Dining on kidneys, liver, heart or tripe may seem more gag-worthy than gourmet, unless you talk to today's "new carnivore." Spawned from the relatively recent farm-to-table movement, this group of chefs and foodies is taking oft-overlooked cuts from the chopping-block floor and dressing them up on the dinner table. Perfectly aligning with today's conscious consumer, head-to-tail dining follows the motto: If you're going to kill the animal, you better use the entire thing. I jumped on board at Atlanta's Holeman & Finch Public House during a surprisingly delicious dinner of sweetbreads (pig or lamb thymus gland or pancreas). You'll also find pig's ear on the menu at Cochon in New Orleans and calf's brain at New York City's Per Se—two of the top-rated restaurants in America.
And what does any of this mean for the home cook shopping in a naturals store? Amazingly, a lot.
Though it's nearly impossible to find U.S. purchasing stats for organ meats, the evidence that America is jumping in whole hog is clear. Check the forums at egullet.org, epicurious.com or chowhound.com, and you'll find users seeking the best ways to prepare meats ranging from brain to kidney and everything in between—all posted within the last two years. Even the less–edgy Food Network is in on the game with Emeril Lagasse's bam-worthy sweetbread-wild mushroom ragout. Note that the recipe received a 5 out of a 5-star rating from users.
Offal is the term used for these meats that "all fall" to the floor when the animal is slaughtered. What these websites also reveal is that finding quality cuts of offal is, well, awfully hard.
San Francisco–based chef Chris Consentino, "the offal evangelist," describes on his website, offalgood.com, the difficulty in finding "guts." "Where do I get these meats? That's the question I'm asked most often," he writes. "It's amazing that what used to be available in every butcher shop are now considered hard-to-find specialty items, but that's another story." He suggests new carnivores either cultivate relationships with various ranchers or take their chances with meats from ethnic markets, where age and quality are harder to determine. A far better option, but one that I've yet to see, is a natural products store that sells offal alongside options higher on the hog.
By nature, many organs considered offal are the animal's "filters." Conventional kidneys, livers and spleens are rife with antibiotics and pesticides, so choosing organic cuts is paramount—yet these are virtually impossible to find at most stores. I suspect because naturals customers are more apt than typical consumers to tap into sustainability efforts and the meat morality of eating the entire animal, they'll be less likely to turn their noses up at a more colorful meat case. Additionally, providing these cuts offers retailers opportunities to discuss the nutritional benefits of organ meats.
Liver is packed with vitamins A and B, folic acid and iron, and is the number-one food source of copper. Kidney offers essential fatty acids, zinc and vitamins A, D, E and K. In addition to several B vitamins, selenium, phosphorus, zinc and coenzyme Q10, beef heart contains amino acids that improve metabolism and promote the production of collagen and elastin. Tripe, the stomach lining of an animal used in the popular Mexican soup menudo, offers enzymes, omega-3 and -6 fatty acids, probiotics and phytonutrients. In fact, some people call it "the finest of natural foods."
Because of their significant nutrient punch, dried, ground animal organs are found in many multivitamins—so even if your customers haven't eaten an organ, they've likely swallowed a portion of one, Consentino says. Still, such information may not be enough to entice the average consumer. My crowd-pleasing solution is to stock offal for the new carnivore, while at the same time appeal to another meat eater all too happy to offer support. Tell leery customers to consider the cuts as healthier alternatives to prepared pet food.