Weird Crap I Cook: Cow Udder

Yet another post that seems to be a purposeful assault on every loyal reader that enjoys my wacky attempts at new eggplant and bread recipes.  This one is about an item that I can only assume usually ends up in dog food.

This post is a few months in the making at this point.  I feel like I’ve been threatening to write about udder for some time but hadn’t finished everything required to create a (somewhat) well informed post.  So, now here we are, with a whole post about cooking something you can pretty much only obtain in the U.S. if you know someone slaughtering a cow.  However, it’s apparently a common item in a few South American countries at restaurants that grill all parts of the cow, which means I had to try it.

A little refresher on what came in Uncle Billy’s Crazy Cooler of Destiny (working title):

Seeing this photo reminds me of how bummed out I was when I saw the fur and hair still attached to the outside of the udder.  Like that massive-sized chunk of almost pure fat wasn’t enough to make my knees buckle

This 15 pound chunk of udder was divided up into 4 portions and frozen separately so I could slowly make use of all of it.  Lucky me.

The first attempt was relatively straightforward and coincided with the cooking of the Ponce back in May.  It started with trimming the outside edges off of the block to get rid of the random ugly-looking bits I missed originally.

“Oh here, let me make this foul looking piece of sort-of food less gross by trimming off some gross stuff that people would have never noticed because they won’t eat it.” – Me, always

I was working a little haphazardly with the udder on this round since I was completely over-invested in the fate of the ponce.  Not sure it would have mattered, though, since there aren’t many resources on how to cook cow’s udder online and I was pretty much flying blind the whole time.  So, I simply sliced the udder into quarter inch thick slabs and soaked in salted water for a few hours.

Nobody should ever eat anything that looks like a deck of cards made out of fat.  But, if that’s the hand you draw, I guess you gotta go with it.  Puns!  They’ve worked previously!

While the ponce finished cooking in the oven, we fired up the grill to cook kielbasa so I seasoned the udder with salt and pepper and threw the slabs onto the grill.

Everything looks better on a grill.  Cow udder looks like innocuous chicken breast

After a good ten minutes on each side, the udder came off and headed to a cutting board to be sliced up for the hungry masses (me).

Looked kinda like a chicken cutlet but smelled like the fat on the edge of grilled steak.  Even looking at it now it’s hard to believe that is a piece of cow udder.  Cow udder!

I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect, but it was still not quite what I expected.  First, it tasted like the fat on a good piece of grilled steak; definitely beef-like and fatty in flavor, but almost like I’d covered it with unsalted butter before cooking.  I had assumed the texture would be a melty, soft, fatty texture but I was pretty off-base on that one.  The outside was chewy, like severely overcooked calamari chewy, and borderline crunchy with a soft inside.  Not something you could eat a lot of, but kind of addictive due to the texture and flavor.  I ate more pieces than I should have.

With that experience fresh in my mind, I recognized I still had a lot of udder left in the freezer and wanted to try a new technique the second time around.  During our trip to Italy a couple years ago, I fell in love with the insanely unhealthy and delicious cured lardo at Giostra in Florence.  Usually made with pork fatback, I had never seen a beef equivalent; like a beef bressaola to pork’s prosciutto.  The internets had no info on a beef lardo equivalent or even how to cure beef fat, so of course I was intrigued.  It all started with a block of udder cut into two equal width halves.

This one looked a little different than the last block, possibly due to an extra post-thaw day in the fridge that was a bit of a questionable decision.  Like this whole effing blog entry wasn’t an incredibly questionable decision

With curing something this large, unlike the relatively simple duck prosciutto, there are more concerns about creepy bacteria and, particularly, botulism.  Pink salt, a nice term for salt mixed with sodium nitrite and a little nitrate, has to be used in order to ensure that the end product is safe to eat.  Nitrites/nitrates are pretty villainized but a reality of most charcuterie.  I mixed a cup of salt with a couple tablespoons of pink salt, garlic powder, dried thyme, dried sage, and lots of black pepper.

I let Janet consume reasonable amounts of dirt and grass (you really can’t help it) and don’t mind her crawling around in public places, but I was acting like an insane parent with how I handled the pink stuff.  That stuff is no good for babies, probably bad for adults too but at least we get to enjoy its delicious riches

I lined the bottom of a glass pyrex with the salt mixture, then placed the udder pieces into the dish and covered all sides completely with the salt making sure no parts of the meat were left exposed.

It was a snug fit but better than being in a much larger dish and needing more salt.  The coating also did a solid job of hiding the oddness underneath it.  Salt, is there anything you can’t do?

I wrapped the dish tightly in two or three layers of plastic wrap and then placed my special cooking brick (we found it in the garden and wrapped it in tin foil) on top of the udder.  The idea is that while it cures in the salt, the weight would press out excess bacteria-risky liquid.  The whole kit and kaboodle (how have I not used that expression here before) went into the fridge for 30ish days.

