Offal of the Week: Lungs
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: Lungs.
I've eaten my fair share of unusual animal parts, sourcing many of them through friends and contacts. I can tell you right now where to find, among other things, fresh pork uterus and goose intestines. But one organ has eluded me, continues to elude me, and probably will elude me for the foreseeable future: lungs. While the rest of the world enjoys (allegedly delicious) lungs in a wide variety of preparations, here in America they are impossibly hard to find.
How is it that such an important organ has fallen by the wayside? Way back in 1971, lungs were declared unfit for human consumption by the U.S. Wholesale Meat Act. While as organs go they are a bit lacking in the vitamin department, lungs contain more protein than a T-Bone steak while sporting only 6% of the fat. At this point I could go into a long tirade about how out of touch the American government is with food production and our country's nutritional needs, but if you're reading this you probably already know all about it. Instead I'll make us all jealous by looking at how the rest of the world makes use of such a plentiful and extraordinarily cheap cut of meat.
The truly global lung
In Europe, the lung is embraced with no trepidation. The French like to poach lungs before frying them with onions, tomatoes, and a wine sauce. Italians use calf lungs in dish with kidney beans called, creatively, "Polmoni di vitello con fagioli." In Hungary they boil and saute them with spicy paprika and fresh vegetables. Germans make a curried stew with calf lungs, hearts, onions and rice. Lamb lungs are used to make a special Greek Easter soup called Mageiritsa. The most famous (or infamous, depending on how you look at it) use of sheep lungs—or, as they are known there, lights—is their inclusion in Scotland's "Great chieftain o' the puddin' race," more commonly known as haggis. Lungs are also a staple of Asian cuisine, used in soups, stews, and sautees with as many variations as you might find for more traditional cuts of beef.
But here in the U.S., lungs are hardly used at all. I've had real troubles finding a source for lungs due to their currently illegal status. For the first time in my offal career, my local Asian market — my go-to place for unconventional meats — failed me, with the men working behind the meat counter actually laughing when I asked for lungs. I called a butcher in the area to inquire and he asked what was wrong with me. One meat processing market told me over the phone that they could sell me sheep lungs, but upon arrival I was informed that the government inspector had shown up that day and they had to throw the lungs away. To get lungs, it seems, you either need to know a guy that knows a guy, or have donated a kidney to a butcher (and not the cooking kind).
If you get them, how to make them
If you do have the good fortune to get your hands on lungs (and cow, calf, lamb, or sheep will do), you'll want to make sure they are supremely fresh, and they should be cooked within two days of purchase. Because I've never been able to get any myself, my experience with the organ is limited to mental exercise. My theoretically preferred method of preparation is from Calvin W. Schwabe's fantastically useful book, which was used extensively in the writing of this update, Unmentionable Cuisine (buy on Amazon): "Beat the lungs with a mallet or flat side of a cleaver to expel most of the air. Trim out the main bronchi and cartilaginous parts."
From there, lungs can be used like any other meat. To gain an insight on taste and texture of lungs, I went to perhaps one of the most traveled gourmands around, Andrew Zimmern. Zimmern told me that cooked lungs have a texture "like an elegant pot roast," and suggested that the best place to look for them stateside is at a Halal market. But for true lung aficionados, Zimmern advises making your way to Germany: "German Sour Lung soup served at the Hofbrau Haus in Berchtesgaden is the best lung dish on the planet, nothing else even comes close."
If you're dead set on cooking with lungs, I wish you the best of luck on finding them — and hope you'll share! Here are a few recipes to get you started:
Easter Soup / Mageiritsa
Spicy Asian Noodle Lung Soup
Gusita Sau Drob De Miel (Lamb Pudding)