Friday, 26 April 2013

An Offall-y Big Adventure Part 1 - Kidneys

{This adventure is in two parts, documenting my experiences with types of offal I'd never cooked before.  We start with kidneys, then move onto brains.  Let's go!}

The blonde behind the counter is grumpy.  Kidneys were clearly an 'out-the-back' item, not in easy reach within the gleaming display cases of steaks, fillets and other more familiar, muscle-centric parts.
"How many do you want?" she asks curtly.
"Umm... 250 grams?" I reply.
"How many would that be?"
"I'm not sure... um... how big are they? They're lambs' kidneys, right?"
She nods, making a vague motion with her hands indicating they're sized anywhere between a 20-cent coin and a char siu bao*.
"I'll just, umm... just a good handful, thanks".

She yells something to a chap out the back, he yells something back.  I stand quietly, waiting for the kidneys, trying not to die of awkwardness.  Eventually, a large brown parcel is proffered to me, feeling a lot more like 500 grams than the asked-for 250 grams.  The price is $2.40.  I hand over the money and skulk away, feeling confused and a little foolish.

The lovely people who write cookbooks say you should forge a relationship with your meat person, your fish person and your vegetable person.  In theory, this is a Good and Wise, Beneficial for Everyone Involved.
In practise, it's actually a little challenging and significantly less bucolic.  When you see a celebrity foodperson on TV sniffing a heirloom tomato whilst chatting away to a friendly apron-wearing providore, please understand that you are looking at a longed-for ideal, a glorified depiction of what perhaps was.  It is not fluorescent-lit reality.

The reality is that nobody really respects kidneys.  They are cheap and probably always have been.  They are best cooked either long and slow, which requires time, or really, really quickly, which requires skill.
People who know what to do with them (the same demographic of people who are probably friends with their butcher) are probably either professional chefs or are aged over fifty.  Or they have a mother tongue which isn't English.  In any case, People Who Respect Kidneys are a small, ever-shrinking demographic. Interestingly, these are the very same people who are increasingly fetishised as foodie-ism continues to take over the known universe [ahem Fergus Henderson cough cough].


Look, I know it's a rant, but I guess my point is I felt a little sadness when that brown parcel got handed to me, like it was not precious, not special.  I wanted my Kidney Virginity to be popped in a loving and gentle fashion.  I was, after all, making a surprise dinner for The Boyfriend of steak and kidney pie, something he loved eating as a child.

Maybe the blonde was just having a bad day, probably because she has to deal with clueless idiots like me who have no expertise, no history.  The reality is that me, and people like me are part of the problem.
We like to think of ourselves as cultured, interested, daring.  However, we are instead time-poor, skill-poor and have only a negligible connection to any sort of culinary heritage.  We eat takeout pad thai while watching Masterchef.  We look up new restaurants on Urbanspoon but feel uneasy calling our parents for cooking advice because the family situation is 'complicated'.
We would like to be more friendly with the butcher, but the butcher is a merchant who operates in The Real World.  The fact is that there is not much money to be made from dreams or memories, let alone the silly whims of a woman unfamiliar with variety meats.

Oh.  You'd probably like to know what happened to the kidneys.  The brown parcel was brought home and put in the fridge, then unwrapped the next morning with great trepidation.  Prior research on  the Intertubes recounted various experiences, ranging from the awful (one woman bought them from WalMart and they smelled like poo! Wha..?!?!) to the encouraging-yet-cautionary (they may smell a bit barnyard-esque, or ammonia-ish, or 'earthy' but remember you're eating an endocrine organ which filters pee, so as long as it's fresh just get over it already).

Warily, my hands tugged at the brown paper, pulling out a plastic bag beneath.  Lips pursed and squinty-eyed, I plunged my hands into the wrapping.  Would it be squishy, odd, unmanageable?  Here goes nothing.

My fingers found a firm lump of... something heart-shaped.

Seriously, lambs' kidneys resemble hearts.  Not heart-as-anatomical-organ but hearts, as in Valentine, Hallmark, love.  They were cute!  Each kidney was about 3-4 inches across and about an inch-and-a-half wide.  They were a dark red/brown oxblood colour, the same not-really-red shade Peugot uses for it's pepper mills.  The texture was smooth, firm and adorably chubby.

Raising one towards my face, I sniffed cautiously and smelled... nothing.  I cut one into half, removed the white inner core, then sliced it again.  Frankly speaking I didn't know that the hell I was doing, so I decided that I'd cut each kidney into four equal-sized bits and hope for the best.  After seasoning according to the recipe (which I will give below, patience, shh...) they were fried up along with chunks of steak.

