Head to Tail

I attended a couple of the cooking demonstrations during Winterruption where the chefs were talking about cooking from head to tail. Can you tell me more?


Cooking from head-to-tail, or “nose-to-tail” cooking with all or most of the parts of an animal or fish or shellfish, seems to have become a bit of a culinary trend around these parts recently. But the truth is, chefs have been doing this for a long time. The main reason is pragmatic - most chefs believe in the old adage “waste not, want not” and not throwing anything out means more profit drops to the bottom line.

But then why are we only seeing more of this practice now? One of the reasons is supply. For a long time, because of the way the production of our meats and poultry is regulated, processed and distributed, consumers, chefs, and even butchers only had access to certain cuts of the animals. For example, in the case of the consumer who shops at a supermarket, beef comes in the convenient, but premium-priced, forms of trimmed and dressed steaks or roasts wrapped in cellophane and styro. For butchers and chefs, beef usually comes in vacuum-packed whole cuts from the processors via the wholesalers and distributors so they can cut them to portions they want. The offals, such as livers, kidneys, and hearts are sold separately or channeled into other uses. In the past decade, we are seeing more specialty meat and poultry producers enter the marketplace as consumers become more interested in the quality and traceability of their food. As a result, chefs can now purchase a whole pig or beef cattle from these smaller producers and keep every part of it for their menu. This has resulted in some wonderful programs like Robert Belcham’s Whole Hog dinners at Refuel.

For consumers, in these days of sharply escalating food prices, cooking with “lesser” cuts of meat or offals – “organ” or “variety” meats – can certainly be a budget helper as they usually cost less. But as organ meats are typically more perishable, it’s important to find a butcher that one can count on for the freshest products from the most healthful and reliable sources. In the Market, Armando’s and Tenderland can certainly both be counted on to deliver quality and expertise; and for nose-to-tail charcuterie, Oyama is widely regarded as amongst the best in Vancouver.

Now that you know where to shop, let’s get on to a few cooking ideas with offals.

One of the most common, easy to cook and “good for ya” offal is liver. And top on my list of favourites is chopped chicken liver on toast. Toss a pound or so of chicken liver - trimmed of any veins and tough white connective tissues – in flour seasoned with salt and a good dash of ground black pepper until well coated. In a heavy oven-proof frying pan, crisp a couple of strips of chopped bacon, then add 1 chopped small onion and 6 sliced large mushrooms and cook until lightly browned. Add chicken livers and brown on all sides, then roast in 400ºF oven for about 10 minutes. Splash in a tablespoon each of sherry and chopped Italian parsley to deglaze the pan and transfer the mixture to a food processor. Pulse briefly to coarsely chop and transfer to a serving bowl, drizzle with some EVOO, and serve with toasted bread on the side.

For calf liver, I like to slice it into bite-sized thin slices (like you would prepare beef for a stir-fry), toss the slices in seasoned flour, and fry them with some sliced onions in butter. Then I flambé the mixture with a splash of brandy and add a couple of tablespoons of veal demi-glace (available at the Stock Market) and some sour cream and serve the “stroganoff” with peas and mashed potatoes.

I also do something similar with lamb kidneys – my favourite kidney - except I roast the trimmed kidneys whole and add a good dollop of Dijon mustard to the sauce. With beef kidneys, the traditional steak and kidney pie remains my staple. If you find the taste and smell of kidneys a bit strong, two things can help. First, be sure to trim off the veins and tough core of the kidneys. Secondly, try soaking the kidneys in milk or salt water for a few hours before use.  

Beef and pork hearts are another organ meat that’s widely available. They are a dense, lean meat that can be quite tasty. A simple and tasty way to tackle them is to butterfly them, then rub on a dry rub such as a Cajun spice or Montreal steak spice and salt before grilling them. After they’ve rested, slice them like a skirt or flank steak and serve with grilled veggies or with a salad. If you haven’t tried offals before, incorporating organ meats like heart or tongue (thinly sliced) into a “mixed grill” is a good initiation that can help stretch the food budget.       

I can go on… with iconic dishes like the Spanish Menudo Rojo (made with tripe) and the Chinese snack of deep-fried pig intestines….there is so much variety to discover.

But last, but perhaps should have been first, is the much-toted roasted marrow bone, universally attributed to Fergus Hendersen of St. John Bar & Grill in London and made world-famous by Anthony Bourdain’s “last supper” allegiance. Easy but exquisite, it’s a comfort food that is worthy of the guilt. Roast veal or beef marrow bone (cut crosswise into 3-inch segments) in 450ºF oven for 15 to 20 minutes until the marrow comes away from the bone but is not yet melted. Meanwhile, make the accompanying parsley salad with chopped flat leaf parsley, sliced shallots, capers, lemon juice, EVOO, and salt and pepper to taste. Serve marrow bone with a spoon to scoop out the marrow, some good salt, and toast on the side.

By cooking “nose-to-tail”, you will not only “waste not” but you’ll be inspired to get to know what you eat (traceability), eat better (variety and quality), and eat smarter (better on your pocket book). Let’s hope the trend continues.

Click in for head-to-tail from the sea next time.   

Discover More: 

Armando's Finest Quality Meats

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Oyama Sausage Co.

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Tenderland Meats

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