When I started telling people I had bought a beef tongue from Clancey’s Meats here in Minneapolis, the range of reactions I received was mixed. A couple people had tried tongue and liked it, but only in the context of Mexican-style restaurants that include it as a meat option for tacos. Several people turned up their nose in disgust at the mere thought of eating tongue. “Ugh… imagine those little bumps. I couldn’t. I just couldn’t.”
However, the vast majority of the folks I spoke with had tried it and hated it, and then went on to describe horror stories from childhood – a gray boiled tongue forever linked to memories of dinners with a grandmother, a dare instigated by one’s crazy uncle, or in one case, a pan-seared tongue roast that was toothily impregnable.
I can’t say I can remember ever eating tongue – certainly never growing up (my mother would never have let it in the house). But I’m fairly sure I have eaten it once in the last few years, though clearly it wasn’t a terribly memorable experience. However, in keeping with this week’s focus on whole animal butchering and the state of the butcher in America, I wanted to explore this long lost staple of the family menu.
Tongue was a cheap cut of beef, which, like many cheap cuts, required some help and thoughtful preparation to make it palatable (no pun intended). In the category of offal – tongue was almost as popular as kidneys, though certainly more popular than brains, heart, eyes, palate, etc. More often than not, it would be prepared in the same way as brisket – boiled with vegetables as in a New England Boiled Dinner, corned, or boiled then roasted. Today, it’s a bit difficult to find, as it is usually scrapped by meat processors. Another reason to worship your local whole animal butcher if you’re lucky enough to have one.
I must imagine that the reason the majority of folks who have tried tongue have disliked it is either because it was prepared poorly (which is easy to do), or that they couldn’t get past the idea of eating a tongue. When done correctly, the flavor is distinctly beefy as much as any roast or steak. The texture – which doesn’t include the little bumps so many fear, because it is meant to be skinned before it is served – is soft and buttery. This recipe in particular is reminiscent in flavor to corned beef, but lacks the coarse fibers one inevitably encounters with brisket.
With all the ways tongue can be made wrong, there are a few ground rules for preparing it well.
1) Tongue can come fresh (most popularly found), pickled/corned, or smoked. Regardless of the tongue, though, good recipes encourage you to soak the tongue in fresh cold water for at least an hour or overnight before cooking it. This helps “freshen” it – it regains some of it’s original color and brings it back to something of it’s original ‘pertness,’ if you will.
2) Tongue really does benefit from a long, slow cooking. Consider the poor man whose mother used to serve pan-seared tongue roast. The muscle would have seized and been nearly impossible to chew. Older recipes for tongue would sometimes call for the dutch oven to be put to the fire early in the morning for an evening meal. Today, a slow cooker will do quite nicely, or as in the case of the recipe below, a pressure cooker.
3) When you buy tongue, it will often be the full tongue that you see when the animal opens it’s mouth, plus the muscle/tendon that reaches to the back of the palate. If this is the case, you’ll want to trim off the thick, hard part at the base. Don’t trim too much, as there is quite a lot of fine meat at this base. Mine came a bit more than pre-trimmed, with only the visible part of the tongue being sold. The average beef tongue will be about 3-4 pounds. Lamb, pork, and venison tongues are considerably smaller.
4) After it is boiled – whether it will be served immediately or roasted, it needs to be skinned while it is hot. If you don’t, it will shrink in the skin and twist in a really grotesque manner. Removing the skin is quite simple – it peels right off with a sharp knife.
I had many recipes to choose from when I sat down to prepare this. I ultimately settled on two – one for the preparation of the tongue, the other for the sandwiches I would make from it. The former comes from M.F.K. Fisher’s With Bold Knife and Fork. As I’ve mentioned, James Beard’s portrait hangs above my stove to keep watch over my pots. Only slightly behind Beard, Fisher is one of my favorite American food writers. This particular recipe is referred to in her essay “The Trouble with Tripe,” on the delights and squeamish-ness surrounding offal. It originally appeared in the November 2, 1968 issue of The New Yorker. I admit to choosing Fisher’s recipe not only because I admire her, but also because I trusted it being more suited to contemporary tastes. Made alone, it can be served as is, or thrown into the broiler to crisp the outside. However, I decided to take it a step further.
The second recipe is a classic recipe for preparing beef tongue sandwiches, which used to be a savory staple on any tea sandwich platter. It comes from François Tanty’s 1893 manual La Cuisine Française: French Cooking for Every Home, Adapted to American Requirements. Tanty studied under the famous 19th century chef Careme. He was head chef to Napoleon III and the Czar of Russia. He came to the United States in 1890, and collaborated on this manual with his son, who was responsible for the translation. Riding one of the many waves when French cuisine was popular in America, the book sold out several prints, and was eventually expanded to twice it’s length with the addition of pastries and breads. There is nothing particularly magic about this recipe – the mustard butter spread was commonly found in any cook’s repertoire, so common it was rarely written down. It is creamy, with a bit of kick from the mustard and cayenne that almost resembles a nice horseradish. Of course, it works best with soft butter, so do plan ahead if you keep your butter in the fridge.
Below is my friend Steve who assisted me with cooking and photo-taking… he couldn’t resist. Halloween was just around the corner, after all.
ELSA’S SUMMER TONGUE
Adapted from M.F.K. Fisher, “The Trouble with Tripe” (1968)
1 fresh beef tongue
1 cup white wine vinegar
1/2 cup broth
1/2 cup brown sugar
5 bay leaves
5 peppercorns, slightly crushed
In a bowl, leave tongue covered in cold water for at least an hour. Drain, and place on the rack inside a pressure cooker, curling it if necessary. Add liquids, sugar and spices. The liquid should half-way cover the tongue. Depending on the size of your pressure cooker, you may need to add more broth, vinegar or simply add water to make the difference. Bring to high pressure (15 psi) and then reduce heat to maintain pressure. Cook for 1 and 1/2 hours, beginning timing when cooker reaches 15 psi. Skin tongue while hot, and trim the thick end if needed. Put back into juice until cool.
François Tanty, La Cuisine Française (1893)
For 10 sandwiches:
Tongue………. 1 lb
Butter………… 5 tbsp
Mustard……… 1 tbsp [Use ground mustard. Coleman’s if you can.]
Salt & Pepper…… To taste
Cayenne pepper.. A little
Bread……………… 20 slices [A nice white loaf, sliced thinly, preferably.]
PREPARATION: Make a dressing by mixing 5 tablespoonfuls butter with 1 tablespoonful mustard, salt and pepper to suit the taste, a little cayenne pepper. Trim the crust from 20 slices bread, butter them with the dressing, and lay between every two some slices of cold tongue. [The tongue should be sliced as thinly as possible.]