Head to Tail Cooking and Recipes

by Miriam Marcus
February 2006

Recipe

Rising Star Chef Chris Cosentino is a proponent of “sustainable eating,” as is evident from his menu at Incanto in San Francisco. His menu, which changes daily, always features several deft culinary delights, the likes of which most palates have not had the privilege to sample—sanguinaccio (a northern Italian blood sausage), heart, kidney, feet, ears and “head cheese”—a ‘head to tail’ dining experience. Some say “you can eat everything but the oink.” Chef Cosentino says “if the Italians had caught it, they would have eaten that too!”

‘Sustainable eating,’ according to Chef Cosentino’s eco-friendly culinary sensibility towards food and its preparation, encompasses the use of sustainably grown produce, humane animal husbandry, and an overall obsession with care and respect for the planet and the environment. ‘Head to tail’ cooking can be traced back to just about every cultural cuisine in the world, such as the Native American community who wasted no part of the buffalo. Such products as congealed pig’s blood, chicken feet, and pig’s uterus are not uncommon in Chinese markets today.

Chitterlings, the large intestines of pigs, are still regularly eaten in the US South; scrapple, a cornmeal and hog offal pudding, remains a popular dish in eastern Pennsylvania. American meat consumption on the whole, however, has become standardized; skeletal muscle cuts make up the majority of our carnivorous eating.

Preparing and consuming the entrails, innards and other non-muscular passed-over parts shows a deep appreciation of and respect for the life of the animal being consumed. Just about every part of an animal can be eaten, and if prepared properly, will taste delicious. For soups and stocks, use the bones. Sausages are made with intestines and blood. Braise an animal’s tendons for nervetti; cook the whole head of a pig for coppa di testa, literally “cup of head.” Deep fry the skin to make chicarones, or boil it to make gelatin. Fat is used to make tasty pie crusts and dough. Fried cow testicles are affectionately called “rocky mountain oysters.” The heart, tongue, spleen and brains are all edible and considered by many to be delicacies. Sweetbread, a celebrated haute dish, is the thymus or pancreas of a young calf. “What about foie gras?” asks Chef Cosentino. “If you offer someone kidney they say ‘That’s gross,’ but people don’t ever question the liver.” Actually, the liver contains the highest concentration of antibiotics and other harmful toxins than any other organ, yet “it still remains the one cut that is cool.”

It may be that the squeamishness of most diners is due to a direct correlation to one’s own self. To eat a burger or a boneless, skinless chicken breast, one is far removed from the source of the culinary treat. To eat the tongue or the brain, one is forced to identify more directly to the physical likeness of one’s self and one’s dinner. “There is only one part of the animal that I will not touch,” confesses Chef Cosentino, “and that is the penis. It’s not something you’re really gonna want to serve in a restaurant. I’m not rushing to try it either.”

Due to their unpopularity, uncommon cuts of meat are often less expensive, although the detailed work involved in their preparation drives up labor costs and tends to create an overhead that is comparable to more typical restaurant menu choices. “It has nothing to do with dollar value,” as Chef Cosentino is adamant to tell. “What it boils down to is it tastes really great. Sustainable aside, it tastes wonderful.” Given the trend towards organic food in the US recently, it is a wonder that people continue to feast solely on skeletal cuts—a practice not at all sustainable.

A prize to some and the source of cringing for others, oddities such as pig’s trotters, lamb heart, and blood pudding on a restaurant’s menu are pure culinary adventurism. Offal is not for everyone—or so anyone who has yet to try Chef Cosentino's dishes may think. “If someone is set in their ways, the best way to change is for them to be with a friend who orders it, or with someone who eggs them on to order something. One person orders it and would say, ‘This is great! You should try it!’ It is a trickle effect.” Not only are offal cuts highly nutritious, they offer robust flavors and textures significantly more intriguing than the finest filet mignon.

One way to motivate your restaurant guests to try some fare along the old-school lines of hooves and snouts is to take inspiration from several of Chef Cosentino’s signature dishes. Florentine-style Tripe and Trotters with Tomato and RosemaryTripe and Trotters with Tomato and Rosemary is comfort food at its best. Honeycomb tripe is the second stomach of a cow, and while you won’t see “feet” on the menu, trotters, or pig’s feet, add a gelatinous textural component.

After tasting Grilled Beef Hearts with Roasted Golden Beets and Horseradish, several elderly diners at Incanto remarked that ‘it’s what beef used to taste like.’ Chef Cosentino muses that comments like that “say a lot about where our country has been in the last 40 years.” The combination of beets and horseradish is a classic; it’s the balance of sweet and spicy. When paired with the grilled heart this classic pairing is lifted by the richness and depth of the meat.

Most likely due to the concentration of iron and protein in the kidney, early Europeans thought consuming this organ would bring strength and courage to the diner. Steak and kidney pie remains a celebrated treat in Australia. Lamb kidneys are the prime choice, as opposed to other animals’ counterparts. Seared Lamb Kidneys with Spicy Lentils and Mint is a fine example of the tenderness and delicate flavor of this appendage.

Chocolate Blood Pudding with Bing cherries is closer to what many would consider a custard or panna cotta than to a traditional black pudding, made into a loaf and stuffed inside a pig’s intestines. The cocoa powder provides a surprising sweetness to this creamy dessert.