When the James Beard-winning author of Bones (2005) and Fat (2007) releases another cookbook, it's wise to stop for a moment and take a closer look at those Odd Bits. To explain her latest cookbook obsession, Jennifer McLagan states in the Introduction that “as a child, I ate a lot of odd bits.” Really tasty odd bits, it seems.
The book gets right down to business in the first chapter, which is appropriately named “Get a Head: Challenging.” The headcheese topic, McLagan admits, is not one that many home cooks digest lightly. But it is “one of the best parts of the animal… not simply an odd bit but a cornucopia of them,” she reassures us.
And so after a thorough headcheese primer, she begins with a “headcheese for the unconvinced” recipe, a pork version of the gelatin terrine speckled with chopped fennel and garlic, plenty of onions, and a little fresh greenery (parsley, thyme, chives, tarragon) for good measure.
The “advanced headcheese” recipe that follows, MacLagan tells us, is for those who “want some soft tongue, crunchy ears, and chewy skin in the mix.” Imagine a cookbook trying to get away with such descriptive honesty of such hard-to-digest parts (for the average American, at least) just five years ago.
That's partly why we love this book. McLagan's amusing “linguistic notes” reminder (she is from Australia but currently divides her time between Paris and Toronto) also do the trick: “While we all speak English, in the kitchen we often have different words for the same thing,” begins a list of common kitchen phrases that vary by continent (a broiler is a grill, arugula is the same thing as rocket, heavy cream is double cream).
But the recipes — all conveniently listed in cups, ounces and grams, by the way — seal the deal. Think calf's brain ravioli with morels, duck-heart salad, grilled calf's liver with red currant sauce, deviled lamb's kidneys with mushrooms, and slow-braised tripe spiked with brandy and sparkling cider. Yes, there is a chapter devoted to testicles (primarily lamb) and one dubbed “Vital Blood” with pork blood pancakes, classic boudin noir, and an Italian-style pork blood and chocolate ice cream. Yeah, it's never too early to plan your Halloween menu.
For those who prefer to ease into that sour calf's lung soup, there is a chapter with recipes featuring more familiar cuts: biscuit-topped lamb shoulder cobbler, veal breast braised in wine, tamarind-glazed lamb ribs. But this weekend, we'll be plunging right in with this calf's liver recipe.
Calf's Liver with Onions, Bacon, and Sage
From: Odd Bits by Jennifer McLagan.
Note: McLagan recommends serving the liver with a watercress salad. Alternatively, you could grill the liver: “Replace the dusting of flour with a brush of olive oil and grill quickly over high heat. Add the vinegar to the onion mixture and serve alongside the liver.”
2 thick-cut bacon slices, double-smoked, if possible
¼ cup duck fat
3 onions, halved and thinly sliced
Coarse sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
16 sage leaves, finely shredded
About 8 ounces calf's liver, cut into ½-inch thick slices
1 Tbsp sherry vinegar
1. Preheat the oven to 200°F. Place a large plate into the oven.
2. Cut the bacon into ¼-inch strips. Heat half the fat in a frying pan over medium heat and add the onions and bacon. Season with salt and pepper, and cook, stirring often, until the onions are softened and colored, then stir in the sage and keep warm in the oven.
3. Dust the liver slices very lightly with flour and season with salt and pepper. In another frying pan just big enough to hold the liver slices, heat the remaining fat over medium-high heat. When the fat is hot, add the liver and cook until you see beads of blood on the top surface of the liver, 45 seconds to 1 minute. Turn and cook on the other side for about 30 seconds, or until you again see the blood beads form. Transfer the liver to the plate in the oven and turn the oven off.
4. Add the vinegar to the pan and stir to de-glaze, scraping up the browned bits from the bottom, then add the pan juices to the onion mixture. Place the liver on warm serving plates, top with the onion mixture, and serve.