As the father of two rambunctious boys (ages 4 and 7), Halloween is a holy day at my house. Kids have forced me to shed the cynicism that I associated with this holiday, and I've fully embraced the celebration. Just don't ask me to wear a costume.
Each year, we invite neighborhood friends and their kids to party at our house before trick-or-treating. I prepare a meal with a Halloween theme that both kids and adults will eat. One year I made a roast chicken with enough garlic to choke a vampire, and served roasted fingers and monkey brains on the side. (Don't tell the kids that it was fingerling potatoes and cauliflower, since they probably think vegetables are gross.)
Imagine the look on my wife's face when I told her that for our Halloween party this year, the menu is titled "Blood and Guts — A Celebration of Offal."
Anyone with kids knows that getting them to try a new food is all in how you pitch it. They don't care about eating seasonally or sustainably. They're not interested in authentic. I've heard from parents who have painstakingly re-created their grandmother's mac and cheese for their children only to have them demand the day-glo orange kind that looks more like a bad science experiment than food. So, trying to get them to eat blood pudding and beef hearts is going to take salesmanship.
Not that eating offal is a fringe idea these days. Fine-dining restaurants are serving nose-to-tail cuisine and charging a lot of money for it. One of the fiercest proponents of whole-beast cooking is San Francisco-based chef Chris Cosentino. The executive chef of Incanto, he is known for serving dishes such as lamb heart tartare.
"When I first started serving these cuts of meat nine years ago," he told me recently, "people thought I was crazy and trying to re-create the show Fear Factor. I found it sad and offensive that people were marginalizing offal cuts as pure 'peasant food' eaten only out of desperation. I was hoping to change that by reintroducing both the flavorful cuts and preparation techniques from the past on my menu."
Humans have eaten these cuts since the beginning of time. If you eat meat, you should eat the whole animal. Why waste flavorful innards in favor of boneless, skinless chops?
While most good butchers can get you organ meats, animal blood is a different story. Have you ever asked someone with a straight face, "Can you get me a gallon of fresh pig's blood?" It made grown men wearing aprons stained with animal blood and viscera look at me like I was the gross one. Reputable and willing butchers still have to follow FDA regulations that control the flow of blood from farm to slaughterhouse to butcher to consumer.
I found a small-town butcher/meat market that slaughters its own hogs twice a week. They control the pork product from beginning to end, so they allowed me to visit a slaughter and catch the fresh blood in my own container.
These may seem like extreme measures to get your hands on something that many slaughterhouses just let run down the drain. Some recipes I found said that frozen or coagulated pig's blood is readily available at ethnic markets and could be used, but the consensus was that nothing beats the taste of farm-fresh blood. Plus, the experience of talking to butchers and farmers connected me to my recipes much more than grilling up some prepackaged chicken breasts I bought at the supermarket.
I tested the sweetbreads on my boys, and they were so smitten that they have requested I make them for every Halloween party from here on out. You never know what kids will go for. If they like steak, they'll probably like beef hearts. If they like chicken nuggets, they'll love fried sweetbreads. If they like sausage, there's a good chance they'll eat the blood cake. If they don't appreciate your efforts, don't worry. They'll be asleep before you, and you can steal some of their candy.
There isn't much difference between beef heart and a steak you'd order at a restaurant. Think about it. The heart is a muscle just like the tenderloin. The heart is a lean cut of meat. The lack of fat means that it lacks some flavor, so a spicy marinade helps cure any blandness. The one thing to avoid in this dish is overcooking it. Beyond that, just practice patience. Take the time to trim and prepare the meat, let it marinate thoroughly, and then blast it on a hot grill. This is a traditional recipe that will require some spice hunting, but will pay off with an unusual heat.
Makes 10 servings
1/2 cup aji amarillo paste*
1/2 cup aji de panca paste*
1/2 cup red wine vinegar
2 teaspoons salt
2 teaspoons ground cumin
2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
5 medium cloves garlic, minced
1 cup distilled white vinegar
6 pounds beef heart, cleaned and cut 1 1/2-inch-by-2-inch that can be easily skewered
Combine all of the ingredients except the beef heart in a resealable container and mix well. I turned a sealed bag over and over several times to mix well.
Add the beef heart and seal the bag, pressing as much air out of it as possible. Use your hands to push the marinade into the meat. Refrigerate at least 4 hours and preferably overnight.
When ready to cook, soak several 12-inch-long bamboo skewers in water for 30 minutes, or use metal skewers.
Prepare the grill for direct heat. If using a gas grill, preheat to high (650 degrees). If using a charcoal grill, light the charcoal or wood briquettes. When briquettes are ready, distribute them evenly under the cooking area. For a hot fire, you should be able to hold your hand about 6 inches above the coals for 1 or 2 seconds. Have ready a spray water bottle for taming any flames. Lightly coat the grill rack with oil and place it on the grill.
Push 4 or 5 pieces of seasoned meat close together, end to end, on each skewer, reserving the marinade. Grill for 3 to 4 minutes (for medium-rare), turning the skewers as needed and using the marinade to brush on the meat.
*Available at Latino markets and online.
