Offal ... GOOD!

beef & heart soup with garlic parmesan toastsThose of us who choose to live an omnivorous lifestyle have one major point of truth to accept. Something often had to die to make our meal happen. This is, of course, a bit of a burden to bear if one has a soul and some level of empathy. For some of us, the spendy options of free-range, grass-fed, blah, blah feel like the right choices to assuage the innate guilt of consuming other living beings for our sustenance. If they weren't crammed in on feed lots, surely their life was at least some measure better, right? Maybe, but they're still headed the same place at the end.

Having been raised by a decidedly ethnic cook of a Mom, as well as having a healthy dose of chef-worship, I take the more practical (and tasty) approach. Rather than get exercised about finer details of the brief (and probably none-too-pleasant regardless) life of my dinner, I choose a more snout-to-tail approach to cooking. In my opinion, there is little which respects the unfortunate beasts who will be food more than making the endeavor to utilize all we can. When animals are sacrificed for our eating pleasure, it just feels appropriate to try to make use of every bit possible to not make the taking of a life about a few premier cuts and chucking the rest. It's not as efficient toward sustenance with the meat-grinder of cities and mega-markets (vs old-timey or rural living), but, if markets start adjusting their orders to fewer chops and more necks, innards, etc. based on sales, that's at least something positive. 

It's the least we can do for fellow living beings, right?

Of course, for many of us, dealing with anything beyond boneless-skinless chicken breast, steaks or chops is unfamiliar and feels strange and a bit out of bounds. But it doesn't have to be! The not-so-commercial parts can be really delicious; sometimes, as in soups and stews, they are preferable to the common go-to-cuts. You will find far more flavor and substance in the off-cuts, as well as some much-needed unctuous-building connective tissue, bone, and tendon. You've seen these sorts of things periodically in my food-based ramblings.

But we're going to go a little further today.

We're going to leap full-tilt into the word of offal ... yes, offal! Because, prepared with care, even the most odd, unfamiliar innards can be an absolutely delicious meal ... trust me!

Offally Good and Heart-y Soup

makes a LOT of soup ... probably meal portions for 8-10 people or awesome leftovers
It's what's for dinner!Some innards are best served with low and slow cooking. Larger hearts are kind of like that ... though antichucho (marinaded grilled beef hearts) are groovy, it's much easier and a whole lot tastier for the average home cook to give their stew or soup an extra flavor punch with some hearts replacing other meats. With the Boss feeling a bit under the weather, that's exactly what I did with a few hearts I picked up at the local market. Mind you, I'd have preferred they be beef hearts, with the beef soup and all, but pigs' hearts were just fine, since they're also really rich and flavorful.

soup base:
2 pigs' hearts (or 1 beef heart - I'd have preferably used beef heart, since it's beef soup, had it been available)
3 beef shanks
2 small or 1 large red onion - quartered and sliced fairly thin or diced small (as mirepoix)
5 carrots - sliced thin or diced small (as mirepoix)
2 red peppers - diced small (as mirepoix)
1lb mushrooms - cleaned well and separated into stems and caps (caps sliced for later)
2 cans (28 oz/ea) tomatoes
1 head garlic - cloves peeled and crushed
1.5 cups red wine (dry Cabernet)
1/2 cup red wine vinegar
12 cups (or 6 cans) beef stock or broth
several springs - fresh thyme or oregano
olive oil - for browning
kosher salt - for seasoning

**While the other veg is there to flavor the broth so is fairly important, this veg is really about what's in season and what YOU want in your bowl of soup. Seriously, put whatever rocks your socks in there. This is what we had in ours last night, since it's the veg we had readily available.**
4-6 carrots - halved and sliced thin
1 small red onion ( or 1/2 large) - quartered and sliced thin
1 bunch of kale - leaves removed from stems and torn into pieces
1 lb green beans - ends removed and broken into bite-sized pieces

1- Season meat with kosher salt. Heat oil in soup pot to MED HIGH and brown meat in several shifts to avoid crowding the pan. Reserve.

2 - Add a bit more oil if needed, lower to MED and add onion, carrot, and pepper. Stir occasionally until cooked down and starting to brown.

3 - Add tomatoes (only, no juice ... drain juice from tomatoes back into the can before crushing by hand into the pot) and mix well, allow for the liquid to cook out and the veg to start to caramelize. This will take some patience, but is worth it. If you have no patience, you can add everything else and move on if you like but, just so's ya know, the soup's flavor will not be as rich in the end.

4 - Once the tomatoes are caramelizing, add the smashed garlic and mushroom stems. Mix and stir at several minute intervals a few times until you can smell the garlic cooking and mellowing (helpful hint: it's probably going to be about 3-4 turns). Then, add the wine and vinegar and mix well, making sure to get any browned bits stuck to the bottom of the pan (the fond) up. Let that hang out and warm a bit a few minutes before adding the stock/broth. (By the way, at this point, I had some frozen leek green tops leftover from a pot of soup I made last month - which I saved because I'm a cheap bastard and waste nothing usable if I can help it - thawed out for this pot o' soup, so added them at this point. If you are a fellow cheap bastard and have groovy veg trim soup boosters on hand, now is the best time to bring them to the party.)

5 - Bring the pot just to a boil, then lower to SIMMER (the lowest simmer you can achieve on your range), check and stir well about every 30-45 minutes, and let it go low and slow for about 3 hours.

6 - Remove the meat from the pot and allow to set off heat until it's just cool enough to handle. Then, strain (push down on the broth veg to get all you can from them) and add the other set of soup vegetables to the broth. Bring back to a boil on MED HIGH and lower back to SIMMER until the veg is done to your liking.

7 - In the meantime, pull the meat from the shank bones (and, if you're like me, slurp out the marrow ... YUM) and cut all the meat into small bits and add back to the soup. Once they're heated back up, you're ready to serve to happy NOMNOM noises.

It's an indisputable fact that groovy folk darker than melba toast and folks who immediately bring thoughts of rebel flags and mint juleps to mind, in general, have a pretty solid lock on making some badass fried chicken. The funkier you get, the more likely some innards are going to make an appearance at that fry-up.

And you'll be in luck if they do. If you've ever had deep-fried innards, you know what I'm talking about.

This week, I decided to flash back to my OK days by making some deep-fried chicken parts, but give them a bit of a world cuisine spin, too. After the octopus karaage experiment (see below), I was still feeling a bit of Jones for crunchy deep-fried goodness but with a bit of extra flavor kick.

So I made southern-fried gizzards and livers with a decidedly Japanese pub food touch.

Now, if you are not "liver" people, you probably never will be. Granted, some of us simply don't realize we actually like liver because someone through the course of our life prepared it poorly. But, barring that, it is just one of those tastes you either like or don't.

Gizzards, however, are a completely different case.

If you've never tried gizzards, I encourage you to try making them in this or a similar way, especially if you like meaty tasting meats. I think you will be very pleasantly surprised and find a super-cheap new treat. When they've been braised beforehand, they are toothsome but not chewy and have a more rich, meaty flavor than your garden variety chicken pieces. There is truly nothing quite like them. Even the Boss, who is not a big fan of several varieties of innard, digs the gizzards quite a lot for their almost concentrated dark meat flavor and more substantial density.

Deep-fried Gizzards (bastardized Japanese pub style)
The gist of this recipe is to bring a bit of the savory goodness of Japanese karaage to southern-fried. Lots of southerners would cringe at this idea, but that only makes me love it more.

What would follow here would normally be a recipe, with exact ingredients and the like. But, with this sort of thing, you really want to tinker and get the flavor profile right for what you prefer. So, that in mind, I'll post the ingredients in order based on quantity, but will not post exact amounts. This way, you can play with them to suit your own taste.

Japanese Pub-style Gizzards
gizzards & livers Japanse pub style** Lots of (ignorant) people will say you can simply braise gizzards for about 20 minutes or give them a bit of a trim and they'll be delicious and tender. Don't believe these enemies of all that is tasty. If you don't mind a simmering pot and have about an hour and 1/2 or so before you want/need to eat, you're golden. Otherwise, best to save gizzards for another lazier day because they will most likely suck ass, be chewy as fuck, and get stuck in every tooth in your head without good prep, anyway. If we're going to respect the ingredients, why not respect them enough to do them right, right? ** 
1-2# chicken gizzards
red wine vinegar (You can also use rice vinegar here. I tend to like red wine or cider vinegar better when I want a more subtle acidity that blends with other ingredients more seamlessly than the rice vinegar, which is more forceful.)
soy sauce (a Japanese variety is preferred for savoriness and lower salt flavor)
sesame oil
shao hsing (just a little splash)
flour - to dredge and lightly coat
oil for deep frying - vegetable or canola (lots of people lean toward peanut oil, but I find it leaves a peanutty taste, so only use it when I don't mind the additional taste on my food, usually for Thai fried goodies where it's a nice flavor addition.)

1 - Mix together the vinegar, scallions, sesame, soy, and shao hsing to your desired flavor balance and let the gizzards marinate in it until they lose the chill from the refrigerator. Keep a small amount of the marinade aside for later, just enough to dip gizzards in.

2 - Once they are nearing room temperature, put into a pot with just enough water to cover so you don't lose the marinade flavors. Then heat to a boil and lower to simmer for about 1.5 hours, until gizzards are firm but tender.

3 - Strain the gizzards from the liquid and allow to cool. Fill a good-sized skillet with oil (only about 1/2 full because you'll have significant bubbling and, thus, high risk of fire) and heat to MED HOT (about 350 - 375º)

4 - Dredge gizzards in flour to lightly coat* (shake off excess) and drop (CAREFULLY!) into the oil. Let fry for only about 1 minute until crisp and golden brown before straining onto a rack or paper.
*The gizzards may dry on the surface while they cool. That's what that little bit of extra marinade you set aside is about. You can use it to dip the gizzards quickly to get a little wet, shake off the excess, then dredge. The cool part is, it will give you a bit more flavorful, crisp coating, too.

Japanese Pub-style Chicken Livers
1# chicken livers
red wine vinegar
soy sauce
sesame oil
shao hsing (just a splash - especially here where no cooking of the marinade takes place - too much can make the flavor a little too boozy)

flour - to coat lightly
oil for deep frying - vegetable or canola

1 - Remove livers from their nasty container, rinse well under a running faucet and pop into a strainer to drain. Mix non-liver ingredients to taste in a bowl and add the livers, covering to marinate in the fridge for up to 8 hours or overnight. If you are on the bubble about livers, like the Boss is, the longer marinading time will soften the "liver-y" flavor. You can marinate as short of a time as 2 hours, if you are in a crazy hot rush, but I'd really recommend no fewer than 4.

2 - Heat oil to MED HOT (350- 375º) Remove livers from the fridge to lose chill for about an hour. Shake off the fluid and dredge in flour to coat, shaking off excess.

3 - Drop CAREFULLY in the oil and roll over in the hot oil to crisp all sides for about 2 minutes total. Drain on rack or paper before serving

Funky Foods Bonus: Extra-legged goodness
Okay, this has nothing whatsoever to do with offal, but was a funky food treat we were delighted to discover at the Jon's market, which continually pleasantly surprises me by coming up with random unexpected bits of goodness just when I think I have their selection down pat. For those of us who are cephalopod fans, I thought I'd include this extra bit, since it turned out DAMNED GOOD and, who knows, there might be munchkin octopi or squids awaiting you on your next trip to the store.

Back in the day, when karaoke involved a trip to funky pubs in Little Tokyo I developed a Jones for karaage, a tasty deep-fried treat usually executed with chicken or, my favorite, squid. Different from your usual bland-ass fried tempura, karaage is marinated in tasty savory goodness before flash fried with a thin, crisp coating and served with sexy dipping sauce. We saw some unexpected and awesome-looking baby octopus, a HUGE favorite of mine, in the grocery store's "dead stuff from the sea" section and just couldn't help picking some up to play with for dinner. Fortunately, we were shopping at about 1PM, so had plenty of time to let a marinade do its voodoo before dinner time. If you are not so lucky and are less than 3-4 hours from when you want to eat, you may want to soften the marinade a tad, maybe temper it with a little orange juice, and let it go overnight.

