Tuesday, 23 June 2009

Nose to Tail Tuesday (N3T) - Brains

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single foodstuff in possession of good batter can be rendered not just palatable, but delicious through the simple action of deep-frying.

So said Jane Austen in Pride and Prejudice.

I think. Or something along those lines anyway.

But it is a fair argument. Golden batter can hide a multitude of sins, provide a satisfying crunch to an otherwise flabby ingredient and even impart its own magical flavours.

It’s a culinary sleight of hand used the world over from the feather-light tempura of Japan to the more, ahem, heavyweight Scottish offerings (deep-fried kebab meat pizza, anyone? And is it wrong that I find that slightly alluring?).

My old boss once told me of a dinner he enjoyed after a long day’s trek through a mountainous region of the States. In the mood for seafood, he ordered a large plate of Rocky Mountain Oysters.

They arrived not on the half shell as expected, but a steaming mound of golden brown delights, fresh from the deep fat fryer, just the right size to pop into the mouth.

It was only after eating half the portion that his colleague informed him they were not the salty molluscs he thought, but rather the inevitable leftovers of the messy business of cattle castration.

‘Quite tasty,’ he relayed to me, almost romantically.

It was this approach I thought best when contemplating the prospect of eating, for the first time, brain.

The menu tete de porc is gradually taking shape. It needs some work, some gentle refining before it is unleashed upon intrepid diners but it is mostly good.

One course, however, will not make it onto the final bill of fayre.

Removing the brain from the head of a pig is a chore of such magnitude that the final result would have to be rapturously delicious and close to orgasmic in order to make the task worthwhile. It is far from being either of these things. About as far away as it is possible to be.

After stripping the head of the cheeks, ears and snout you are left with something that resembles a science project. What then follows is an hour of finely tuned sawing, cleaving, chipping and brute force in order to remove its contents.

Which are surprisingly small. A disappointing fact at first sight but one that I grew grateful of very quickly when eating time came around.

A pig’s brain is about the size of a large duck egg. Before eating it must be soaked in water for at least 24 hours and then gently poached for about ten minutes. You can use plain old water with a splash of vinegar but we used chicken stock.

What emerges is something that looks like, well, it looks like a brain. There is no getting away from that fact: those familiar little lobes with the swirling labyrinthine pattern twisting across their pale surface.

Each hemisphere was sliced into three, dipped into batter (made with plain flour and ginger beer seasoned with salt, pepper and cayenne) and then deep fried in sunflower oil and suet for about two minutes.

They looked great. Appetising little nibbles whose true origins had been thoroughly and carefully disguised.

My dining partner on this occasion was a chef, also in possession of an adventurous and willing palate. ‘Batter looks good,’ he mused in an attempt to distract us both from its contents.

The small portion was taken outside along with some homemade mayonnaise, plenty of water and a pinch of bravado.

Sitting opposite each other in unintentional gladiatorial style, we each picked up a piece of battered brain and took a bite.

It is not necessary for something to taste actively bad in order to be unpleasant. Texture plays a major role in how we enjoy food. Few westerners enjoy the sticky, glutinous quality of many Asian delicacies such as Natto, made from fermented soybeans.

In that respect brain is unpleasant. Deeply so. What little flavour there is, is not nice. Faintly eggy but not strong enough in of itself to warrant being labelled disgusting.

But the texture of brain is what made us wince. Hard to pin down we tried to find a foodstuff with which to compare it to. The uncooked top of an inadequately fried egg. The slight ickiness of a cloying curdled milk product. Yoghurt that has gone flying far, far beyond its best before date.

It’s somewhere ethereal beyond liquid but stopping short of being solid and it disappeared in the mouth in an alarming fashion, almost flooding the palate with its bizarre nature. The brief respite of the batter only accentuated the downright unpleasantness of what was inside.

We ate another, with slightly more mayonnaise and slightly less gusto in order to galvanise our findings hoping that having removed the shock and awe factor, our second taste wouldn’t be clouded with prejudice. But prejudice merely gave way to knowledge and expectation. I’m not sure if it was better or worse. There was certainly no pride.

The remaining two nuggets were dissected and picked apart in order to pin down what the texture was like but we were still left without an adequate comparison.

A truth universally acknowledged? There is an exception that proves every rule and brain is the one.

Verdict? Brain has made the list. The. List. The list of foods I will happily go a lifetime without tasting again. It has happy company along with tinned tuna and hundred year egg. Don’t try this at home.