The fridge light makes this look both creepy and sh*tty-filter-that-everyone-uses-on-Instagram-y.  I would describe myself as generally irritated by Instagram.  I would also describe myself as generally irritated about everything

Over the next 30 days, I pulled the dish out every five days or so to flip the udder pieces, pack in the same salt mixture, re-cover, and weight.  Over time, the salt got progressively wetter and there was liquid collecting in the dish.  I wasn’t sticking to any specific timetable, I was winging this one and lardo usually comes out after seven days, but eventually I decided it was time to remove it from the salt.

That was some viscous liquid collecting around the sides, but it was nice to see that something had changed and looked different.  I was putting way too much effort into this thing to have no progress

Each piece was removed from the mud-like salt and given a quick rinse in water and then white wine.  The white wine was a bit odd in retrospect, but lardo and proscutto recipes call for a fortified wine rinse, and I didn’t care to figure out what “fortified wine” meant, so I broke out the ollllld Chuck Shaw.

You know we’ve switched to the good camera when the water looks like this.  We’ve also reached the portion of the program when Kristi agreed to participate.  Also, the dark spots are pieces of dried herb that stuck around throughout the process

Subpar action shots on this one.  Kristi and I aren’t on speaking terms because of this

With the bottom half of the wine fridge lined in light-blocking cardboard from the inside (as discussed in previous posts) I had a 54 degree location that was perfect for curing.  I poked a hole in each slab with a bamboo skewer, pressed a string through it, then tied it to the bottom side of one of the wine racks to hang.

Ended up having to redo this so that they were both on the same string and wouldn’t swing into each other.  In hindsight it was a pretty stupid concern, it’s not like the fridge was going to be in the hold of ship

And that was pretty much the last I saw of the udder for the next 60-ish days.  The rack slid back into the wine fridge and the udder cured in 54 degree temperatures in what I came to know as “the curing box”.  Kristi still calls it the wine fridge.

After a couple months of curing and some general food boredom post-St. Anthony’s feast in the north end of Boston, I pulled the udder out of the wine fridge.

A lot smaller than when I started.  Totally not something you can see from a scale-less photo

After a few minutes of staring, smelling, poking and general stalling, I finally started cutting off some slices from the block.

Just a big old block of cured beef fat.  The discovery of foods like this is rarely done by people of smaller dimensions than mine.  Let’s just say I don’t think this is the type of food Giada De Laurentiis is making at home.  Before looking her up just now I was unaware she spelled her last name with two “i”s and now I am pretty sure that’s not her real name.  Another thing I am generally annoyed by

The key with any lardo is to slice very, almost transparently, thin.  After tasting a tiny piece raw, I decided this was definitely the type of food that would taste better with some heat applied to it.  Toasting pieces of baguette and letting the lardo melt onto them seemed like the best course, but I didn’t have any good bread in the house so I fried up a batch like bacon.

Thought I had a good shot of the thin slices on the cutting board but apparently not.  Has the transition back and forth from the good camera to the iPhone been jarring?  I find it jarring

While the slices cooked the smell was somewhere between pan cooked steak and a natural tallow candle.  It definitely was a reminder that what I was about to eat ends up as something other than people food 99.9999% of the time in America.  Not that I think that’s wrong; udder isn’t exactly the next head cheese coming to the menus of trendy gastro-pubs nationwide.

It looked/smelled reasonably appetizing at this point.  Not sure you can go wrong frying something fatty and cured like you would bacon, seems to always work.  Again, not the type of conversation you’re going to hear around the starting line at a 10k

Cured cow udder isn’t for everyone, but it was actually kind of good.  The most shocking thing is how sweet the cured udder is.  Not like how I would describe shellfish as sweet, this was very sugar-like.  It legitimately tastes like bacon that has been baked with brown sugar on it, almost a candied flavor.  I racked my brain to try to remember if I had put sugar in the cure but realized the sweetness was coming from the udder.  Likely the last remnants of the milk which is gross or cool depending on how you look at it.

Obviously I was working with just the fat here, so there wasn’t a lot of texture aside from the crispiness, but it really tasted like beef-flavored crispy bacon fat.  I am actually looking forward to frying this up again and seeing what I could pair it with.  Will likely experiment with it some more in LBI this weekend.

I am just happy it was edible, I really thought I would be throwing it out after 90 days of (minimal) effort.  Hopefully I’ll do a post everyone can enjoy next week.

Weird Crap I Cook: Octopus 3-Ways

Aside from the usual end-of-summer struggles with posting, I haven’t had a whole lot going on the past few weeks.  Trip to Vermont, staph infection from a bug bite, lots of work, but not a lot of interesting cooking.  The vegetable CSA has certainly kept me on my toes trying to figure out a good pickling recipe and making variations of Conman’s mixed-vegetable smoky salsa, but none of that stuff makes a good blog post.

So, this past Sunday I had high hopes for inspiration and a drive to cook something interesting.  Instead we walked to Brookline to hit Michael’s Deli for the best Ruben in Boston.

I should have shown a picture of the awesome sammich, but the guy who made my sandwich was enamored with Janet and she was surprisingly happy hanging with him while we ordered.  I thought it was adorable.  Great place

On the walk home I made the call that it was time to cook the three pound whole octopus I’ve had in the freezer for a couple months.  After some quick research, it seemed relatively straightforward and would just require thawing it out for cooking.  So lets get going.

I know, I didn’t think it looked promising at first either, but I quickly recognized that it was whole, raw, and relatively free of any freezer burn

I was nervous about rapid thawing but some quick research clarified that frozen octopus should be soaked to defrost which was what I was planning to do anyway.  One more shot of this truly bizarre  seafood block that looked like it was frozen in the base of a five gallon bucket.

Like a wheelbarrow tire made out of seafood.  I wanted Kristi to eat this meal so I didn’t involve her and the good camera in the documentation.  Gave the iPhone another shot instead.  I’ll give it a B-

The frozen block started to loosen up and looked more like a oceangoing creature after an hour or so soaking in water.  Enough that I advised Kristi not to look in the sink for a little while.

Might have been a little overzealous saying this looked like an oceangoing creature.  It really looked like a grocery bag getting tossed around by the ocean, or the washing machine just after it fills.  Food!

I had a sense that this octopus was far larger than I expected but would also contract significantly once it was cooked.  As the thawing wrapped up, I put a large pot of heavily salted water over high heat.  With Kristi safely seated in the living room, I lifted the octopus out of the bowl by the head (mantle).  Well, wowzers.

This was surprisingly heavy.  I was leaning back so far and holding the phone away to fit the whole thing in a picture.  It was friggin’ huge

With the water boiling, I was ready to start cooking this thing.

Quick aside, the millions of internet experts on Octopus cooking were decidedly split on whether or not a cork was necessary in the boiling water to tenderize the octopus.  Some sort of enzyme in cork helps break down the meat, or something like that.  I was leaning towards including a cork until I realized we didn’t have any lying around and I was pretty sure that every bottle in the house was either screw cap or synthetic cork (cuz that’s how we roll).  And with that, my decision was made, no cork in this batch.

As instructed online, I dipped the octopus a couple times to tighten it up a bit and then fully submerged it in the boiling water.  Put some good slimy smudges on our stainless hood from not having enough clearance above the pot to lower this monster in cleanly.  Almost immediately it fully contracted and started looking more like food.  Or a prop from Aliens.

Understandable why a lot of people like baby octopus but would never consider cooking a whole large one.  This really does look like somethign from the back lot at Universal Studios

After putting the octopus in the pot I reduced the heat to a simmer, carefully placed a pair of tongs to keep it from floating out of the water, and left it to cook for an hour and a half.  At which point I cut the heat and let it cool to a handleable temperature in the water.

Again, really crazy stuff going on in this kitchen.  The liquid looked like a melted Crayola crayon or something.  The stuff that made it pink was actually some sort of solid, likely from the skin, suspended in the liquid.  Pretty odd

When I eventually (read, post cocktail hour at a local restaurant’s patio with friends) pulled the octopus out of the liquid, the skin was falling off and the meat was fork tender.

A bit of a blurry mess, but looks more like food I think.  Or looks more like food to me I think.  Something like that

The suction cups and skin were completely falling off and when I tasted them didn’t seem to have a lot of flavor or texture.  So I completely removed everything that was loose, cut each tentacle off near the base, and piled all of the meat up on a plate.

Really struggled to process what I was looking at at this point.  A big pile of worm-like white meat just doesn’t look right.  Next time around I would cook it in a way that allowed it to hold it’s signature skin and suction cups

Now for the three ways.  My plan was to make a relatively traditional coctel de pulpo, a simple grilled tentacle with olive oil and sea salt, and a pesto octopus bruschetta.  Wasn’t really creative at all, I’ve wanted to make the first two items for a while not and the last item is just due to how much pesto Kristi made last week.

I started with the coctel de pulpo since it needed the most time to rest together in the fridge.  I’ve had coctel de pulpo a couple times on previous travels and it’s really just an awse term for ceviche; tomatoes, lime, garlic, seafood, etc.  I liked the idea of this item because it didn’t call for any specific ingredients, just what sounds good and what’s in the fridge.

I sliced all of the octopus meat from the mantle, the ends of the arms, and the body in thin pieces.  Half of that meat joined diced onion, cubed cucumber, garlic, hot sauce, and lots of chopped cilantro in a glass bowl.

Lots of strong flavors to surround the mild tasting octopus, but it all works so well together.  Hasn’t been my strongest post from a captions perspective.  I’m a little out of rhythm, per usual, with the end of summer

I squeezed about a lime and a half over the ingredients and stirred in tomato juice until the texture looked about right.  Then a lot of pepper and a little sea salt.

Like a seafood gazpacho, one that will find nicks and cuts inside your mouth you never knew existed and burn the bejesus out of them

The pesto bruschetta was both a courtesy to Kristi, since I knew pesto + grilled bread would make even the oddest of ingredients edible for her, and a combination of ingredients that sounded dece to me.  I stirred a few spoonfuls of pesto with the remainder of the sliced octopus meat and a little lemon juice before putting it on the stove top over low heat.

Like plopping a can of hash into a pot and not breaking it up at all.  I did stir this eventually.  The iPhone shots are at their worst when there’s a lot of light.  I think I just need to start paying Kristi a photographers wage so she has to photograph the stuff she doesn’t want to see

With the coctel resting in the fridge and the bruschetta topping heated up, I headed out to the grill the octopus arms and some sliced ciabatta from When Pigs Fly bakery in JP.  That place is impossible to go into without buying something.

I take back my previous statement.  The iPhone is truly at its worst in low light.  Either you get a grainy, difficult to make out shot or a completely washed out image from the flash.  The way I remember it, it was barely dusk out and this picture makes it look like it was taken in the touch tunnel at the Liberty Science Center.  Suburban NJ spooves!!!

The octopus and bread both had a bit of olive oil on them and I waited until the grill was very hot to throw them on.  My goal was to get a blackened char on the octopus and a nice toast on the bread, but the bread was far more cooperative than the octopus.  For some reason instead of a char or even some solid grill marks, the outside just got a little crispy.  Not what I was hoping for but, oh well.

Once off the grill, I drizzled some good olive oil and a couple twist of pink sea salt over the arms.  Yeeeaaahhh, getting fancy with my ingredients on y’all!  I got those seas salts all the way in Brookline!  At the Trader Joes!  For $1.99!

A char would have gone a long way towards making these look more appetizing.  I’m guessing that next time I’ll cut the tentacles off before boiling and cook them on the grill only which will likely get the char I’m looking for since they will be skin-on

With everything fully cooked, I plated it all together.  The coctel got some blue corn tortilla chips as a garnish/edible spoon, and the pesto octopus was piled high on the toasted bread.

Was pretty happy with how this came out looks-wise.  The grilled tentacles were really the crappiest looking item on the plate.  White food just looks gross, even worse when it is completely unidentifiable to an impartial observer

I thought this was a very solid meal and Kristi seemed to enjoy it as well.  The octopus arms had an interesting texture, tough and crispy on the outside but tender inside with the nice mild shellfish-like flavor that octopus has.  The fruity olive oil and salt obviously complimented it well.  The bruschetta was delicious, rich, easy-entry food.  The octopus added that same shellfishy flavor and a nice tender texture and we had no problem eating our way through that entire pile of bread and pesto mixture.

The coctel de pulpo was my favorite part.  I loved the spicy/citrusy kick from it and how light and refreshing it was after the other far more rich parts of the dish.  Like a palate cleanser.  With tortilla chips.  Kristi wasn’t as into that part since it was her first taste of ceviche, but she agreed that the burn from the spicy citrus had an almost addictive quality.

That’s it, summer is almost over and football cooking season is starting.  Get excited.

Cleanin’ out my Cabinets: The Mixed Grill

I need to come up with a good name for mixed grill that sounds cool.  Bollito Misto would be a cool thing to call it but that’s a mixed boil, and all the other foreign terms for mixed meat grill-fests refer to a specific collection of meats.  Please provide suggestions for what I should call future events where I fish interesting stuff out of my chest freezer to grill up. 

Anyhoo, Lamb, smelts, and cow parts were on the menu for Saturday and good golly was it rewarding.  Let’s check out the vacuum sealed lineup.

iPhone camera + dish towel + assorted offal in plastic makes for a much more ominous shot than a joyous evening of grilling calls for

That’s a half kidney, half beef tongue, a lamb tongue, two lamb hearts, and a hanger steak.  The steak was from Uncle Billy’s cow, the half kidney was leftover from a previous experiment with steak and kidney pie, and the tongues and hearts were from Snow Farm.

David from Snow Farm has become the equivalent of an email pen pal, but one that occasionally asks me what “parts” I’m looking for when he is butchering some of his naturally raised lamb, pork, beef, and goat.

The hanger steak came over in the creepy cooler I picked up on Kristi’s grandmother’s porch and the tongues and hearts are from the bag David left for me in a driveway in Lexington, MA.  I was extremely excited to cook both of them.

The item I was less excited about was discovered in my freezer a few weeks ago.  In a good life lesson to search your friend’s pockets before they enter your apartment, a 1.5 pound bag of smelts was hidden between Janet’s waffles and some frozen corn.  In general I like smelts, which are basically a large sardine that is usually fried and eaten whole (with the guts and head removed).  The frozen version kind of scared me, and the fish stank they leaked into my fridge when they defrosted didn’t help my fear.

While the smelts finished defrosting, I started initial prep on the meat.  First up was the hanger steak.

Funky looking stuff when it isn’t trimmed.  I was positive this was some sort of neck or cheek meat when I pulled it out of the cooler originally just because it looked so bizarre

Apparently hanger steak (called that because it hangs from the diaphragm) comes from the same general area of the cow as the skirt and flank steaks.  Like those other cuts, it needs be marinated, cooked medium rare and sliced thinish since it can be pretty chewy, but first there was a whole lot of crap to cut away.

Big bowl of fat and connective tissue trimmed off the hanger, leaving me with…

…this.  Pretty decent looking steak with a little bonus piece that was loosely connected.  Nothing makes me happier than cheap (or free) cuts of beef that actually taste good

With the steak trimmed, it headed into a marinade of Worcestershire, soy sauce, BBQ sauce, mustard, garlic, salt and pepper.  Random collection of ingredients but I also knew it couldn’t go wrong.