I'm still not going to give exact qty on the marinade because, in all honesty, I don't generally measure marinades because they are built based on my preference of that moment and the flavor and strength of the ingredients (especially the fresh ones or those that very widely from brand to brand, like soy sauce). The ingredients listed are in the order of greater qty to least, so you can get a sense of ratios. Better that you start with about a cup of chopped scallions and add the other stuff slowly, tasting as you go, until it is what YOU want, not what I wanted on one particular night. Yes, I know, I may not be as easy as the grinning yummo-yahoo on TV, but that's probably a good thing for the cooking chops, anyway.

Eight-legged deliciousness
eight-legged crispy goodness, karaage-styleMarinade stuff:
1 lb baby octopus (cleaned well - you want to remove all the skin you can, too, even though it's a bit of pain in the ass)
red wine vinegar
soy sauce
sesame oil
miso paste
shao hsing (just a little splash) 
*rice vinegar (just a little bit if you'd like a hint more sharp acidy)

flour - to coat lightly to fry
veg or canola oil - goodly amount to deep fry
lemon - in wedges

**Some of you are probably still thinking fried foods are the devil. While they're not exactly something I'd refer to as wholesome, they're not nearly as unhealthy as their bad reputation. When the temperature is high enough to be actively frying and bubbling away in the oil, the water in the food is creating a bubbling force field as it's cooking off, which is not letting oil (or fats) in. If your oil is adequately hot, you should not be unduly worried about fats or oils because they're not breaching the surface to the food. Hooray and pass the crunchy goodness!**

Frying Tips:
If you don't want a bunch of absorbed fat in your crispy fried goodness, use a light oil like canola or veg (peanut is good, too, but does have some flavor) and get it adequately hot to actively fry. I'm not talking about a sad, soft sizzle but a good bubbling frothy fry. The important thing is, the oil must be hot enough for the waters in the food to boil furiously, thus creating that crisp barrier and pushing out to keep oil from getting in. If you don't have a thermometer to stick into the oil, here's a good guide. Test out a little piece of your ingredient (or even a little ball of the batter/coating) in the oil by dropping it in. If it sinks and doesn't bubble, the oil isn't hot enough. If it almost immediately rises to the top and doesn't so much bubble as foam like a fucking rabid dog and get too dark too fast, it's most likely too hot. If it sinks briefly, then floats to the top and bubbles actively (fairly aggressively for the first minute at the top of the pan, especially), you're probably in the right ballpark. You can adjust slightly based on the performance of batches as you do them.

Don't try to do too much at once. The more crap you shove in the oil, the more you lower the temperature ... and that's precisely what you DON'T want.

Also, make sure you've let the goodies to be fried lose the chill of the fridge. It's pretty critical to frying success, which is built on keeping heat. Impatience to get stuff in the oil  before it's ready is the surest way to insure failure, as well as limp, greasy food.

1 - Rinse and clean well (remove skin if needed ... you may be able to skip this pain-in-the-ass step by finding pre-cleaned and skinned octopus at a Japanese market). You can cut the octopi in pieces if you prefer, for bite-sized bits. (*hee* I don't because I like how weird they look on the plate fried. Is that strange? Yes, probably. So be it.) Mix marinade ingredients in a bowl to taste, set some aside (for dipping later) in a separate container, then add baby octopus, cover and store both in the fridge for several hours.

2 - When you are almost ready to make dinner, remove the octopus from the fridge to lose chill for about an hour. Heat oil at MED HIGH in a deep skillet or pot. Dredge octopus in flour to cover well and remove excess. Drop CAREFULLY into hot oil for about 4 minutes until golden brown and crisp. Drain on rack or paper.

3 - Serve with lemon and set aside extra marinade.

Well, that's the lot of the food adventures this week.

Next week, I'll be focusing more on a bit more everyday stuff, like roasted chicken, but doing it a bit different from what you might be used to seeing. Until then, have fun playing with funky foods!