It touched me, and made me sorry, when one night, not long before my mother died a few years ago, she and Pops looked at me from the other side of a table heavy with her good food I'd put her fried chicken against anybody's, anytime and she said, "Do you know you've never cooked for us?" Impossible.
I pressed her and, with my dad as a witness, she swore I'd never made a meal for them. This had to be remedied, and quick. What would they like? "Surprise us."
Clearly, they expected some razzamatazz from their son, the "big shot" food critic and cooking teacher. And it should be something familiar, but unusual, and made in a way they'd never seen before.
Something from way back in my memory, something we'd eaten only once in my parents' home, flashed gruesomely.
It's an indelible picture, coming in from school, hearing Mom in the kitchen and rounding the corner to see her gently rubbing a whole, smallish brain under cold running water. I had no idea that normal people ate such a thing, so I asked if either of my sisters were missing.
Turned out that, when he was a boy, my dad enjoyed "brains 'n' eggs," the chopped gray matter stirred into whipped eggs and scrambled. She'd made the stuff for him before, and liked it too. Turns out, they were pretty tasty, with plenty of black pepper and salt.
Brains would be the centerpiece of their meal. We set a date.
Some of his people were from Kentucky; hers, from Indiana. Both states and neighboring areas have deep agrarian roots, with traditions that abhorred waste of any kind, mainly because, though they could grow a lot of things, they couldn't grow money on trees. There was also an undercurrent of respect for the food on their table when you first get to know the animals you end up eating, you're not inclined to let any of their sacrifices end up in the garbage.
So offal true, it's a sound-alike for awful was a regular part of the menu. Liver, for those of you who think only with disgust of your mom's grossly overcooked version, was the least of it. "Variety meats," as they're delicately known, include hearts, lungs, stomach walls and linings, kidneys, intestinal membranes, pancreas and brains. Add the nutritional value, and flavor, of such muscle meats as tongue and pig feet and there isn't much left for the dog to eat.
Thomas Keller, one of the most brilliant chefs in the country many say he's the best takes particular pride in cooking offal. "It's easy to cook a filet mignon, or to sauté a piece of trout, serve it with browned butter à la meunière, and call yourself a chef," he writes in the namesake cookbook of his best known restaurant, The French Laundry. "But that's not really cooking. That's heating. Preparing tripe, however, is a transcendental act: to take what is normally thrown away and, with skill and knowledge, turn it into something exquisite."
I did some research on technique, put together a menu, gathered up the ingredients and gear, and cooked my first meal for my parents in their kitchen.
As it happens, the brains which I'd already picked clean of membrane and soaked in cold water were prepared à la meunière. The ivory-hued slices were sautéed to golden, and served on a black pepper and Gruyère polenta "puck," topped with wilted spinach, caramelized onions and crispy bacon bits. The browned butter was the only sauce. My most special diners where bowled over, and not just because their son had done the cooking. I believed them. They ate seconds. And they called me "chef."
On the off chance that you want to taste something similar, I've adapted the following recipe from Chris Schlesinger and John Willoughby's endlessly useful How to Cook Meat (Morrow, $35). If you don't have a cooperative butcher (mad cow disease has scared many off, a gross overreaction), I got my brains from Eastern Market's Fairway Packing. Make of that what you will.
Calf Brains Meunière
1-1/2 pounds calf brains
1/4 cup white vinegar
2 teaspoons kosher salt
Freshly cracked black pepper
Flour, for dredging
5 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
3 tablespoons rough-chopped fresh parsley
Lemon and rinsed capers
1. In a stainless steel or other non-reactive saucepan, cover brains with cold water, let them sit five minutes, dump the water and repeat two more times. Pick off the membranes and trim any white bits, cover the brains with water and 2 tablespoons of vinegar, and let sit for two hours.
2. Drain your brains, put them back in the saucepan, pour in enough boiling water to cover, add salt and the remaining vinegar. Bring just to a simmer on medium-high, cut heat to low and simmer gently for 20 minutes. Take pan off the heat and let brains cool.
3. Drain your brains again, set them on a parchment-lined cookie sheet, cover them with another parchment sheet, then top with a second cookie sheet. Weight it down with canned goods or a heavy book and put in the fridge for an hour.
4. Cut brains into 1/2-inch slices, dry with paper towels, generously season with salt and pepper, then dredge lightly in flour, shaking off any excess. Melt 2 tablespoons butter with the oil in a large non-stick frying pan on medium-high, add the brains and brown lightly, about three minutes a side. Plate the slices and strew with parsley.
5. Working quickly, add remaining butter to the hot pan, swirl until melted and continue until it's nutty brown. Squeeze in juice from one lemon, add a tablespoon or two of capers and pour this sauce over the brains. Serve.
Ask the Food Dude
Healthy fish and sanitary cutting boards
Q: Dude, salmon keeps getting touted as a super food, but I get sick of feeling that if I order any other kind of fish I'm missing out. Are there any types of fish equally high in health benefits? Are there any types of fish that are bad for you?
A: Equally high? Don't think so. Salmon from clean waters holds the title as King Fish for the bucketload of Omega-3 fatty acids that have been proven to help a wide range of health problems, including depression, heart and vascular disease, stroke and other brain-related stuff. But lots of fresh fish are contenders tuna, bluefish, sardines, rainbow trout, mackerel any dark-meat rascal. The only "bad" fish that comes to mind would be something like a big yellow-belly bullhead from the bottom of the Detroit River a real lip smacker.
Q:Should I have a separate cutting board for meat? If so, should it be made from nonporous material?
A: Yes, and not necessarily. You should have separate cutting boards for meat, poultry, fish and produce, if you want to be just a little anal about it. And if you want to be a little paranoid about it, remember that any time somebody helps in your kitchen, they may not clean the boards as well as you do. Thin, cheap plastic cutting boards will cover you for little cash. But some surprising studies showed just a few years ago that hardwood stays cleaner germ-wise than plastic in cutting boards. My favorite is bamboo heavy, wears like iron and unlikely to grow fur.Ric Bohy is editor of Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected] or call