While all that was happening, the tongues were in a pot of salted boiling water for about an hour to get them ready for peeling.

Every time I cook tongue I like to think that it will look far more edible once it’s peeled.  Nope, still looks like a tongue.  Considering that is half a beef tongue and a full lamb tongue, it’s a good reminder of how friggin’ big a cow is compared to a lamb

Peeling tongues is always difficult to get started then easy going once you have a piece to get ahold of.  Not my favorite activity.

Back to the smelts.  With people arriving and plans of serving them tiny fishies as an app, I gave the smelts a good rinse under running water before dredging in lemon juice and shaking them in a bag full of bread crumbs, garlic powder, salt and pepper.

This was one of those times when I realized I was about to make bout 20 times more of a particular food than there were parties interested in consuming said food

Despite the conniption brought on by my OCD when pan frying, it was the only way to do the smelts right so they headed into a large pan with a layer of shimmering olive oil.  A few minutes on each side in the hot oil and you had a crispy crunchy whole fish body to chew on.

I usually make my own dipping sauces but that jar of Cain’s Tartar Sauce had been around too long and I was pessimistic that these little fishies deserved the homemade sauce treatment.  I whisked in some lemon juice to lessen the blow to their ego

The smelts were pretty dece, far better than I would have expected when I first smelled them.  You have to like the crunch of eating the whole fish body, bones and all, and the flavor that comes from doing so.  It’s a pretty flavorful experience, though I will always prefer the heads-on version I got in Sovicille Italy.

Back to the meats.  After a couple hours in the fridge soaking in a salt/sugar brine, the lamb hearts and kidney came out of the fridge looking like something from the storage room at the Mütter Museum.

Pretty much the stuff on the shelves of the dead end basement I run into in nightmares.  Or, to those I invite over, an exciting meal for pleasant guests!

I’ve shown beef kidneys on here before, so no need to show that again pre-trimming, but lamb hearts are pretty cool looking.

Funny looking things, much less intimidating than the gigantic beef hearts I’ve messed around with previously

I cut the hearts into thirds and the kidney into cubes before putting them onto double skewers, yakitori-style.  Since I had a decent experience with grilled kidneys in Morocco when they were coated with Moroccan seasonings, I went with a similar treatment.  The lamb and kidneys both got a coating of paprika, cumin, cayenne, salt, and garlic powder plus a good drizzle of olive oil.

Forgot to soak these skewers in advance, which means I am still batting a perfect 1.000 at forgetting to soak skewers before I use them.  I think I secretly enjoy the experience of burning my fingers attempting to remove lit skewers from the grill by hand

I sliced the tongues as well and gave them the same yakitori skewer treatment.  Avoided the heavy seasoning this time and went with just salt pepper and olive oil.

At some point I am going to cook a beef tongue perfectly, but it is more likely to be coincidence than actual skill.  Much like anything I make that tastes good

With the grill well heated and enveloping our guests with smoke, it was time to get the mixed grill grillin’.

Grilling meat makes me happy

After a few minutes on each side for the lamb and tongues skewers, a little longer for the kidneys and a little longer than that for the steak, everything was ready to come off the grill.

I sliced the hearts and tongues while the steak rested.

Was surprised that I actually cooked the hearts to a correct medium rare.  I can’t consistently hit the right temperature on hot dogs, let alone random offal from animals I don’t cook regularly

Still nice and juicy, but in general tongue isn’t a fantastic grilling meat.  Type that up and email it from your Gmail to your Hotmail so it will be saved forever and not disappear when fads like “Google” go away

Kidneys. Slowly learning, these just aren’t my thing

This had to go back on the grill, totally erasing the faux confident move from me where I pressed a fork on the steak an said, “oh yeah, that’s done”.  I just make stuff up

With the meats all ready to go, I’ll throw a brief shoutout to our two vegetarian dishes that were a nice change of pace from the massive amounts of meat.

Kale salad courtesy of Kristi. I have been eating the living sh*t out of this salad for a few weeks now since we got the recipe from my cousin Chris.  I wanted to add 3-5 more curses to that last sentence to make it clear how strongly I feel about that kale salad

Soba noodle salad from vegetarian Taylor.  At this point I have no idea why she tolerates me, I think it’s to hang with Kristi and Janet

With everything laid out and ready to grub, we dove in until fully stuffed.  Here’s a new approach to the recap

  • The lamb’s tongue was rich and awesome, like a nice fried piece of fatty lamb.  Need to order more of these from Snow Farm.
  • The beef tongue had a nice pot roast flavor but was a little chewy due to the thickness I sliced.  I will figure out how to cook this stuff at some point.
  • The kidneys were very strong.  Like throw the rest out after we each had a bite strong.  They had been in the freezer for awhile and were from a factory farmed cow so the odds were against me from the start, plus I didn’t soak them nearly long enough and should have added a milk soak cycle as well.
  • The lamb hearts were really awesome and I will need to order more of them as well.  The meat was lean, tasted like great lamb with no off flavors, and very tender.  Probably always will be best on the grill but I’d imagine they’d go great with a little feta and a lemony arugala salad next time.
  • The hanger steak was also very good and had great beef flavor, need to find a butcher that sells it instead of keeping it for themselves.
  • I’ve made my feelings known on the kale salad (happy to share the recipe), but the Soba one was equally delicious.  The mango and cilantro were a great combo and the chewy tofu worked great as a meat substitute in a salad like this.

And that’s all.  Off to Little Compton for the weekend, going to hit that fish shop I love and hopefully do some foraging.

Weird Crap I Cook: Surf and Turf

It doesn’t sound that odd, but “Surf & Turf” does cover a broad variety of food combinations.  To me, the traditional surf and turf consisting of filet mignon and a previously frozen, warm-water lobster tail is the surest sign of an awful restaurant; just two overpriced bland food items.  The different takes are always the best ones, which is how we ended up with offal, reptile, and fish for dinner when we were down in Naples.

It all started at Jimmy P’s butcher shop in Naples, FL.

Like most awesome food spots in Naples, Jimmy P's is in a rather anonymous strip mall. Made a suburban-raised Jersey kid feel right at home

Along with lots of nice looking cuts of high-quality meat, they also have a few cases of more interesting and unique items.  As you look left to right at the freezer cases, they start you with the game meat sausages, advancing to the tiny birds and poultry liver mousses, before culminating with a case full of organ meats.

After 15 minutes of pacing, leaving grease streaks on the glass with my nose, and defrosting the freezer with constant opening and closing, I paid for my lamb kidneys and gator fillets.

The sub-$4 price tag and lack of required cooking time helped these kidneys beat out the veal tongues and sweetbreads they were competing with. I wish they packaged all offal in cheap(er) quarter-pound one man portions

After some research, it seemed that one of the most common methods for prepping lamb kidneys is to soak in heavily dilluted vinegar.  I didn’t like the idea of this since I hate the rubbery, bad ceviche-like outside that citrus juice or vinegar gives to meat when marinating.  However, I’m also an idiot and blindly followed the recommendations of some anonymous internet recipe poster.

I ended up regretting that decision when I saw the outside had changed color 20 minutes later.  I pulled the kidneys out of the diluted vinegar soak and rinsed them thoroughly to stop the pickling effect before slicing each one in half.

Despite the whitened vinegar-cooked outside, these were still much cooler looking food than beef kidneys. My poor mother invites us down to visit and I thank her by preparing organ meats in her pristine kitchen while belching loudly and muttering curses at her dull knives

After the internets failed me, I fell back on my previous knowledge of kidneys and soaked them in milk followed by salted cold water.  The goal was to draw out whatever blood and funkiness they held inside.

While those sat in the fridge and reduced the resale value of Mommy Ryan’s condo, Tim got started prepping the pound of gator fillets.

Looked suspect and tourist trap-y, like some sort of airport souvenir or a sweatshirt the Mooman would buy if he visited the Everglades

Alligator is a little gimmicky and is on the menu at a lot of crappy theme restaurants in Southwest Florida.  However, it’s also pretty delicious if done right; like salty tender chicken scallopine that’s been tenderized by the spiky side of a mallet.  It sounds specific, but it’s a pretty solid analogy according to the writer of said analogy.

Tim planned to set aside some of the larger pieces for grilling and fry up the remaining chunks.  Worked for me, but I insisted he come down to the pool and help me start the grill since I am scared of grills and he is a real man and all.  Friggin jerk.  Here’s what headed to the grill along with two (varying degrees of) portly Ryans:

Olive oil, salt, and lots of pepper. The kidneys were mild smelling enough that they didn't seem to need a ton of extra flavor covering them. I had an arugala and lime aioli waiting just in case

The gator fillets. Figured these would be the under-the-radar best item on the table

A couple thick tuna steaks with a little toasted sesame oil to avoid sticking to the grill. Had to feed Kristi something. Note the Bell's Oberon in the background that I was extremely excited to find until I realized I was drinking their summer beer in February. Still pretty delicious though

With the grill safely started by Tim (while I hid behind the deck furniture with my fingers in my ears), we let it heat up for 5-10 minutes and threw everything on.

Just a wonderful sight, even if the lamb kidneys looked mildly disturbing on the left side. The next day some condo association busybody complained about the residue left on the grill while Tim and I whistled and looked at the flowers and cracks in the floor

The grills are quality ones, and the setup is great, but they just didn’t get hot enough despite being cranked to high the whole time.  Against every instinct, I had to lower the cover for a bit.

"What you guys doing:}?!?!?", "OMG!!!", "I ❤ them! TTYL!!!!" What can I say, I am a 32 year old dad who texts more than a teenage girl and with even less coherence. I also wear slippers with my DB lax-daddy shorts and pink shirt

After a few minutes, I opened the lid, flipped everything and cooked with the uncovered for another 5-10 minutes.

Kidneys had some of the crispy char I was looking for, and the gator looked decent, but I already knew the tuna was going to be over. I think I took it off a split second later while saying hateful sh*t about myself under my breath

After everything had some good marks on both sides, we loaded onto platters and made the trip back up to the condo.  The kidneys had a remarkably mild smell considering how strong organ meat can smell when cooked.

I would have preferred the kidneys be borderline burned on both sides. No idea why, burned kidneys sounds awful

The grilled gator was tender and full of flavor.  Because it is served in so many fried preparations, usually using the gristle-heavy cheap cuts, gator gets a bad rep.  I honestly think a piccata with gator fillets would be incredible after how good the grilled version was.

The kidneys were interesting.  The flavor of beef kidneys reminded me of gamy lamb, so I assumed that lamb kidneys would be like mega-gamy lamb.  I ended up being incorrect for a change, and they weren’t too bad;  a little rubbery with some mild liver/organ meat flavor, complimented well with an acidic sauce.  Unfortunately the arugala and lime aioli I made broke while I was at the grill which was a bit of a bummer.  File lamb kidneys in the “I’m glad I tried it but I’ll pass on thirds” category.

Acknowledging my mistakes here with that tuna. That's what I'd expect on a salad at a TGIFridays, thank god It had a decent sauce for dipping (same as my dumpling sauce)

The best item, which came together entirely while I was at the grill so I can’t take credit (though I will if you offer it), was Tim’s fried gator nuggets.  Salty, tender, crispy, well seasoned with Old Bay and served with a garlic mayo, friggin’ delicious from a friggin’ jerk

I could have eaten this whole plate, I love that slightly fishy chicken taste that gator has. Oh, and anything salty and fried

We will need to experiment with gator some more on our next visit, along with whatever else Jimmy P’s has to offer.  Really good.

Will try to break up the WCICs with some cookies or mac & cheese or something next week.  However, there are definitely some good meals in the queue after picking up 40 lbs misc. cow parts from Uncle Billy last weekend in Vermont.  Not to mention the bag of lamb hearts and tongues from David at Snow Farm that was left for me to pick up in Lexington, MA.  You end up with a lot of awesome random food when you write a random food blog.

Weird Crap I Cook: Yellowfin Tuna Collar (Hamachi Kama)

Generally I enjoy all types of seafood and have loved sushi since I was first introduced to it when I was ten years old.  Tuna, in all varieties, has always been my favorite raw fish and I would guess I consumed 10 pounds of freshly caught raw Yellowfin tuna at the Four Seasons in Bora Bora (our honeymoon, but I am name dropping) in a 5 day period.  That trip got me addicted to raw tuna.

Oddly, I am not a fan of cooked tuna and won’t order it at most restaurants unless I am sure it will come out rare.  The only exception is tuna collar which I was introduced to by a Bizarre Foods episode a few years ago.  I first tried it at Jaes Grill in Brookline (now defunct) and found it to be very tasty and moist despite being completely cooked through.  Ever since I have ordered it whenever I see it on a menu.

RIP Jae's. Your awful signage didn't give proper credit to your enjoyable pan-Asian cuisine and surprisingly decent sushi

To continue this extremely long lead-in, for years I have been jealous of my buddy John and his tuna fishing trips with his brother in-law Frank.  Last year Liz (John’s wife) sent me a picture of the 130+ lb Bigeye tuna they caught and had me drooling at the huge slabs of meat they were pulling off.  I also noted that the fish head was being disposed of which is what 99% of fishermen would do (and what the Ryans did on our fishing trip).  Since I knew the collar was on there somewhere, and that I needed blog material, I asked him to save me the head of the next big tuna they got.

Lots of background.  Anyhoo, I nearly pooped my pants when I saw this text from John a week ago, “Got you a tuna head dawg.  From a 45lb Yellowfin.”  Well then.

Best picture message I have ever received. Big thanks to Frank Coulson, Mike Kirwan, Johnny, and Colman Currie (not pictured) for sharing their catch

When they butchered the Yellowfin, the head was wrapped in a few trash bags and placed in the freezer awaiting a visit from the Ryans.

Liz, Griff, Janet, Kristi. Griff is about 8 months older than Janet but I am pretty sure he was hitting on her

After hanging out at Liz’s (John’s wife) family house on Tuesday and Wednesday, including some sampling of the fresh Yellowfin, the frozen head came back to the Ryan LBI house.  Where it sat in the fridge ominously for a few days.

From my hogs head experience, I knew this would take around 3 days to fully thaw. Which explains the surrounding clams and leftover chowder from the weekend clamming festivities

I ended up waiting until Sunday to make an attempt at this.  My main problem was the complete lack of online support on how to butcher a tuna head and remove the collar.  Nothing.  As I sat on the couch exhausted from my friend Lenny’s bachelor party, I started trying to rationalize throwing out the head, but decided to give it a shot based on the few pictures of butchered collar I had seen online.

This move to the sink might not look like it, but it was a significant step

After cleaning up some tuna head leakage in the fridge, getting my knives ready, and setting up the counter with some cardboard for coverage, I removed the bags (4 of them to be exact).

No real way to give size perspective here. My guess is it was heavier than Janet and less heavy than the hogs head. I didn't enjoy that framing at all and will avoid dragging Janet's name into comparisons like that in the future

The collar is the area between the gill slit and the back edge of the skull (where the head was cut from the main body of the fish).  I think.  I don’t have any action shots in this post since I was supposed to be making pasta with clam sauce for Mommy Ryan and Kristi Ryan.  I advised them both to not enter the kitchen since I was, “doing some other stuff too”.

