A beginner’s guide to offal

Butcher Charlotte Harbottle runs through her choice bits and pieces of offal, whether you’re dipping your toe in the water or feeling adventurous.

Ox cheek

Ox Cheek illustrationThis is offal at it’s finest. It is only in the last couple of months that my abattoir in County Durham has been given permission to release the cheek meat. After the BSE crisis a lot of legislation was introduced, and certain cuts of meat from around or connected to the spinal cord were not allowed to be released to the general public and had to be disposed of immediately. However, it is has been widely known that when braised and stewed with brandy or red wine it is simply out of this world. This has always been commonplace in France and Spain. They do require a lot of cooking to break down all the sinews, as cattle spend the entire day chewing, but it is worth the wait. If you’re unsure about offal this is a good one to experiment with – as it just looks like diced beef.

Chicken livers

Chicken Liver illustrationFor many recipes, these lovely little treasures are the secret ingredient. Although famous for pate or a parfait starter, there is a lot more to them, for instance these can transform any bolognaise, chilli con carne, casserole or pasta dish. They just require a bit of flash frying and will cook in minutes, with rape seed oil, garlic and shallots, they’re an easy gourmet dinner. They are a great source of iron and eating liver is also the only thing that actually benefits our own liver. They are fairly easy to get hold of but it is best to buy British as these don’t lend themselves to travelling long distances.

Lamb’s kidneys

Kidney illustrationThere are a few options for these. With kidneys, you either love them or hate them and people certainly have their preference, however lamb’s seem to be the winner. Kidney’s are located near the loin of the carcass which means although they work hard, the meat is soft and tender. In terms of prep, ensure the butcher removes the suet and the thin film of skin. You can also choose to cook the kidney in the removed suet for the full experience. If you want the kidney diced for pie then I also recommend you ask for it to be cored. You can also split them and have devilled kidneys on toast, which are a particular favourite of mine, especially with some bone marrow.

Lamb sweetbreads

The best thing about experimenting with food is that you discover new culinary delights just by accident. It was only when I decided to cook a shoulder of lamb untrimmed that I stumbled across these. There are two different sorts of sweetbreads – throat glands and testicles. I am referring to the throat gland. When this gland is washed and trimmed it is very soft and tender. There are many different ways of cooking these, and the recipes are as widely found as they are eaten all over the world. My favourite way is to steam them in milk, bread crumb, then flash fry. Please don’t be put off by how these glands look, they really do have a great flavour – many butchers just throw them away, too!

Pig’s ears

They’re renowned for being an extra special treat for your dog, but if you’ve got the energy they can be the perfect crispy snack. Due to the consistency of the cartilage and rind, you can cut them into very small strips (or ask your local butcher) and boil them for a couple of hours, cover them in salt, then deep fry them. These may well be the ultimate in pork scratching. It sounds like a really big effort but you will not be disappointed with the flavour. And you can even add chilli flakes for a kick.

Hog casing

This is for all those offal pessimists. It is highly likely you have tried offal and not even realised. The best sausages are made with a natural casing, this is also the healthier option too. Natural casing is essentially the intestine of the beast, but they are cleaned, dried and preserved in salt. The butcher then soaks them to remove the salt. Depending on the size of the sausage we use, lamb casing for cocktail sausages or chipolatas, pig’s for the breakfast banger and ox casing for larger meats like salami. These are the best way to ensure a crunch with every bite of the sausage and it should then be filled with a balanced seasoning and minced pork shoulder. This is encouraged for nose-to-tail eating which means none of the animal is wasted.

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