September 6th, 2008
It's part of my belief that when eating meat, the whole animal should be respected and valued in its entirety. Something that many Americans neglect these days. In the old days when humans lived among the animals that they raised, a meat animal would be valued as a whole, unique parts such as tongue, head, cheek, brains, heart, liver, tail, and etc. would be enjoyed not just because waste was not acceptable, but also because they are simply delicious.
I picked up a copy of The River Cottage Meat Book. One third of the book is dedicated to understanding meat as a whole - origin, raising, hunting, sustainable issues, butchery, as well as recipes. The author Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall explores different cuts of animals ranging from beef, lamb, pig, poultry, game and of course offal and no details are left out. Offal is the entrails and internal organs of a butchered animal. Although tongue is a muscle and not an organ, the delicacy seemed to have been lumped in to this category. It certainly doesn’t help to gain popularity when the word is pronounced “awful” .
In an effort to reclaim a more intimate relationship with the food that I eat, I decided to pick up a beef tongue; in it's entirety. Having grown up in Japan and eating grilled gyutan I am no stranger to this cut of meat, served thinly sliced and in moderate portions. I must admit that I was a bit intimidated once I got home to unwrap the big joint.
Slow cooking, if executed correctly, is an art of making something special and oh so sublime out of meat that is cheap and more ordinary. Although the tongue may not seem so ordinary on an American dinner table, it does allow one to spend considerably less on a piece of meat that can feed more than twice the number of diners than a prime cut.
This project is broken down into three easy parts. Pickling the tongue in a brine for a week, rinsing and soaking in the water for couple days, and then finally slow cooking the pickled tongue for 3 hours or so. If you have access to a butcher to procure the cut, then time and patience is the only thing you will really need. The process is far from being complicated or difficult. I used an extra large plastic container with a lid to pickle the tongue, but if you don't have one handy, a zip-top bag or a non-metallic container. This is necessary to avoid a reaction between the metal and the brine.
I can honestly say that this might be one of the tastier things that I have cooked all year. I knew that my patience had paid off the moment I took my first bite and heard the reaction around the dining table. The end result was a magically tender meat that could be cut with the back of your fork and subsequently melted in your mouth. My guests loved it and even went back for seconds - its good to know that it is was not an illusion created by my own excitement :)
Pickled Tongue Recipe
adapted from the River Cottage Meat Book
5 quarts of water (Stay away from using tap water!)
1 pound light brown sugar
1 pound kosher salt
1 teaspoon black peppercorns
1 teaspoon juniper berries
4 bay leaves
A sprig of thyme
2 tablespoon saltpeter *optional: Sole purpose is to prevent the meat from turning gray. Helps to preserve the meat's red color. ** EDIT**
- Add all brine ingredients in a large pot over low heat, stir well until the sugar and the salt has dissolved completely. Take off heat and let the liquid cool down.
- Place the beef tongue in a plastic container (with a lid), or an over-sized zip bag and pour in brine liquid being sure to submerge completely. If using a zip-top bag be sure to extract as much air as possible, seal and lay flat in the refrigerator for about a week flipping the tongue daily. If the tongue weighs in over 6 lbs, you can go up to 10 days.
- After patiently waiting for 7 whole days, it is time for you to remove the tongue from the brine. Rinse well under cold running water. Place the tongue back in the container/zip bag and soak it in fresh cold water, submerging again completely for 24~48 hours, changing the water every 12 hours. (The recipe calls for a 24-hour soak, I left mine for 48 hours and it was perfect seasoning - not too salty).
Cooking Pickled Tongue
1 whole beef tongue (pickled)
1 bouquet garni (sprigs of thyme, small bunch of parsley, bay leaf)
1 small carrot, chopped
1 onion, peeled and halved
1 leek, halved lengthwise
½ garlic bulb, outer skin removed
- Move the tongue to a dutch oven with all ingredients, cover with fresh water and bring to a simmer. Poach gently on the stovetop over low heat or in the oven at 275 degrees for 2½ to 3 hours. Tongue will become very tender and yield when pierced.
- Remove the tongue from the poaching liquid, place on a cutting board and peel away the outer 'skin'. It should come away from the meat fairly easily, just make sure to get rid of all of it. Carve the tongue into fairly thick slices and serve over lentils with quality grainy mustard or creamed horseradish.