Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Mountain Living

An artist's rendition of my current situation
An atypically large snowstorm has left the mountain roads around here practically impassable up where I live. For someone who grew up in the upper Midwest, I can't help but find some irony in the fact that the very first time in my life it's impossible to leave my house due to the snow, it's when I'm living in a place that considers 2-3 inches of snow to be a major disaster.

There wouldn't really be much of a downside to being snowed in normally; I typically do most of my work from home (pajamas + dog = always the best option), but I just got back from vacation. And had my travel plans gone as they were supposed to, I would have had plenty of time to get groceries before the storm hit, but instead I ended up having multiple canceled flights and getting somehow routed through Atlanta for a flight from NYC to Pittsburgh, which ended up eating the entire day, dropping me home in the middle of the storm. Luckily, the li'l car made it up to the house, but considering the snow hasn't let up since, I know I'm not making it anywhere else soon.

But on the plus side, this will really encourage some creative cooking. What can be made out of some old potatoes and flour? Hopefully a lot, because that's pretty much all I have in the house...

Monday, February 09, 2015


After a busy week full of stupid administrative crap (seriously, I'd be about a thousand times more productive if not for meetings which appear to serve no purpose other than be annoying), I finally was able to carve out some free time to get to the crown jewel of my cow organs -- the brain.

Brain is something I've had before on several occasions, but only prepped i ways I couldn't even begin to replicate, so I'm trying something different here, prepping it two ways. One is apparently a Cuban tradition (based loosely on this recipe) and the other is a much simpler way of preparing it.

One of the first things you learn when working with brain is that no matter how well the butcher cleaned the brain before you get it (and this one seems to have been cleaned pretty thoroughly), there will be a lot of blood in the brain. Like, a lot. Like if you left it in your fridge to thaw but the bag is not perfectly vacuum-sealed, you will have blood all over your fridge. Kind of annoying, but enjoy the moment -- after all, how many times have you have to scrub blood out of the nooks and crannies of your crisper? It's an adventure! Unless you do it a lot. Then it's probably not an adventure. But then again, if you're regularly cleaning large amounts of blood out of your fridge, you're probably a serial killer, so...In any event, I suggest opening the bag in the sink, preferably in a colander or something else than be used to rinse it.

This is a cow's brain, mostly thawed.
 Then you put the brain in some sort of bowl where it can soak for awhile. Again, like every other piece in this series, most of the work is in the prep. The cooking of brains (at least in these two recipes) is actually pretty quick and easy. Heck, even the prep isn't that bad; more annoying than difficult. Anyway, here's your brain in a bowl:

Yup, definitely a brain.
 Then it needs to chill out and soak for a few hours, to help get all the rest of the blood, hair, skin, and whatever other detritus might be hanging out to shake loose. After two or so hours of soaking, you can see this was necessary, as a ton more blood will have leeched out of the brain by this point:

Bloody brains. At this point, your inner 13 year-old boy is very excited.

Then you need to clean the brain of any remaining skin, hair, and whatnot. It's kind of hard to know what does and doesn't belong, so you attempt to remove the parts that are...well, I don't want to say "gross looking," because it's all gross-looking. But you know, the parts that are even grosser...er. Anyway, then the brain needs to be either boiled or simmered, depending on who you believe. If you ever want to get down a weird internet rabbit hole, there are some strong opinions on the internet about the proper preparation of cattle brains. Since I couldn't find a definitive source on the subject, I figured I'd split the difference, so this brain got a few minutes of boiling, several minutes of simmering. The point of this is apparently to firm the brains up a bit, which it definitely did. Most sources said to just use boring old plain water, but I jazzed it up with some beef stock (made from the oxtail leftovers!). Here's what a boiling brain looks like:

It may also be what your brain looks like on drugs.

After this, you need to let your brains cool a bit (so many steps of this process sound like something a faux-badass 80s action hero might say to their rad teenage sidekick). I chose to put them into a bowl, but you can decide where your brains cool. It's a wonderful world of opportunities like that. In any event, much like the tongue, there ain't no confusing what you're working with here.


