The offal truth: Organ meats & their ilk ascend the food chain

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Roman with the sweetbread dish.

WATCHING Anthony Bourdain eat pig's ears and lamb's tongue on the Travel Channel is one thing. Eating it yourself is something else altogether.

But call it what you will - spare parts, offal, variety meats, mixed grille - the nose-to-tail movement is alive and well in some area chefs' kitchens.

Although Chip Roman didn't grow up on organ meats - "I'm from Fishtown, we don't eat that stuff!" - the Blackfish chef/owner uses plenty of parts on the menu at his well-regarded Conshohocken bistro. From foie gras to lamb neck, kidney and heart, Roman takes a waste-not-want-not attitude to meat. He even included sweetbreads (that would be the thymus and pancreas of a beef calf or lamb) on his Valentine's Day menu for lovebirds with an adventurous streak.

Then there's his face bacon - meat picked from the pig's head - and fried cockscombs, tasty bits he uses like lardoons. "I guess this stuff is just more interesting. It takes a long time to cook and prepare. I know it's not for everybody, but in my opinion, a braised lamb neck tastes way better than your typical rack of lamb."

Over the 25 years she's been in the gourmet meat business as head of New Jersey-based D'Artagnan, Arianne Daguin has seen one trend emerge crystal clear. "Chefs drive what the consumer buys," she said. "Whether you're talking about sustainable agriculture and farm to table or using the whole animal, chefs are always the first to do it."

Thus, while New Jersey restaurateur David Burke recently asked her to hunt down rabbit ears ("That's a first for me"), Daguin said interest in oddball parts hasn't yet trickled down to the consumer. "Then again, even 10 years ago, the consumer wasn't buying venison, buffalo, flat-iron steak, pork belly. And now they are."

It comes down to mouth feel for Joe McAtee, chef/owner of Honey in Doylestown.

"What I love about using offal is flavor. Wherever there are bones, cartilage, connective tissue, you find extra richness. Something like oxtail or veal cheek is just loaded with collagen. That's why they make such great braises and sauces."

McAtee understands that eating these parts may not be for the faint of heart.

"Too many people think meat comes shrink-wrapped in the supermarket. When you're cleaning a pig's head or pulling out a whole tail bone, there's no denying that you're eating an animal."

Early in his career, McAtee worked with an older chef who ran a wasteful kitchen. And that didn't sit right with him. "The way I look at it is, if you're a meat eater, then it's terrible to just eat the tenderloin and throw the rest of the animal away. It's kind of a way to respect the integrity of the animal as a whole."

While McAtee personally draws the line at eating testicles (for Roman, it's brains), it's open season on the rest of the animal's parts. Guests at his Bucks County restaurant might find sweetbreads, braised lamb neck or a terrine made from meat picked from the head of a suckling pig.

"In other cultures, it's normal to eat the whole animal," he said. "Here, it still puts some people off."

While you can't stroll into most grocery stores and pick up a veal heart or lamb tongue, there are some exceptions. At Genuardi's in Marlton, N.J., veal sweetbreads, calves liver and chicken liver and gizzards are usually available. "Beyond that, I'd shop at an ethnic or specialty market," the store's executive chef, Trent O'Drain, suggested.

Besides working with his purveyors, Zahav chef/co-owner Michael Solomonov can find just about anything he's looking for at Supreme, a market at 4301 Walnut St. in West Philly.

"They have a huge ethnic section," said Solomonov, who grew up eating chopped liver, tongue and kidneys. He sells a lot of sweetbreads at Zahav, which he wraps in chicken skin and fries. "They don't have that funky, iron taste that liver has. They taste like schnitzel. It's an easy way for people to try something outside the box."

And that's just the beginning at Zahav.

Solomonov includes duck testicles, rabbit kidneys and duck hearts prepared with lots of garlic and parsley in the Jerusalem Grill, a mixed-offal dish that is popular in Israel. "Hearts are an easy way to start," he said. "Cut them into nuggets, dredge in flour seasoned with salt and pepper and sear them. Add some lemon and parsley or maybe some sriracha chili sauce, and it's delicious."

Preparing most organ meats is a multistep process that can include soaking [to get the blood out], brining, cooking, sautéing and more. "That's why we like it," said Daniel Stern, who recently opened not one, but two restaurants - MidAtlantic in University City and R2L on the 37th floor of Two Liberty.

"The work makes things interesting," he said. On the MidAtlantic menu, he features a veal stew that includes braised tongue and roasted sweetbreads. "We even make a little croquette from the trotters [feet]."

Despite not being an adventurous eater as kid, Stern was used to seeing sliced tongue from the local deli. "My dad liked it on a sandwich. It's pretty hard not to realize you're eating an animal when you're staring at a tongue."

A stint living in Japan exposed him to all kinds of ingredients, from live eels and shrimp to an interesting encounter with chicken feet. "Not much to like about them if you ask me. But there's a lot more to a cow then just the tenderloin."

Although she included a recipe for veal tongue ("Hands down the most tender piece of meat you will ever eat") in the massive, updated tome Gourmet Today (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $40), Ruth Reichl writes that "despite a lot of talk about nose-to-tail eating, we have not become a nation of offal eaters."

That is, unless you're a customer of D'Angelo Bros. meat market on 9th Street in South Philly.

Owner Sonny D'Angelo sells just about anything you can imagine - "If it's meat and it's inspected, I carry it." He sees a growing interesting in "old-fashioned peasant food, the kind of food they ate in the old country."

From the more mundane ("I can't keep pork belly in the store") to the decidedly bizarre - "I get people that want pork uterus, beef penis and all kinds of testicles" - D'Angelo meets customer demands.

"When you come right down to it, meat is meat."