Bite your tongue

Apr 11, 2007 at 12:00 am

The massive, 4-pound severed beef tongue lay on the kitchen counter in all its gruesome glory. It was once attached to the head of a beef cow, organically fed and pasture-raised by Elmer Slabaugh on his Brown City Amish farm. Elmer sells his cattle in sections. The "home of Yale Bologna," C Roy Inc., processes and freezes it. If you purchase a quarter you'll end up with a couple boxes full of ground beef, steaks, roasts and whatever else might have been attached to your section. Ours came with a tongue.

What the hell do you do with a tongue the size of a small cat? I mean, besides freak out the gentler members of your family by threatening to lick them? We consulted our vintage copy of Joy of Cooking for help. No problem. Boil 50 minutes per pound with carrots, onions, celery, peppercorns and bay leaves. Peel off the thick layer of taste buds. Slice it up fancy and serve with a mustard sauce.

If you're looking for something hipper than mustard sauce, try warming a few corn tortillas, load them with hot cubes of tongue, and then top it all with a mixture of diced onion and cilantro and a lime squeeze. Each bite of tender tongue will burst with beef flavor. Your friends might eat a bunch even after you show them a photo of the post-boil rigor. You'll at least have fun trading tongue-taco double entendres.

Handling that fat tongue gave us such a rush we went searching for even more exotic foods. And among the best places to find them is Kim Nhung Superfood — where the fish heads sell out faster than the bodies. This small grocery on the corner of Dequindre and 13 Mile roads is impressive for its stock of Asian staples, including rice noodles and various sauces and pastes. On weekends, you're likely to find foam coolers stocked with live snails twisting in snotty hermaphroditic sex and green frogs that seem to know their fate.

The owner's son, young Terry Nguyen, pointed out cans of fly larvae and grasshoppers in brine. We asked how to prepare them. He shrugged. The snails get boiled with lemon grass and dipped in fish sauce. The green frogs are stir fried. On Fridays, they get a shipment of balut. Balut is a duck egg with a nearly developed embryo inside. It is eaten with a pinch of salt. It is widely considered, of course, to be an aphrodisiac.

We have already resigned ourselves to the fact we will never be eating a duck embryo or bungee-jumping into a narrow gorge when we can feel the rush of real danger on our daily I-75 commute. We did muster the courage to try a century egg preserved in tea, lime and wood ash. The dark green yolk has similar flavor to an aged, washed-rind cheese. The white becomes cola colored and still doesn't taste like much. To eat it, you you must fight that part of your brain that determines what's edible, because it'll be screaming: "No. No. NO. NO!" Closing your eyes might help.

For variation, century eggs can be wrapped in pickled ginger root or mixed into an omelet for a dish called old-and-fresh eggs. Neither of these methods will make them any less green.

Kim Nhung also has a remarkable meat counter. It is filled with inexpensive duck legs, whole chickens, tongues and a variety of other animal parts not readily identifiable to the Western eye. It was a bag of chicken's feet we were after here, for "phoenix talons," a dim sum dish.

After cleaning and trimming the toenails, the feet are usually fried first to puff the skin. Then we boiled and marinated them in a black bean sauce. We found pleasure in bringing them to parties and watching folks trying to nibble off a scrap of meat. Not an easy task. Fans of chicken skin might find sustenance in a dozen. We managed to get a couple quarts of quality soup stock out of the deal anyway.

Speaking of soup, we have always heard that the hearty Mexican soup menudo is a miracle hangover cure and took the making of one as an opportunity to get very drunk. Mexicantown's Honeybee La Colmena has everything you need to construct this classic campesino meal. Start with a couple pounds of cow stomach. (Call it honeycomb tripe if that makes you feel better.) Clean it three to four times and cut it into bite-sized cubes. Throw the stomach, a beef knuckle or two, a couple chopped onions, a dozen minced garlic cloves and a healthy dose of cumin into a pot of water. Set a fire beneath it and let it simmer for about four hours, periodically skimming the surface of scum.

While you're patiently waiting to be restored, soak about eight stemmed and seeded dried New Mexico chiles in warm water. After half an hour, puree and strain the chiles. When the tripe is tender, toss the chile puree and a large can of hominy into the pot, salt to taste and let simmer for another half hour.

What every recipe for menudo fails to mention is the scent that radiates from the simmering pot. If you're already a bit queasy from getting hammered the night before, a house thick with the not-so-subtle aroma of stewing offal might have you running to your nearest coney island for hangover relief.

No doubt an acquired taste, the finished menudo is edible enough. Though spooning stomach into your mouth might have you longing for some good, old tongue.

Todd Abrams usually writes about less unusual food for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]