Jennifer McLagan, an Australian chef living in Toronto and the 2007 James Beard Cookbook of the Year award-winner for “Fat,” has now written the enormously interesting and appealing “Odd Bits: How to Cook the Rest of the Animal” (Ten Speed Press). McLagan, a lover of odd bits — or as we say in my house, the best parts — is not preaching to the choir but to the multitudes that either think “yecch” when confronted with innards or are clueless when they hear “sweetbread.”
Her odd bits are not only offal, also called variety meats or innards, but all those parts of the animal that most consumers ignore, such as neck, ears, jowl and feet. At the moment only restaurant chefs seem interested in these cuts and inner parts, exemplified by books such as Fergus Henderson’s “The Whole Beast: Nose to Tail Eating” or restaurants such as Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo’s Animal in Los Angeles.
McLagan has organized the book from front to back, literally. Chapter 1 begins with the head of the animal and successive chapters follow the contours of the body, including the middle (innards) and the tail, with a final chapter on basic recipes such as beef stock and poultry stock. Her extensive introductory notes are sensible and reassuring for offal neophytes. They’re reaffirming for readers who are offal know-it-alls too. She has perfunctory historical notes about cuts of meats and the cultural roots of the various dishes she offers as recipes. A more thorough book might have had more on that, but her goal is just to get the reader comfortable with cooking odd bits, and that she does well.
“Odd Bits” has great photographs and recipes that turn bloody guts into delectable dishes. Making tripe, brains and heart might not be standard fare, but McLagan poses a solid case for eating every part of the animal.
Good luck finding a butcher
As far as finding these odd bits, she writes: “I want to encourage you to find your own sources. I am adamant about seeking out local butchers.” All I can say is, “Good luck.” You might find pig’s feet, lamb necks or chicken livers in the supermarket, but remember that most butchers — and there are very few real butchers anymore — have to buy a 20-pound box of kidneys from their wholesalers. After they sell you one pound, they can’t unload the rest. The advice McLagan could have offered is: Look to cultures that eat odd bits; find a Chinese butcher in your nearest Chinatown.
McLagan’s recipes are appealing and challenging without being impossible for a home cook. Try the Sweetbreads With Morels and Fresh Fava Beans and see for yourself what a celebration this cookbook is. If you’re a neophyte you can’t go wrong with Beginner’s Tripe, which sounds utterly delicious and comes with the sensible advice: “If you’re still a little hesitant, serve the tripe with pasta.”
As good and as useful as McLagan’s cookbook is, she’s butting up against modern society’s aversion to eating innards. There may be a half dozen chefs promoting offal but that’s no trend.
Enlightened look at offal
McLagan is aware that today we are so far removed from the sources of our food that in our shrink-wrapped world we might not realize that meat comes from a living animal. She cares about what she eats and her approach is enlightened, sensible, non-dogmatic (thank god). Her section on our loss of food literacy, that is, understanding where our food comes from, how it is raised, how it is slaughtered, and how it is butchered, is a real gem and hits the mark. I couldn’t agree more with her comment “the idolizing of chefs has left home cooks thinking that cooking is a specialized skill.”
This is as wonderful an introduction to “odd bits” as you’ll find. McLagan is unabashed in her exploration of these meats. Whether you’re an offal aficionado, curious or adventurous, you’ll learn a lot about what to do with a pig’s head, ears and feet, veal cheeks, lamb brains, tongue, spleen, sweetbreads, heart, oxtail, testicles, blood and, of course, liver. Her section on tripe is good, but the nomenclature for tripe is far more confused than she indicates, and she doesn’t delve deeply into the uses of all four ruminant stomachs, which is important in so many of the culinary cultures whence many offal recipes emanate. Maybe she chose to omit the others because the only tripe you’ll ever find in a supermarket is honeycomb tripe, and that rarely. It’s the second stomach, and so-named because of its resemblance to a bee honeycomb, and a perfectly fine product.
I have only one last complaint — and none of my complaints detract from the book: cutesy heading titles such as “get a head,” “lend me your ears,” “if I only had a brain,” “cooking in tongues.” Ignore those and just go right for the delicious and well-chosen recipes. Once you’ve bought this book — which I recommend most highly — your next step is to find a butcher and start talking with him or her. That’s what I did.
Top photo composite: Jennifer McLagan. Credit: Rob Fiocca; “Odd Bits” book-jacket image. Credit: Clifford A. Wright