Though I’ve long been interested in the lesser-utilized animal parts schlepped in blue and white coolers to the Portland Farmer’s Market, I hadn’t intended on having lamb tongues in my freezer.
I had ordered a cow tongue from one of the market’s ranchers on a rainy Saturday morning, and had been fine with waiting the two weeks for the special request. I couldn’t expect them to bring every bit of offal, eyeball, and taste bud to the market every week. I thought I’d try my hand at some lengua sliders or lengua tacos and had been excited to finally buy some meat from the market. I can’t typically afford a whole chicken or prime steaks, and I figured that if I could find an affordable and delicious piece of meat from the best ranchers in the country, I could handle a slight stretch of my imagination and a little extra work.
On the agreed-upon day, I walked up and, no doubt with a goofy grin plastered on my face, greeted Dick Sexton and reminded him I’d ordered the tongue. He proceeded to pull out four tiny vacuum-packed frozen bits of… something.
I must have looked mighty confused because he said, “You did want lamb tongues, right? I didn’t think anyone would want just one, so I brought four of them.” After a very brief moment of consideration, I responded, “Nope! I wanted a beef tongue, but these will do just fine.” A little embarrassed about the confusion, he eagerly wrapped up my tongues in a brown paper bag, charged me less than three dollars, and asked me what I planned on doing with them. Smiling, I told him I had absolutely no idea.
For the rest of the market day I had a lot of fun showing off my purchases to the market staff, reveling in the combination of gross-out powers and foodie adventurism afforded by these next-to-free tongue popsicles. After cradling my prize back to my apartment, I threw the tongues in the freezer where they sat for a few weeks while I summoned the inspiration for a recipe and the courage to actually go through with it. Cooking tongues requires a strong stomach and a delicate touch, but with the right treatment they turn into tender morsels that taste like the platonic form of whatever animal they came from.
I settled on a recipe from Vitaly Paley from Paley’s Place that had been featured in Edible Portland a while back. It had far too many steps for my typical repertoire, but I was completely in the dark about what to do with my lambsicles and was willing to yield to a master.
The recipe wanted me to brine the tongues overnight in a spiced brine of kosher salt, sugar, a cinnamon stick, peppercorns, and bay leaves. I ended up throwing in a few tablespoons of mulling spices because I didn’t have a cinnamon stick, and I really like the flavor my brine gave the meat. After brining, the tongues got a low and slow poach in court bouillon (I used my standard broth method and added wine) for two hours before peeling.
And then it got intense.
Up until the peeling, you don’t really have to confront the fact that these are tongues, fully intact, with taste buds and connective tendons and saliva glands and a thick outer skin that feels, well, a lot like a tongue. When Vitaly asks you to “Trim and clean the tongues of gristle, fat and bone while the meat is still warm“ and use a paring knife to peel the outer skin from the inner meat, you do it, and you don’t look back. I won’t get all hackneyed and fall over myself about how I had a moment of connection with an animal that had a good life not far from town, and how for a tiny amount of cash money I was able to prepare some of the tastiest, most tender lamb I’ve ever made. Nope, none of that. It was actually pretty harrowing. Of course, as with any dramatic moment in my life, my camera, fitted with a macro lens, was near at hand.
After a rather tedious peeling session, which left me with a small pile of tongue sheddings, I dredged the tongues in spiced flour, then egg, then breadcrumbs I’d made by throwing a handful of rye crackers into the food processor. I’d pre-heated a cast iron pan with a half-inch of canola oil, and after that it was pretty smooth sailing. The tongues were fully cooked so it was just a matter of getting the breading golden and heated through. I’m not one to waste dredgings or oil, so I also battered some kale and fried up some greens and polenta (yum!).
I served these now-unrecognizable “lamb fingers” with a parsley aioli, and, if I may say so, felt pretty darn happy with myself. I braved my first battle with offal, and it was wonderfully tasty. If you’re feeling a bit adventurous and you don’t live with anyone who would disown you for storing a bucket of tongues in the fridge overnight, go talk to your local rancher and find out what little odd bits you can buy for a song. If you’re lucky, you’ll be given the wrong thing and have to get a little creative, and maybe a little freaked out, but it will be worth it.
Look! I did the whole post without a single tongue/offal/lamb pun! Now THAT’S an accomplishment.
PALEY'S CRISP PAN-FRIED LAMB TONGUE
From Vitaly Paley, Chef/Owner, Paley's Place
1 cup Kosher salt
1/4 cup sugar
4 qt cold water
1 2-inch cinnamon stick
5 bay leaves
1/4 cup black peppercorns
6 whole lamb tongues
1/2 bottle dry white wine
1 qt cold water
1 large carrot, chopped coarsely
1 whole onion, peeled
1 whole clove
1 tsp salt
1/4 cup black peppercorns
1 cup all-purpose flour
2 Tbsp smoky Spanish paprika
Pinch of cayenne
1 tsp sea salt
12 grindings black pepper
3 whole eggs
1 cup fine bread crumbs
2 cup grapeseed oil
To make the brine, select a large pot, add all the ingredients, and bring the liquid to a rolling boil. Shut the heat off and allow the mixture to cool to room temperature. Transfer the tongues to the container in which they will refrigerate, pour the brine over the meat, cover, and refrigerate for 24 hours.
The next day, prepare the court bouillon for poaching the tongues. Add equal parts water and wine to a 3-quart pot, add carrot, onion, clove, salt and pepper, and bring the liquid to a boil. Simmer for about 30 minutes to develop flavor. Slip the brined tongues into the poaching liquid and simmer gently for two hours. Discard the brining liquid. When a knife inserts easily into the meat, remove the tongues to a cutting board. To reuse the poaching liquid, strain and refrigerate; it will hold for about a week.
Trim and clean the tongues of gristle, fat and bone while the meat is still warm. Use a small paring knife to separate the outer membrane to reveal the inner meat. Set them aside.
To bread the tongues, arrange three small bowls side by side on the work surface. In the first bowl, sift together the flour, paprika, cayenne, salt, and pepper. Crack the eggs into the second bowl and beat them with a fork until frothy. Place the crumbs in the third bowl.
Pick up a tongue and dredge it evenly in the flour, then shake off the excess. Drop it into the egg bowl. Use the other hand to transfer it from the egg bowl to the crumb bowl. Once covered in crumbs, place the tongue on a wire rack. Repeat the breading process with the remaining pieces. To keep the flour and crumbs from clumping, use one hand for dry ingredients, the other for wet.
A 9-inch skillet should be large enough to hold all the tongues without crowding. Add 1/2 inch of oil and place the pan on high heat until the oil reaches 350 degrees. Lower the heat to medium-high, place the breaded tongues in the oil, and fry until they are uniformly golden, about 45 seconds to a minute. Turn the tongues, making sure the crumbs don't burn. When the desired color is achieved, transfer the tongues to a plate lined with a paper towel and immediately season with a light sprinkling of sea salt.
Place one tongue on a cutting board and slice it on the diagonal into finger-thick slices. Arrange the slices on a plate, and serve immediately.