It's at this point you notice that while the brains aren't terrible aromatic to you, they must be the best thing that has ever existed in the history of smells to a dog. My dog began begging for some scraps of brain they second they were unwrapped, and this has been her polite begging position for the hour or so I've been working on the brains so far:

Excuse me, sir. I would like to eat some of that and am sitting ever-so-politely.
 So at this point your brains should theoretically have already cooled. Im far too impatient to actually wait for them to actually cool, so I began chopping them pretty much right away. The only difference waiting makes is that you drop fewer pieces on the floor while shouting a string of expletives after burning yourself. So, you know, choose accordingly. At this point, the brain is largely falling apart anyway, so it's pretty easy to chop. I was going for bite-sized pieces given the recipes I'm working with, but you probably don't want a bigger chunk anyway. Here are some brain chunks pre-chopped:

Some sort of witty caption here.
 For the first recipe, I'm making Cuban-style deep-fried brain chunks. For these I'm mixing up some of the firmer chunks of brain (chosen because they seemed most likely to hold up in the frying process) with some cumin and salt, then dipping it in a "slurry" (seriously, that's the word the recipe used, and is pretty much why I went with that one. Few more delicious-sounding words in the English language than "slurry") made of roughly equal parts flour and water. I subbed in a little lime for some of the water and threw some more cumin in the mix, because…well, those things taste good. More good tasting things always help. Then post-slurry, the brain chunks get rolled in crumbs of some kind. Panko would probably be best, but in this case, you're using crushed up whole wheat Ritz crackers. Because you're fancy.

Seasoned brains, slurry, pulverized snack crackers.
That process leaves you with some fryer-reader chunks of battered brain. At this point, they start to resemble chicken nuggets to a great degree:

You only notice the difference when you bite in.
 Perhaps Dog has finally given up after not getting any food? Nope, still politely holding strong, wondering when you're going to share:

Thought maybe you couldn't see me, so I inched a bit closer.
 So now there's nothing to do but fry those little suckers. You use a tiny pot and fry in small batches because you don't have much experience frying things, so you expect things to go wrong. Makes sense to give yourself multiple options to get it right, which would not surprisingly turn out to be helpful in this instance:

This is what stuff looks like whilst frying.
 Then you eventually end up with some delicious, golden-brown fried bits. Which again, resemble chicken nuggets. Or pretty much anything small thing that's fried. I mean, there's only so much one can do with deep-frying. This is also when you notice you're out of paper towels, curse a bit, and then figure a paper bag is pretty much the same thing.

Fried stuff.
 For the record, here's what they will look like on the inside, once they have been bested by your mighty incisors. While they were hot, you should have sprinkled some good freshly-ground sea salt on them. Also, if you don't have any good Cubano-style hot sauces, you can approximate one with some sriracha and lime.
I am a half-eaten chunk of brain.
 The other style I'm trying for is a much simpler preparation, traditional amongst European types that eat brains. This method involves simply melting a bunch of butter, and then sautéing the brains with some sage. Super simple prep, but in case you're curious, here's what a sauté pan full of brains looks like. For all that is good and holy, use a non-stick pan. Brains are incredibly soft and basically fragile, so any sticking is going to completely ruin them:

Kinda looks like brown cauliflower.
 After a few minutes of sautéing, you have a plate full of brains, which looks not too different than it looked while sautéing. But hey, I took a picture, so here's the picture:

Now they're on a plate.
 It's been two hours. Has Dog given up on begging?

Never! I shall beg 'til the day I die!
But Was It Any Good?

Fried Brains: FUCK and YES. I was pretty apprehensive about this because I don't usually fry stuff and didn't know if the brains would hold up, but they did. Like little savory champions. Granted, being an American, I can eat basically anything if it has been fried. But these were not something to be survived for the sake of novelty, these were incredibly delicious. Think chicken nuggets, but instead of being full of chicken, they're full of melt-in-your-mouth, super savory marshmallows. The majority of them were gone before I even got to the sautéing. If you ever come across some deep fried brains, eat them. Eat them all. You will not be disappointed.

Sautéed Brains: Yes, but I should have planned ahead. The thing about brains is that they are delicious, but incredibly rich. Like think of the craziest thick cheesecake you've ever had, and they're about 20 times as rich as that. Seriously, your mouth will be coated in brain after one bite. Which is not a bad thing given how delicious they are, but just an indication of how rich they are. So you don't really eat brains as main course, but instead use them with or on top of things that could use some delicious richness. Being that I was spending all this time on prep, I never got around to anything to go with the brain. I saw a recipe that called for adding eggs and tomatoes during the sauté process, so I'm going to try that next.

Have We Learned Anything So Far?

Yes. Cooking with offal and various other organs and muscles is difficult and time-consuming. But it's also more entertaining than a lot of other things you could do with your day, so all-in-all, I recommend it.