Offal of the Week: Beef Tendon
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: Beef Tendon.
At this point in our offal journey, we've worked through the vast majority of the major organs and extremeties. But there are still plenty of parts of the animal that, while perhaps not as common to your average American, are in wide edible circulation elsewhere in the world. Like last week's chicken feet, this week's cut is yet another staple of Asian cuisine: Beef tendon.
Tendon is by definition, "a tough band of fibrous connective tissue that usually connects muscle to bone and is capable of withstanding tension." It's essentially cartilage, which means it's tough as hell and can be intimidating to the home cook (even the most fearless ones — don't feel bad about it). What Wikipedia doesn't tell you is that when properly prepared, tendon can be absolutely fantastic. Some people are even claiming that it's the new pork belly.
The main reason tendon has a shot at usurping the mighty belly from its lofty throne is its high collagen content. This means that when braised for a long time with a low heat, tendon becomes cut-with-a-spoon tender and fills the mouth with that rich, unctuous flavor that our tastebuds go bonkers for. As a matter of fact, up until very recently I had thought that there was a massive amount of fat connected to the tendons. I was then informed that what I thought was fat was actually part of the tendon, which just blew my mind. No wonder Anthony Bourdain heaps buckets of praise on it!
It's perplexing to me that so few cuisines have embraced tendon: when I broke out my offal related cookbooks, none of them talked about the cut, not even as a passing mention. Two ethnic cuisines that have been paying attention though, for many hundreds of years, are the Chinese and the Vietnamese. As a matter of fact, a lot of Americans got their first taste of tendon thanks to the popular Vietnamese soup and noodle dish known as Phở, where beef tendon is a popular (if occasionally "accidentally" left off the menu description) addition. Tendon is also fairly common at Dim Sum restaurants, marinated with lots of garlic, cooked until soft, and parading around with the name Suan Bao Niu Jin.
Now that you're jonesing for what could very well be the next culinary hot item (and even if this trend never takes off nationally, it should take off in your kitchen), head straight to your closest Asian market, or to a well stocked butcher. You won't be hurting your wallet, as beef tendon is pleasantly cheap. You might consider grabbing a few extra slabs to add to your stock pot (the depth of flavor it would add to beef or veal stock is immeasurable) or you could throw them into the freezer, as tendon can stand the frigid environment for about a month before you'll need to toss it. If you're keeping the tendon in the fridge, make sure to use the cut within three days.
Preparation is simple enough. Plunge the tendons you'd like to work with into a pot of boiling water for a short period of time to purge any residual blood. From there, most recipes call for hours and hours of braising. And we're talking hours: some restaurants let their tendon simmer away for seven hours or more. The longer the braise, the softer the texture. Two to three hours will give you something that is a close approximation to tough—but tasty—Jell-o, and the longer you go the softer the Jell-o effect will be.
Now's the chance for you to make a few tendon recipes so you can say you were working with it before it got popular and you have to pretend to be totally over it: