Weird Crap I Cook: Shad Roe & Veal Brains

Last weekend we headed down to Naples to visit Mommy Ryan and get away from the cold weather in Boston.  If you’ve briefly visited Naples before, you might not think highly of the food scene there; lots of small strip mall restaurants or overpriced large restaurants downtown.  But, after a few years of visits to Naples I can confidently say it is one of my favorite places to eat despite then having to go shirtless at the beach and pool.  The food is diverse, high quality, and spans regional cuisine from across the country and other cultures as well.  Makes sense considering people move there from pretty much everywhere and want their favorite comfort foods nearby.

While visiting I sampled some incredible pastrami from Pastrami Dan’s (a retired New Yorker), fried sheep’s milk cheese with chicken livers and tender octopus from Pelagos, upscale Mexican from Masa, and traditional seafood at Kelly’s.  The bakeries and raw materials to cook at home are equally as diverse and awse.  A few examples:

Bells beer.  Tough to find outside of michigan but available in pretty much every grocery store around Naples.  Not a huge fan of the Oberon, but the Two Hearted Ale is a top 10 beer for me

Bells beer.  Tough to find outside of Michigan but available in pretty much every grocery store around Naples.  Not a huge fan of the Oberon, but the Two Hearted Ale is a top 10 beer for me

Those strip malls house small restaurants that make items like pissaladiere from Paris Bakery.  That's a croissant-like pastry rolled out and topped with onions cooked down in olive oil and anchovies.  Like the most confusing and buttery delicious pizza you've ever had

Paris Bakery lives in one of those anonymous strip malls and serves a mean pissaladiere.  That’s a croissant-like pastry rolled out and topped with onions that have been cooked down in olive oil and anchovies.  Like the most confusing and buttery delicious pizza you’ve ever had

Wagyu ribeye from Jimmy P's butcher shop and a never frozen tuna steak from Wynn's seafood market

Wagyu rib steak from Jimmy P’s butcher shop and a never frozen tuna steak from Wynn’s seafood market.  I took this after already coating the tuna steak with chili oil for the grill if you’re wondering what that bizarre orange stuff is

Jimmy P’s and Wynn’s have supplied the ingredients for previous blog posts including lamb kidneys and all posts involving head-on shrimp.  So, in addition to the two delicious pieces of meat shown above, I also tapped them for two odd items I’d never sampled before: veal brains and shad roe.

Veal brains are pretty self explanatory, but shad roe is the roe sack from a river herring that is usually only harvested for a brief period every year.  I learned all of that just now from Wikipedia, but I had long been interested in shad roe since Mooman has raved about it for years.  I was very excited when I saw it at Wynn’s, even though it is funky looking stuff.

I knew there was zero chance I would convince Kristi to eat this once she saw it

I knew there was zero chance I would convince Kristi to eat this once she saw it

Funky looking stuff, and apparently this wasn’t even half as bad as it looks when it is very fresh.  What’s in the container represents the two roe sacks from one fish, connected by a membrane in the center.  At this point I couldn’t understand what all the fuss (primarily from Mooman) was about; it looked just like any other roe sack from a fish.  And those other roe sacks tend to cook up mealy, flavorless, and insanely dry.

Just looked like a larger and less fresh version of the Tilefish roe sacks retrieved from Jason's fish in Eleuthera.  Not a promising comparison

Just looked like a larger and less fresh version of the Tilefish roe sacks retrieved from Jason’s fish in Eleuthera.  Not a promising comparison since that just tasted like salty sand

While a few pats of butter melted in a sautee pan, I separated the roe sacks from the center membrane and seasoned heavily with salt and black pepper.  Once the butter started to brown slightly, I added the shad roe to the pan.

The smell was entirely just butter and garlic (I threw a sliced clove in), but this still wasn't promising food for anyone but me

The smell was entirely just butter and garlic (I threw a sliced clove in), but this still wasn’t promising food for anyone but me

After a few minutes of saute time, the roe sacks appeared to be firming up a bit so I flipped them and squeezed a little lemon juice into the pan as well.

Color and everything was looking solid, but the shape and visible texture makes this a not easy entry point food.  Me, I was ecstatic to eat something I've never eaten before.  It could have looked awful (as I will prove later)

Color was looking solid, but the shape and visually concerning texture makes this not an easy entry-point food.  Me, I was ecstatic to eat something I’ve never eaten before.  It could have looked awful (as I will prove later) and I would still excitedly eat it in that scenario

After a few more minutes, I divided each roe sack in half and moved them to pieces of toasted baguette.  The remaining butter stayed over medium heat with an additional splash of white wine and a squeeze of additional lemon juice.  After a couple minutes of reducing the sauce while stirring constantly, I poured a few spoonfuls over each of the pieces of shad roe and served.

