Offal of the Week: Cockscombs and Chitterlings
If it's Friday, it must be Offal of the Week! Brought to you by Ryan Adams, author of the blog Nose to Tail at Home, each week we highlight a different part of the animal that you've always wanted to work with, but were afraid to ask your butcher for. This week: Cockscombs and chitterlings.
We've already covered a majority of the more mainstream offal cuts, so now I'll be delving into the more, let's say, unusual bits. The offal of the offal, if you will. These bits and pieces are more obscure, not written about as often as the glamorous bits like kidney or liver, but still no less deserving of attention. Today, two of my favorites: cockscombs and chitterlings.
Most people know of them as the brilliant red adornments found on roosters' heads, however the fleshy growth known as the comb (or cockscomb) can be found on the top of many delicious birds, like turkey or pheasant. In France, cockscombs were used not only as garnishes for dishes, but also in them as part of a preparation where they would be minced and combined with a sauce which in turn could be used in a variety of ways. The Italians used to use them in an older recipe called Cimabella con cibreo, where the combs were used in conjunction with chicken livers and eggs in a sauce with tagliatelle in a ring molded from potato and ricotta cheese. They've recently made a comeback of sorts thanks to one Chris Cosentino and his ability and willingness to put them to good use. For example, back in 2007 for his restaurant's 4th Annual “Head to Tail” Dinner he whipped up candied cockscomb with cherries and rice pudding dessert.
Your best bet for finding combs would be to ask a chicken vendor at your local farmers market, though I'm sure a few Asian markets may have some packaged and ready for sale, or you can order them online through D’artagnan. Once you've purchased your combs, you'll need to clean them. Find a sewing needle and prick the combs all over, then submerge them in water and squeeze. This will help remove any remaining blood. Next you'll need to boil them, which will loosen the skin which will peel right off, much like skinning a tongue. From there you can start working with them much like you would tough cuts of meat, with braising tending to be the oft-used preparation method. They don't sport a lot of flavor, but the texture has been compared to gummy candy.
Chitterlings, the large intestine of pigs, are enjoyed throughout the world, but have some rather dark spots in their past here in the states, where they're also commonly known as chitlins. Back during America's colonial period, slave owners would often pass pig offal to their slaves in an attempt to minimize their expenditures. The slaves in turn would take these discarded parts and work some serious offal magic with them — but when it comes to chitterlings, that magic doesn't come easily. Chitterlings have a rather pungent smell (that's being kind) and need intensive cleaning — in fact, some people swear that good chitterlings are due to the cleaning, not the cooking. Over time, they have become a cornerstone of southern comfort food. In other countries chitterlings are used for dishes like Mexico's menudo, or Caribbean mondongo.
Chitterlings are fairly common in supermarkets in the south, though any good ethnic market should have some on hand. Usually they will already be cleaned, though not 100%, and cut into manageable sections. Special consideration should be given to making sure they are properly cleaned, as people have been rendered incredibly ill after eating unclean chitlins. They should have a pinkish-beige color to them, and can be sauteed, deep fried, roasted, poached or braised. The flavor is quite unique, and not everyone will be receptive to it, so I'll give you fair warning now. My personal favorite method of preparation is to braise them for long stretches of time with peppers, onions and garlic along with some apple cider vinegar until they're fork tender. Served with some corn bread and collard greens, they make for a fine southern dinner.
Did you work up an appetite? Here are a few recipes to get you started: