully pour water 2/3 up the side of the terrine and bake at 350 degrees for 2 hours longer.
Carefully lift the terrine from the baking pan and uncover. Cut a piece of cardboard that will fit perfectly inside the top of the terrine. Wrap the cardboard with foil or waxed paper, then press it down on the terrine. Weight it with a brick or rock to compress the meat, and refrigerate 24 hours.
When you are ready to feast, remove the terrine from the loaf pan (it may help to set the pan in a dish of hot water to loosen it). Allow it to sit at room temperature for about 30 minutes prior to digging in.
Headcheese Recipe with Trotters
1 pig’s head, or calf’s head, or 2 lamb’s heads, quartered (whole is okay if you have a pot big enough)
4 pig trotters (feet) or 2 fresh (uncured) ham hocks (optional)
2 whole onions, peeled
3 whole carrots, halved
3 stalks of celery, halved
1 bouquet garni made with a sprig each of rosemary, oregano and parsley
1 lemon, cut in half
6 cloves of garlic, whole, peeled
2 bay leaves
1 cup red wine or apple cider vinegar
Coarse salt and ground black pepper, to taste
Lard, for frying the pig’s ears, optional
If it hasn’t been done already, remove the brains and eyes. If the head is fresh, the brains can be cooked separately (see Sally Fallon’s wonderful cookbook, Nourishing Traditions). If you are working with a pig head, leave the ears on for the time being.
Place all the ingredients except for the salt and pepper and lard in a large pot. Cover with cold water and let it rest for about 30 minutes.
Put the pot over a medium-high flame. As it approaches a boil, skim off any foam that rises to the surface. Once it has come to a full boil, lower the flame and simmer gently for an hour. If using a pork head, remove the ears. Dice and refrigerate them to be cooked separately.
Continue simmering for another 1–2 hours, until the meat pulls easily off the bone.
Remove the head and trotters to a platter and let them rest until cool enough to handle. Meanwhile, strain the broth, return it to the pot, and boil until it is reduced at least by half (2/3 is better, if you have the patience). Season to taste with salt and pepper.
Once the meat is cool enough to handle, remove it from the bones and coarsely chop it. Peel the skin from the tongue and chop the tongue as well. Don’t be afraid of the snout if you are working with a pig head. That can be diced and added to the mix, too.
Toss all the diced meat into a terrine or stainless-steel bowl. Completely cover it with the reduced broth (you may not need all of it), stirring to eliminate any bubbles, then cover and chill overnight. If you have some broth left over, simply pour it into a glass storage container, cover, and refrigerate for another use.
When ready to serve, invert the terrine onto a cutting board. If the headcheese doesn’t come out easily, loosen it by briefly setting the terrine in a pan of hot water.
Let it sit at room temperature for about 30 minutes prior to serving.
While the headcheese comes to room temperature, remove the pig ears from the refrigerator. Add enough lard to fill a cast-iron skillet 1/2 inch deep when melted. Place skillet over medium-high heat. When hot but not smoking, add the pig’s ears and fry, stirring often to prevent them from sticking together, until crispy. Remove and drain them on brown paper. Season with salt to taste, and serve as an accompaniment to the headcheese, alone, or over a bed of fresh greens dressed with a vinaigrette. A pig’s ear salad is a perfect accompaniment for cold sliced headcheese.
Salsa Soup Recipe with Meatballs and Oxtails
1 tablespoon coarse salt, plus 1 teaspoon, finely ground
3 teaspoons ground black pepper
2 pounds oxtails
2 tablespoons butter or lard
1 tablespoon olive oil
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 jalapeno chili, seeds and membrane removed, diced
2 medium onions, diced
2 medium carrots, diced
4 cups canned chopped tomatoes, with their juices
4 cups meat broth
1 teaspoon smoked paprika
1 pound ground beef or pork, or a combination
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 cup chopped fresh cilantro
1/2 cup long grain rice
Combine the coarse salt and 2 teaspoons pepper, and sprinkle it over the surface of the oxtails. Heat a large, nonreactive stainless-steel or enameled iron Dutch oven over a medium-high flame. Add 2 tablespoons of the fat and swirl to coat. Add the oxtails and sear 2–3 minutes per side, taking care to ensure that, as you brown the meat, there is about 1 inch of space around every piece (work in batches if necessary). Remove the oxtails to a separate dish.
Lower the heat. Add the olive oil to the pot and swirl to coat. Add the garlic, jalapeno, onions, and carrots, and saute until the onions are translucent, stirring often to scrape up any browned bits. Pour in the tomatoes and broth and add the paprika. Return the oxtails to the sauce, cover, and simmer gently 1 1/2 hours.
Meanwhile, combine the ground meat, ground salt, 1 teaspoon pepper, cumin and 3/4 cup of cilantro in a bowl. Mix well and form into 1-inch balls.
Once the oxtails have simmered about 1 1/2 hours, add the rice, if using. Simmer 45 minutes, then add the meatballs and simmer until they float in the broth and the rice is tender, about 15–20 minutes longer.
Serve in shallow bowls to unfussy dinner companions who will delight in sucking the bits of meat off the oxtail bones, garnished with the remaining cilantro. Consider offering small side plates as bone repositories.
This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from Long Way on a Little, published by Left to Write Press, 2012. Buy this book from our store: Long Way on a Little.