I could not come up with a vehicle to hold the pieces of shad roe and also absorb the sauce.  Mommy Ryan had some leftover bread from a recent dinner which explainst the jagged edges

I could not come up with a creative vehicle to hold the pieces of shad roe and also absorb the sauce.  Mommy Ryan had some leftover bread from a recent dinner which explains the jagged edges

Definitely the best fresh roe I’ve ever tasted since it didn’t have any of the negatives that you usually get with fish roe; not fishy, no mealiness, and the eggs still had a little pop to them.  The flavor was very mild and had a little clam-like flavor.  The brown butter, wine, and lemon sauce was a nice complement without overpowering the flavor of the roe.  The bread was probably a little unnecessary, but it did a good job of absorbing the sauce and minimized the need for utensils.  As usual with the odd stuff, Janet enjoyed it.

Not the cutest picture, nor the greatest moment in person since she was mashing each piece into hundreds of tiny eggs on the way to her mouth.  Since she is in her PJs, I'm guessing a significant amount joined her in the crib that night

Not the cutest picture, nor the greatest moment in person because she was mashing each piece into hundreds of tiny eggs on the way to her mouth.  Since she was in her PJs, I’m guessing a significant amount of eggs joined her in the crib that night

Now on to the veal brains.  The moment you’ve been waiting for!

Jimmy Ps has a whole freezer case full of items that qualify for WCIC posts, but I liked the small size and price of this one

Jimmy Ps has a whole freezer case full of items that qualify for WCIC posts, but I liked the small size and price of this one.  Also, I love the comical brevity of meat labeling.  I feel like organ meat labels should hem and haw like someone trying to hide what the meat truly is until you sample it

I’ve had some ups (goat) and downs (sheep) with brains over the past few years, but I thought veal would be a solid choice since I assumed the flavor would be mild.  The brains went into a cold water bath for about 6 hours, changing the water regularly.

Once the water remained relatively clear after 30 minutes, I removed the brains to dry them and lay out on the cutting board.  You knew this foto was coming at some point and it ends up being pretty brutal.

Worst shot of the blog!  Let's get through this quickly.  I would have preferred that it was a couple distinct brains but these were clearly separated from their surrounding membrane pretty indelicately.

Worst shot of the blog!  Let’s get through this quickly.  I would have preferred that it was a couple distinct brains but these were clearly separated from their surrounding membrane pretty indelicately

The brains were soft and there was a fair amount of brain stem pieces.  Good god this sucks to write about.  Let’s fast forward to when I was done cutting into individual pieces and tossing in flour seasoned heavily with salt and pepper.

Phew, much better.  Further proof that frying makes everything better, even just the process of frying

Phew, much better.  Further proof that frying makes everything better, even just the process of frying

I coated the pieces in flour and fried in two batches.  While I was in the process of trimming and coating, I had a pan of vegetable oil and some bacon fat heating on the stovetop.  Once a small piece of bread browned within 30 seconds when dropped in the oil, I added the brain pieces to the oil.

I was hiding from the oil as usual at this point.  Also, this was my 4th or 5th consecutive deep frying in someone else's home.  Screwing over friends and family with oil stank since 2010!

I was hiding from the oil at any time that I wasn’t taking pictures.  Also, this was my 4th or 5th consecutive deep frying in someone else’s home.  Screwing over friends and family with oil stank since 2010!

After 3-4 minutes I flipped each piece then cooked for a few more minutes before transferring to paper towels to drain off any excess oil.

Very happy with the frying, these were solid and crispy.  Kinda limping to the finish line here

Very happy with the frying, these were solid and crispy.  Kinda limping to the finish line here

The next batch headed (wokka wokka) into the oil and went through the same flipping and draining process.  Originally I had hoped to drizzle a little butter, lemon, and caper sauce but I forgot about it while it was on the stove and that didn’t really work out for me.  So. instead, I squeezed a little lemon over the pieces and topped with chopped parsley and shredded parm.

Toppings that work with pretty much any savory fried food.  Learned that one in Sovicile, Italy when about 30 whole fried sardines were served this way

Toppings that work with pretty much any savory fried food.  Learned that one in Sovicile, Italy when I made it through a gigantic plate of whole fried sardines served this way

I was relatively confident that these would be tasty but I was surprised they turned out as well as they did.  The coating was salty and had some smoky pork flavor from the bacon grease.  The texture and flavor of the brains was almost identical to veal sweetbreads, with a crunchy fried exterior.  The meat was soft and creamy, which might sound off-putting but it is why it pairs so well with a crunchy coating.  The flavor was very mild and only slightly beef-like, which also makes it very difficult to describe.  Just try sweetbreads next time you see them on a menu and you’ll get what I am talking about.

After biting into this one I was horrified to realize that they weren't that far off from the beloved dark meat chicken McNuggets from my youth.  A little creamier, but similar fat flavor and texture

After biting into this one I was horrified to realize that they weren’t that far off from the beloved dark meat chicken McNuggets from my youth.  A little creamier, but similar fat flavor and texture

I was most impressed with how much of that pile of fried food we went through.  Janet had been in bed for a few hours so she was of no help, but between me, Tim, and Mommy Ryan we made it through all but a couple of these.  Kristi pretty much sat out all adventurous foods in this meal.

I need to take a few weeks off from WCIC after this one.  This one was odd even by my standards.

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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.