It was only then they released their odour.  Sticking my nose over the sizzling pan, I was hit with a waft of deep, earthy tang.  There is was.  The smell.  No wonder opinions were divided, no wonder it was kind of a big deal.  That smell says a lot.

So let's formulate a not-quite theory, a speculation, if you will.  Kidneys are an indicator of the animal's health, it's life.  Lambs' kidneys are inspected as part of a cursory health check of the animal, which is why whole kidneys are quite frequently sold with a cut or a gash made in them.  In comparison, muscle is straightforward, inoffensive and uncomplicated.  Muscle is as muscle does, be it loin, chop or roast.
Organs, however, are the secret-keepers, the holders of the history and mystery within each animal.  What did our dear little lambs eat?  How were they kept?  Were they happy or scared?  See, this what the kidney knows, and when it hits the frypan with a sizzle the smell - that smell is a revelation, the tale of the animal's life unfolding before you.  The uncensored version.

There is actually no point in telling you what the kidneys I purchased smelled like, because yours will be different.  Do know this - it will be distinct.  It can either leave you intrigued and sniffing more to get to know it better, or it will be, well, gross and immediately off-putting.  Once you're exposed to la grand odeur, your nose and your brain will conspire to let you know right then whether cooking them was a good idea... or not.  

In the end, mine smelled musky, grassy and very rich.  Not quite petrichor**, but definitely brown and wet and full of life.  After I finished the stew and seasoned it well, I dug a spoon into the mahogany depths and had a taste.

"Hoargghy shhhz zaz gud."
Or, "Holy s**t, that's good!"
It was still very hot.  Ever tried to talk with hot food in your mouth?  No?  Don't.

The dinner went really well.  I'd cut little hearts into the pastry top and although the parmesan shortcrust shrank alarmingly, the hearts kept their shape and the steak and kidney stew underneath was glorious.
The Boyfriend informed me that the kidneys were perhaps cut a little too large for his liking, but that was only a minor quibble.  To him, it tasted delicious and to me, that's the only thing that matters.

We had leftovers the next day, which were even nicer.

A note before we begin:  As mentioned above, the pastry I attempted was not successful.  Savoury pastry is my nemesis, so I will not be providing a recipe for pastry.  Research into other recipes suggests using frozen puff pastry for your pie top, which is an excellent idea.  You could also go all out and make a full English steak and kidney pudding using a home-made suet crust, in which case I tip my hat to you in admiration of your astonishing mad skillz and awesomeness.  

The stew recipe below can be used for both.

Steak and Kidney Stew For A Pie - adapted from Nigella Lawson's 'How To Be A Domestic Goddess' (Serves 6-8)

  • 2 tablespoons flour
  • 1 teaspoon English mustard powder
  • 500g stewing beef, cut into 1-inch pieces
  • 250g lambs' kidneys, chopped
  • 30g butter
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 shallots, chopped
  • 200g fresh shiitake mushrooms, quartered (you can also use portobello or field mushrooms)
  • 150ml stout or dark ale
  • 150ml beef stock
  • salt and pepper to taste

making the stew:
  1. Put flour, mustard powder, salt and pepper to season into a plastic bag; a large ziploc one would do nicely.  Pop your beef and kidneys into the bag, seal it up and give it a good shake; you want a nice even coating of the seasoned flour on the beef and kidneys.  
  2. Heat the butter and oil in a casserole and brown the meat in batches, removing each batch to a dish. It's better to err on the side of small batches rather than large, as overcrowding the casserole can lead to the meat being stewed prematurely.  If you get a nice brown crust on the edges of your meat, that's great!
  3. Once you're done with the meat, fry up the shallots until softened slightly, then add the mushrooms. Continue frying, adding more oil if necessary.  As you fry, the onion and mushrooms should pick up all the tasty brown bits the meat has left behind.
  4. Put the meat back into the casserole and over a medium flame add the stock and stout.  Bring it up to the boil and stir gently, scraping up any remaining floury bits from the bottom of the casserole.
  5. Cover with a lid and put on the lowest simmer for 1 1/2 hours.  If you own a simmer mat, now would be the time to use it.  Check after an hour - if the stew is too liquid you can leave the lid slightly open so it evaporates down to your liking.  
  6. Once it's cooked, taste and adjust seasoning if needed.  Put aside to cool.

* Chinese steamed pork bun.
** The scent of rain on dry earth.

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