At the Novy Ranches grass-fed Angus beef stands that have been popping up at various farmers markets the past few months -- Topanga, Woodland Hills, Sherman Oaks and several others) -- you'll find an assortment of steaks, roasts and ground beef, as well as plenty of "off" cuts like oxtail, beef cheeks, tongue, the heart and liver. (Check back for our interview with the Northern California ranch's feisty -- and charming -- owner, 75-year-old Lowell Novy, a veterinarian turned cattle rancher who went all-out grass fed for both humane and flavor reasons later in life.)
But first, about those "off" cuts. "Have you ever tried eyeball?" asked Jason Yates, who was manning the stand at last Sunday's Brentwood Farmers Market. As a matter of fact, we have not. But we must have looked like the adventurous type (not exceedingly difficult compared to the average Westside farmers market shopper), as a conversation about cooking eyeballs, as well as a whole cow head, followed.
"The eyeballs taste the opposite of what you'd think, not at all squishy like you'd expect," Yates assured us. "They almost flatten like a filet when you cook them, you've got to try them." Indeed.
Unfortunately the eyeballs are one of the few cuts that Novy Ranches doesn't sell -- at least not yet. "Cheeks, tongue, tail and things like heart are as far as we go right now," Yates explained. Your average home cook isn't exactly stomach-ready for eyeballs, it seems.
For those who do want to try grass-fed eyeball at home (now that sounds like a fun weekend project), Yates suggested special ordering a whole head (stop by one of their market stands or order it online via email). "You can order it ahead and we'll bring the head down to the market for you, frozen," Yates continued, as we were buying a package of beef cheeks -- an affordable cut for those without grass-fed steak deep pockets and one that takes well to slow braising, incidentally.
What followed was a discussion about how to cook a cow head, which in Mexican cuisine was traditionally often boiled (or for more flavor, roasted, smoked or grilled). Remembering past chats with Fig chef Ray Garcia, who often talks of the influence of his family's traditional Mexican home cooking on his menu (beef tongue makes regular appearances at Fig), we asked Garcia if he had ever cooked a whole cow head.
"I've done lamb heads in the past, not a cow head, but I would think the same principles would apply," Garcia told us as he supplied the general cooking guidelines. You can eat the meat simply on its own, or add it to pasta sauces, stews, soups and the like (or slow smoke the head to make traditional barbacoa). Now, who's going to be the first to order that whole head from Novy Ranches and invite us over to dinner? Ray??
Roasted Cow Head
From: Ray Garcia of Fig Restaurant in Santa Monica.
Note: Garcia soaks the head in white wine, his tweak to more traditional recipes. The head needs to roast for several hours to be cooked thoroughly; this is not an instance when you want rare meat.
1 whole cow head
Enough white wine to cover
Diced onions, carrots and celery, for roasting
For the rub:
Several sprigs of fresh rosemary and oregano
Six or more garlic cloves, roughly chopped
Several shallots, roughly chopped
Good quality olive oil
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1. Clean the head well and shave or singe remaining hairs if necessary.
2. Rinse the head very well. Soak the head for 6 to 8 hours in white wine. Remove the head and place it on a roasting pan. Surround the head with the onions, carrots and celery.
3. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Make a robust rub by combining the garlic, shallots, oregano, rosemary, salt and pepper with the olive oil. Rub it on the head.
4. Roast the head for several hours, until thoroughly cooked through. Allow to cool for half an hour.
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5. Remove the cheeks, eyeballs and other bits of meat from the head and serve with any pan juices.
[More from Jenn Garbee @eathistory + eathistory.com