Offal of the Week: Tongue
Happy Friday! Are you ready for Offal of the Week? You'd better be. Brought to you by the always-classy Ryan Adams, author of the blog Nose to Tail at Home, each week spotlights a different part of the animal that you've always wanted to cook, but were afraid to ask your butcher for. This week: Tongue.
Let me ask you a question. Would you eat a steak? "Of course I'd eat a steak," you're saying. "What game are you playing?"
Now let me ask you: Would you eat tongue? If you're like most people (or at least, most Americans), you'd recoil in horror. This confuses me. Not only is tongue, like steak, simply muscle meat, but animal tongues both taste amazing and can be found very cheaply. From duck to cow, tongue is an overlooked delicacy. You should be eating it!
Hold your Tongue
Tongue is a highly versatile meat. It can be sauted, deep fried, grilled, roasted, poached, and braised. Thanks in part to its versatility, it's ubiquitous: you can find hot tongue sandwiches on menus in Kosher delis, fried cod tongue can be found in Norway, spicy duck tongue at any Szechuan restaurant worth its salt. Any fan of authentic Mexican food will rhapsodize about tacos de lengua, tacos filled with braised beef tongue. My favorite tongue dish is (surprise!) from Fergus Henderson's cookbook The Whole Beast: Nose to Tail Eating (buy at Amazon): Lamb's Tongues, Turnips and Bacon. It's an amazing combination of buttery soft meat, boiled turnips, and bitter greens. What I'm getting at is tongue is actually more common than you might think, and for good reason.
Since tongue is essentially "meat," (it's materially almost identical to muscle from other parts of the animal) whatever kind of tongue you plan to eat will taste exactly like the rest of the meat from the animal it came from. So ox tongue tastes like beef, pig tongue tastes like pork, and so on. Since tongue is quite lean, when I've cooked ox tongue at home I've brined it first, using the same recipe I'd use to make corned meat. As a result, the tongues end up tasting exactly like the corned beef you've probably enjoyed on St. Patricks day along with your green beer (it's a little different than the kind of corned beef you'd find at a Jewish deli).
Texture-wise, all tongue becomes butter-soft after an hour or two in a pot of boiling water. Once the tongue is done cooking, you'll have to peel the skin off of it — an experience akin to peeling the grip off an old basketball. There's a bit of a fight, but patience helps, and the process can be oddly gratifying. Don't forget to trim off excess fat, gristle and bones from the base of the tongue — they might not be there, but if they are they're no good to eat.
Tip of the Tongue
I've had considerable luck finding ox tongue — a.k.a, cow tongue — from my local supermarket. If your usual supermarket is tongue-barren, a quick call to a nearby butcher will score you mouth muscle for sure. For sheep or lamb tongue your best bet is checking halal markets in your area; pig, duck, and "other" tongues are readily found at most Asian markets. Prices will always vary based on animal and quality, with lamb tongues usually costing the most per pound. (If you buy yourself a hog's head, consider the tongue a nice little freebie.)
When you pick your tongue up — regardless of its origin — make sure it feels firm. Most tongues will be gray in color, and if they have darkish spots on them, don't freak out — they're perfectly normal. Once they're cooked and skinned, they'll look just like delicious, delicious meat.
Ready to tantalize your tongue? Try these terrific recipes: