So, You Think You're a Carnivore?
Purely from a taste standpoint, very few things are as tasty to my tongue as tender Steak Diane with a nice glass of cabernet. But because I try to minimize my consumption of meat, I occasionally have to explain my near-vegetarian diet preferences to a dining companion. This is usually the point at which said friend or date will feel the need to verify that they, in fact, will be consuming meat. The testimony to their preference of carnivorous indulgences is usually accompanied by some sort of grunt or chest thump - sometimes self-consciously and with a hint of guilt, and sometimes provocatively, with a combative edge.
The funny thing about most people I meet who behave this way is that while they'll happily tear into a fillet mignon with bare hands and a smattering of A-1 sauce, the thought of eating breaded-and-fried calf testicles with garlic aioli makes them turn a little green around the gills.
Frankly, I'm of the opinion that if you can't dig into a big bowl of menudo, then you're not a carnivore: you're a musculutarian. Yeah, I said it. If you're a real carnivore, you don't pick and choose the bits of the animal that you find the most acceptable; you have to go for the whole hog. None of this prissy "Oh, well, I really only like the white meat" or "I only eat the shoulder". Nah, that ain't right. In for the penny, in for the pound, as it were.
If you are going to contribute to the death of countless animals through your consumption of their flesh (and hey, that's your right), you should at least try to eat as much of the animal as you possibly can. Waste not, and all that. It's not so much self-righteous as it is old-fashioned; you know, in the olden days, they found a use for every part of the pig except the squeal.
This philosophy extends beyond merely being adventurous (or guilt-ridden); pig's feet are cheap AND delicious. Tripe has an amazing texture and absorbs spicy sauces like you wouldn't believe. Liver is so versatile (and nutritious) that you can add bits of it nearly everywhere. Tongue is exquisitely tasty if cooked correctly.
Just because you've never enjoyed chicken feet before doesn't meant that you can't start now. There are some dishes that your average American or Canadian might balk at that are actually quite good, and if you do have the opportunity to try them out, be it while traveling abroad, dining with someone with less conventional tastes, or upon seeing just how affordable chicken hearts really are at your local supermarket, well... give it a shot for the following reasons:
- Bragging rights. If nothing else, your less adventurous friends will think you're a stud for eating sheep's eyeballs at an Afghani restaurant.
- Hey, you eat sausage, right? Do you know what they put in sausage? You think you're too good for pig's lips or something?
- Every self-respecting meat-eater should be brave enough to accept responsibility for the pain that their eating habits cause. I'm not saying this with a judgmental tone - I'm being as earnest as I can be. We all need to be aware of the impact that our lifestyles have on others. Recognizing that there is more to a living animal than a delectable tenderloin is a part of this process. When you dig into a heaping dish of haggis, you are recognizing the the animal that gave its life for your meal is made up of more than chops. Either that, or you are really, really drunk. Or both.
Here are some things I've tasted over the past few years that I have found to be utterly delectable, AND cheap:
Gizzards. There used to be a stand at the Public Market in Seattle that sold little bags of deep-fried gizzards, and my visiting family members would devour them like they were going out of style. It turns out that they were, because I can't find the guy who used to sell them, but if you ever get a chance to try them anywhere else, I highly recommend them. In fact, I've taken to fighting my dad for the turkey gizzard every Thanksgiving. You can easily fix them yourself if you have a deep fryer or a deep enough pan and a good deal of vegetable oil. When fresh, they really are a treat.
Tripe (cow's stomach lining). Tripe is the man ingredient in menudo, which I simply adore, and it's also a common ingredient in Chinese hotpot, which I love to enjoy with big groups of friends for special occasions. Also referred to as "honeycomb", tripe has a unique texture that reminds me of a thinly-sliced calamari; a little chewy and very satisfying. Pig tripe is also quite good, but of a vastly different texture.
Blood. I've had a couple of variations of this, but my favorite is a Korean version known as soon dae. Soon dae is a sausage that is made of blood and vermicelli noodles or rice, rather like Irish black pudding (which is a really good hangover food). Soon dae is served with some slight-spiced dipping salt, and sometimes sliced liver. It is incredibly delicious. The first time I ate it, I had no idea it was made of blood, and there's nothing in the taste of cooked blood that is similar to the taste of, say, the blood that comes out of your finger when you cut it.
Liver. When done right, liver can be a thing of beauty. My grandmother used to stuff piroshki with it, and it was so rich that I never really got accustomed to the taste in large quantities. However, I have found joy in sauces, such as a good bolognese, that have had liver added to them.
Glands. Be they testes, the thymus gland, or the pancreas, animal glands have an interesting texture that always makes me think of a slightly fluffy wonton. I've found them to be fairly affordable in some fancier restaurants, at least, compared to the lobster.
Feet. Cow feet can be used in a variety of recipes. Calf's foot is used to make really delicious savory gelatins. Pig's feet, when braised in soy sauce and star anise, are incredibly tender. Chicken legs and feet are one of my favorite Chinese dishes, but I've never attempted to make them at home. My grandmother also used to make headcheese (also known as souse meat, a sort of gelatin made with chunks of meat and eaten with vinegar), something that was very popular in her village in the Ukraine before the Nazi take-over. I believe that she used a combination of chicken meat and calf's foot, because she had learned how to make the kosher version. I used to hate it as a kid, but now that I'm old, I can see the appeal.
Bones. Every frugal kitchen knows the value of some good soup bones. If you get the right kind of bone, you can always let the dogs enjoy the remainder, but don't forget the marrow. If the idea of eating roasted marrow with bread is too much for you, you can always make that fillet mignon with marrow. Fancy schmancy, eh?
Fish skin. It took me a very long time to appreciate the taste of fried salmon skin, but now that I've been turned onto it, I can't get enough. Whenever I make salmon, which is rarely, I like to remove the skin and broil it until it's brown and incredibly crispy, then eat it over rice with chopped green onions and grated ginger.
Fish belly. The fish belly is the fattiest part of most fish, and thus, the most mouthwateringly melty and delicious. It's often removed by fishmongers and used in other deli dishes or discarded altogether. If you are lucky enough to find sashimi-quality salmon belly, I recommend indulging. Fish cheeks are also extremely delicious, if you can find them.