As I probed around the head, I saw that what I thought was the collar needed to be carefully cut away from the gills and hacked away from the top of the skull and the bottom as well.  I also observed that most of a Yellowfin tuna’s organs are located inside the skull.  After some careful trimming, dulling of my knives cutting through bones, and near finger losses, I came away with this:

Was able to remove both collars in one piece. I don't think that was an accomplishment, just the easiest way to do it

Leaving just the tip of the head in the sink.

Had two angles on this shot, but this one is nicer to look at. I considered trying to find a way to eat the eyes but realized I didn't truly enjoy eating eyes last time and there was other gross stuff to enjoy

First step was making a cut through the bone on the bottom side of the collar to separate it into two pieces.

The cardboard was essential. I should have tarped the walls as well since the kitchen was starting to look like a crime scene by this point

Removing the fins was very difficult and I did a job that would make any sushi chef cry in agony.  The first collar was removed mostly by pulling which tore some of the meat away; the second side was a lot of big swings with a heavily dulled knife at that point.  Then there was a ton of careful trimming of any bloody spots, areas close to the gills, and a rinse to remove what looked like small scales.  Eventually, I ended up with a couple poorly butchered Yellowfin tuna collars.

I wish I could produce something that looks well butchered just once in my life, but since I cook everything adventurous exactly once, I am never proficient enough to make it look nice

As I mentioned previously, there were indeed a few interesting organs hiding inside the head and neck.  I threw away the gullet and some stomach fat, but rinsed and kept the two organs that were easiest to recognize: the liver and heart.

The liver was easily recognizable, but I fell back on recollection of Bizarre Foods to recognize the heart

At this point I stepped away and reassessed.  I honestly didn’t think I would end up with anything edible, so I had to decide on the fly how I would cook everything.  The grill seemed like a logical choice, and after starting it I searched the cabinets and fridge.  I ended up mixing together a marinade/basting liquid of soy sauce, sesame oil, minced garlic, and a lot of brown sugar.

The brown sugar was a prominent part of a recipe for whole roasted Bluefin tuna head and sounded like an excellent idea. I took note of that whole concept for a future post

After the grill had heated up for ten minutes or so, the collars and organs went on.

The organs look pretty innocuous, but for some reason the collar looks disgusting in the early grill pictures

I left the gas grill on high and shut the lid for 5 minutes before flipping the liver and heart while the collars remained skin down with the lid open.

I brushed the leftover marinade on the collars a couple times during the cooking

After a few more minutes I pulled the organs off and flipped the collars.

These were dark to begin with, but charred sugars and soy sauce gave a dark on darker coloring contrast

About the crispiness and char I was hoping for. I wasn't planning to eat the skin or anything. That would be, you know, gross

While the collars cooked some more, I headed inside to sample the heart and liver.  At which point I discovered that my camera is now permanently in a Janet picture taking-friendly mode that does not take food detail shots well.

Here's the liver. It resembled every other cooked liver I have seen

Annnnnd the heart. This is about as rare as I wanted it and looked a lot like beef

The liver tasted like liver.  Liver with a mild fish flavor.  Not quite as strong as chicken/beef/pork liver but you could definitely tell what it was.  I was good with that after one bite.  The heart on the other hand was awesome.  Tasted like a great piece of rare tuna with the texture/density of a beef steak and a little bit of mineral flavor.  I would definitely eat that again, possibly raw if the tuna hadn’t been frozen.  Back to the collars.

The marinade gave the meat a great color. Wish the grill marks were a bit more pronounced, though

From my few experiences, there is no nice way to serve tuna collar which is likely a contributing factor to why it isn’t on more menus.  Anyone interested in eating it needs to pick pieces of meat off the bone using chopsticks, and there is no easy way to break it up into individual servings.

Although it looks like the first bite, it was actually the second. Had to clarify that since my hands have never looked this nice and Kristi was surprisingly game to try the collar

The collars were incredible.  This has less to do with my skills than the freshness and quality of the catch, but it was seriously delicious.  I generally think fully cooked tuna is fishier than the rare variety, but that wasn’t the case with the collar meat.  It’s very tender like the meat near the salmon skin, but not as fishy tasting and distinctly tuna.  My best impartial witness for claims like this is Kristi since she is not overly adventurous and hates fishy tasting/smelling seafood.  After one bite, she dove in, as did my mother, and it quickly became an appetizer feeding frenzy.

Last action shot I could pause for. It was actually an enjoyable part of the experience to pick around and look for a nice pocket of meat

The sweet and charred flavors from the marinade added heavily to the enjoyment and I would definitely use a similar marinade if I ever made this again.  After a few more bites, I left the dish for a short time to finish my pasta with clam sauce and returned to find this:

There were a few pieces of meat we missed, but I'll give this clean plate club status. Call it in Ma Dowley!

Final note to the post is that I really appreciated the tuna head from Hard Four crew and hope that they will think of me after future catches.  I will happily take any future tuna heads and do this again.  Same goes to any other readers who go tuna fishing, just give me a little notice and I will be there.  It’s a really, really good piece of meat.

No ideas for next week, will try to think of something.