|Chicken feet. Um, yum? (Sun files)
When was the last time you ate tongue?
Tripe? OK, how about liver?
If the very thought of chowing down on something off the eaten path leaves you queasy and sweaty, perhaps you should use the occasion of this year’s Leap Year to give your tastebuds a test drive.
What’s the worst that can happen? After all, Feb. 29 only comes around every four years.
At the very least, give it a thought. Maybe a try.
I gave it absolutely no thought when, growing up in an Italian household, I happily munched on such delicacies as bone marrow, grilled eel, fresh mussels, thinly sliced lardo on chunky bread, roast rabbit, snails poached in tomato sauce (yum!), beef liver, pigs feet in a peppery tomato sauce, and my favourite — deep fried sheep’s brain.
That’s right — brain. My mother used to freeze the delicate brain, slice it thin, dredge it through semolina and fry it in olive oil. The delicacy had a mildly nutty-tasting crunchy exterior, followed by a smooth, custardy filling that we used to spread on bread and enjoy. I even tried tripe.
I recall one dish that took hours to create: Made by boiling a sheep’s head in a variety of condiments, allowing it to cool, stripping all the skin from the bones (my dad ate the eyes) and blending it with a variety of herbs and spices before firmly pressing it into a loaf pan. It was then chilled thoroughly before being unmolded onto a plate, sliced thin and served between two slices of bread.
You’ll know it as head cheese.
I loved digging deep into the beef bones my mother made soup with — carefully scooping out the delicate marrow, spreading it on thin Sardinian bread, adding a shaker of salt, rolling it tight and eating it with relish.
Along with the traditional pastas and, to be honest, a diet more vegetarian than meat-filled, I had no idea that I, a skinny Italian kid from downtown Toronto, was eating would have made grown men heave at the very thought.
As time passed I left behind my strange and offal ways. In school I became envious of my friends’ dainty little sandwiches and I would beg my mother for Wonder Bread and egg salad. I became adept at cutting the crusts. I eschewed tradition in an effort to fit in. How sad. Until Grade 12, when my girlfriend Orly (freshly arrived from France) offered me a bite of her massive sandwich. "Try it," she ordered, which I did. "It’s TONGUE!" cackled Orly with a French-accented laugh. And it was delicious.
Years later, one of my first food stories was reporting on what kids were packing in their lunchboxes. It was wonderful seeing the various lunches reflecting the multicultural flavouring of the school — from fresh sushi to pork dumplings — kids were back in the culinary groove I grew up in.
And now the messaging today is all about truly appreciating the foods we eat — from snout to tail. We’re going back to our ancestors in appreciating every inch of the animal we kill so that we can eat. Today you can buy such foods as brains, lung, sweetbreads (the animal’s thyroid), kidneys, as well as heart, tongue, tripe, snails, pigs’ feet and ears, and chicken feet (which amp up the taste of any chicken soup broth).
And don’t forget — almost every country has its own version of haggis.
Why the big interest in eating outside the norm, the whole snout to tail eating? According to "The Princess of Pork" — California-based chef and restauranteur Duskie Estes, a former vegetarian and now ethical butcher — "snout to tail eating is trendy because it helps small farmers (who) sell the pigs to chefs who then need to figure out utilization of all those parts."
Estes is a champion of humane treatment of the animals she butchers, cooks and serves in her two award-winning, Michelin-recommended restaurants in Sonoma Wine Country, which may explain her passion and her zeal to be challenged with creating dishes out of animal parts that were once shunned.
That, and a natural curiosity about eating “weird,” Estes recalls first noshing on pig innards, including the heart when her husband John prepared a dish with pig heart and “we love it! And now make sandwiches with it on a regular basis.”
When all is said and done, adds Estes, "when you see the end of the life of an animal — which I believe all who enjoy eating it should do — you realize you need to respect the life given by using every part and not wasting it.
"It’s not just a tenderloin, which is actually the most boring piece."
So — what are you going to order this Leap Year? How about a taste of adventure.