Mystery Meats

man Brian says:

A far cry from the grade school days when the only thing you dreaded more than Friday homework was the indescribable mound of “meat product” plodded onto your lunch tray every Thursday, scrap meats–or meats that were considered less desirable by the general consumer public–have become something of a precious commodity over the past decade or so.

Jowl, cheek, brains, kidneys, snouts and even whole heads of animals have played host to the bold culinary journey through meat history. It’s a scary territory, I know, but with my help I can put you on the right track to tackling the final frontier of the meat realm.

1. Be Prepared

The funny thing about “scrap meats” is that people tend to give them far less credit then they really deserve. Let’s put it this way: even on a bad day, I’ll take some pan-seared calf brains over a steak or pork chop any day. Want to know why? It’s all in the preparation. Knowing how to prepare a good set of kidneys or hog’s head is really half the battle. You’ll be surprised how much flavor and character can come from the kinds of meats that most wouldn’t even think twice about consuming.

2. Make Friends

I know I’ve mentioned this in the past, but I can’t stress this enough when it comes to selecting the right cuts of meat: talk to your butcher! Now, I know that most chain grocery stores don’t make it a point to carry the scrap parts of their livestock, but that I can assure you that they know someone that does. If you’re lucky enough to have a legitimate butchery in your city or neighborhood take full advantage of this. These people know their stuff and are always appreciative of those who like to test the limits of convention.

3. Texture vs. Taste

That’s really what it boils down to. Your best bet is to familiarize yourself with the different textures that each piece of meat brings to the table. This knowledge with help you determine which recipes will work best with your palette. For example, calf brains retain an almost creamy/milky texture once cooked. Sweetbreads (the thymus glands of cows, pigs and lamb) have a flakier, chicken-like texture especially when fried, but packs a really rich flavor.

Brian Wilder is a writer for Home Ec 101. You can also find him at Things My Grandfather Taught Me.
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  1. bookchick on July 8, 2011 at 8:29 am

    I love sweetbreads & liver. Had haggis once in Scotland, didn’t like it. I know i’ve had kidneys but I don’t recall whether I liked them or not. I agree with your ‘hearts’ assement. I’ve had rattlesnake, goat, and squirrel but not alligator. I was the kid in elementary school that always grossed people out with my lunch – I would show up with goose liver pate and crackers, and the other kids would be eating PB&J. But I will try anything once.

  2. bookchick on July 8, 2011 at 8:26 am

    i learned to like chicken livers in a similar way. I was visiting my grandparents and my grandfather brought me a cracker with a fried thing on it and said ‘here try this’. I did and liked it, then he told me it was a fried chicken liver.

  3. KeterMagick on July 7, 2011 at 6:50 pm

    You could not pay me enough to eat brains, particularly cow brains. Mad cow disease prions live in the nervous tissues, including major nerve branches, spinal column, brain, and dura (the membrane around the brain, which drains into the sinuses. Heat does not kill prions because they sort of aren’t alive. Lymphatic tissue is also a nonstarter because it contains a number of compounds capable of creating allergic reactions.

    Kidneys I do not like; to me they smell like what they put out. Liver I like, but eat only very occasionally, because toxins accumulate in the liver and considering the stuff they put in animal feed and the drugs they inject into the animals, I just don’t want to take on that toxic load. I’ve had “prairie oysters” and they were OK, but nothing to go out of my way to get. The much-reviled haggis is sheep’s stomach stuffed with oatmeal and fat and whatever else is lying about, and I put that in the category of “survival food” – as in I’ll eat it if the situation is dire. Lungs aren’t good, period. Beef heart is, poultry heart isn’t. I haven’t had the opportunity to try pork heart. Barbacoa, roasted whole head of a pig, is awesome. (Can you tell I’m an omnivore and never met much I won’t try?)

    I’ll settle for getting people to try mutton, lamb, and goat (cabrito)…or rattlesnake or alligator…just once… ;o)

  4. alice.dick on July 7, 2011 at 11:21 am

    The closest I’ve come to mystery meat is tongue. As a college student I worked for a catering service which served it occasionally. Brian’s comment #3 is spot on, as I found the texture a little off-putting (“spongy” best describes it) but the taste was okay.

    I’ve really never had any kind of liver as my mother absolutely loathes it and never fed it to us as kids.

  5. jenlukin on July 7, 2011 at 9:29 am

    @HeatherSolosyou just reminded me of the time, about 12 years ago, when my husband and i (not married at that time) went to a fancy restaurant and he ordered the sweetbreads not knowing what they were. he’s not an adventurous eater at all but he figured, “they’re sweet, they’re bread, what’s not to like?” so they came and they looked a little like chicken fingers. he said they were good and asked if i wanted to try any and i declined – i won’t eat anything i can’t identify unless i’m sure it’s vegetable in nature (as opposed to animal) because then at least it won’t gross me out. neither of us found out until the next day what they really were. apparently everyone else knew except for us. we were about 22 years old at the time.

  6. HeatherSolos on July 7, 2011 at 8:43 am

    Thanks, Brian. Whenever I got a fancy restaurant, I look at the sweetbreads and then I shy away. I’m a little texture oriented, but I’ll try almost anything once. Although I am through trying to give beef liver a chance.

    In 2009 I experimented with chicken feet and found they make amazing stock. If you are local to Charleston, you can pick these up quite cheaply at H&L on Rivers near 526.

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