Remember when you were a kid, you lived on chicken fingers? These crispy nuggets are the grown-up version of those. This recipe is a hybrid of chicken nuggets that I make for my kids and the chicken-fried steak that my very Southern Maw Maw would make for me on our last night of a trip to her house in Birmingham, Ala. Sweetbreads should be soaked in a briny milk solution before cooking to help draw out impurities while also imparting some flavor.
Makes 4 appetizer servings
2 cups whole milk
4 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons kosher salt
Several dashes hot sauce (optional)
1 pound veal sweetbreads
6 cups canola oil
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons paprika
2 teaspoons garlic powder
2 teaspoons fresh cracked black pepper
2 large eggs
Honey and hot sauce, for dipping
Mix milk, 4 tablespoons salt, hot sauce (if using) and sweetbreads in a resealable container that will hold the contents and keep the sweetbreads submerged in the milk brine. Soak overnight.
Remove sweetbreads from milk brine and rinse. In a saucepan, place them in enough water to cover and poach over low-medium heat 5 minutes. Remove from water and let cool. When cool enough to handle, peel membrane from the outside of the meat and cut into nuggets.
In a large frying pan, heat canola oil to 350 degrees.
Mix flour, paprika, garlic powder, pepper and remaining 2 teaspoons of salt in a bowl for dredging. Beat the eggs in a separate bowl.
Once the oil reaches 350 degrees, dredge sweetbread chunks in the egg, then in the seasoned flour. Coat them evenly, shake off the excess flour, then carefully drop into the hot oil. Depending on the size of the nuggets, you should fry them for about 3 minutes per side.
Serve hot and with a mix of hot sauce and honey on the side.
This recipe is adapted from The Whole Beast: Nose to Tail Eating by Britain's Fergus Henderson (Harper Collins 2004). Henderson runs the acclaimed St. John Restaurant in London, where he has championed the utilization of offal since 1995. The hardest part of this recipe is getting your hands on fresh pig's blood. If you can't get it, you can find it frozen at some ethnic markets. You will want to re-liquefy the coagulated blood with an immersion blender if it is in a solid state. Don't let the name fool you. This is, essentially, blood sausage without the casing. It has surprising soothing qualities, this dish.
Makes 1 cake, about 8 servings
1 large onion, peeled and finely chopped
6 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
Duck fat (which can be found at specialty food stores)
Half a bunch of marjoram, leaves only, finely chopped
1/2 teaspoon ground mace
1/2 teaspoon allspice
1 quart fresh pig's blood
3/4 cup coarse yellow cornmeal
Freshly ground black pepper
1/2 pound fatback cut into 1/4-inch cubes
16 large eggs, preferably free-range
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
In a pan large enough to hold all the ingredients, sweat the onion and garlic in 3 tablespoons duck fat until clear, soft and giving, but not brown. Add marjoram, spices, blood and cornmeal and stir on a gentle heat until blood starts to thicken to a runny porridge consistency. Do not let it cook and set. It has to have a certain density, or the fatback will sink to the bottom when added.
At this point (not for the squeamish cook), taste and adjust the seasoning with salt and pepper if necessary. Remove pan from heat and add chopped fatback. Stir to spread the fatty chunks through the blood and decant the mixture onto a plastic wrap-lined loaf pan. Cover with aluminum foil and place on a flat folded kitchen towel in a deep roasting pan or dish. Surround with water close to the top of the loaf pan without going over and bake 1 1/2 hours. Check that a skewer or a sharp knife comes out clean, then remove the pan and allow the cake to cool and set (wrapped in plastic wrap, it keeps very well in the refrigerator).
Once firm, slice into half-inch-thick slices. Heat 1 large and 1 small frying pan, add 2 tablespoons duck fat and gently fry slices of blood cake until heated through. In the other pan, fry a pair of eggs per person. To serve, place 2 slices of fried blood cake on each plate and top with fried eggs. Serve immediately.
This is a recipe adapted from one by Chris Cosentino, executive chef of San Francisco's Incanto restaurant. Essentially, this is a chocolate panna cotta that is fortified with pork blood. The cooked blood steeps in the cream to give up its flavor and will help thicken the final product. Be careful not to press too hard during the straining process to ensure a smooth texture.
Makes 4 servings
3 1/3 cups heavy cream, plus 1 teaspoon
3/4 cup sugar
1 cup pig's blood
2 tablespoons cocoa powder
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 tablespoon cracked black pepper
3 1/2 sheets gelatin
Peel of a small lemon
In a medium nonreactive saucepan, combine 2 1/3 cups of the cream, sugar, pig's blood, cocoa powder, ground cinnamon and cracked black pepper. (Save 1 cup of the cream aside to bloom the sheet gelatin.) Bring mixture to a boil, stirring gently. Remove from the heat and let the flavor develop by steeping the liquid like tea.
Bloom the gelatin in the remaining cup of cream for 5 minutes, or until soft. Strain the steeped liquid and add the gelatin and cream. Strain the final mixture through a fine-meshed sieve and pour into 6 4-ounce ramekins that have been chilled and sprayed with oil spray. Allow to set in the refrigerator for 4 hours.
To serve, dip each ramekin into hot water and gently shake the panna cotta free from its mold onto a serving plate.