Eat Pictures said...

Thank you for your highly courageous culinary scouting, and the most entertaining report back to the troops.
We won't go there.

Hopie said...

Wow, I won't be trying that. But I do love the image of the two of you in a brain-tasting face-off! (Enter dramatic music.) I'm not sure what Jane Austen would think though ;-)

Anikó said...

My family in Hungary always have their own pigs which will be slaughtered in late winter. Once when we were there that time my uncle gave some deep-fried cubes to taste (I was 10 or something like that). Afterwards they told me it was brain, but like for you: strange consistence, not much taste. Even without knowing what I was eating it was clear to me that I would never eat something like that again.
But you have my deepest respect for preparing it yourself from the whole head!

slow-1 said...

How can something sooooo gross look so tasty? hehe.

The Italian Dish said...

Boy, I just can't go there. But my hat's off to you! Great read.

Christopher Pepe said...

I was so excited and quickly saddened by your experience. I have loved every chance I've had to enjoy this rare treat and I'm sorry you didn't. I've only worked with lambs and they are easier to split but the texture and delicate flavor of brains is divine. Our typical presentation is pan fried with onions, kidneys, heart, lungs, liver, and the other offal I bother saving.

I do hope you try it again - check out chris cosentino's recipe: http://www.offalgood.com/site/blog/recipes/brains

Alternatively scramble brains with eggs. That's another classic.

Evelyn said...

I would be afraid to eat pig brain for health reasons. I am a pretty hearty carnivore, but I have heard that neuro-tissue can be problematic, and pig in particular would worry me, more than lamb. But I hope there will be no such concerns.

Alex said...

I've not tried pig brain but have eaten (& enjoyed) lamb brain before. I find it very similar in texture to sweetbreads (which I really like).

It could well be one of those things that the same part from different animals elicits a different response - so I'd give lamb's brain a go if you get the chance!

L said...

I never liked eating pork, so avoiding the pig's brain is no problem for me.

Maybe it's a little bit like tofu and it needs to absorb some flavor before acquiring a pleasant taste. But since the texture, as you have mentioned, is so..unpleasant, perhaps dicing the brain and preparing it so that it is not the sole 'star' of the dish would make the jelly(?)-like texture more bearable.

Just Cook It said...

Eat Pictures - It's a pleasure. Glad to be of service!

Hopie - It would have made for some fantastic footage, that's for sure.

Aniko - Fantastic story. And thank you

Slow-1 - I know. I was expecting something delicious. Or at least palatable

The Italian Dish - Thanks very much

Christopher - I've heard that lamb's brains have a different texture and are much better. Maybe it's worth trying them to get a balanced opinion...Thanks for the tip

Evelyn - I know there has been some concern over calves' brains but I hadn't heard such things about pork. Nevertheless, I don't think I'll be having them again

Alex - Yes, the uncooked brain definitely had a sweetbread texture (and I really like sweetbreads) but once cooked they dissolved into something unpleasant. Maybe you're right about lamb

Leslie - Funny you should say that. James, the chef who was my fearless dining partner, thought that a parfait might be a good way to prepare them. Perhaps something to bear in mind

rich (them apples) said...

Well, that's put me off my lunch.

Sylvie said...

Well, you're definitely braver than me!

My mum says they used to fight over the brains on slaughtering days when she was a child. Growing up on a farm during wartime must have made for a quite an unprejudiced palate I guess. To be fair to her though, she does say that these days she would be at the back of the queue hoping for it to go before it was her turn.

baobabs said...

Wow, you're a brave one. Even after living in China for over two years, I still can't bring myself to stomach organs and weird parts.

Lauralee P said...

I can't believe how gross that picture of the brain was!

Laura said...

I ate brain. Once. As in one and only time. Your description of the consistency still makes me cringe. I somehow think of pus when I think of brain, not sure why. No liquid but not solid either. I assume the only reason I tried it was because my beloved grandmother offered it to me and I didn't want to show her that I was weak.

Great job describing the culinary adventure as always.

Unknown said...

Firstly, in honor of your Jane Austen comment, from Pride and Prejudice and Zombies- "It is a truth universally acknowledged that a zombie in possession of brains must be in want of more brains."

Secondly, ick. On many levels. Ick. I find the brain response here an interesting one. In Soul of a Chef Michael Ruhlman waxes lyrical about Calf's Brain with a Brown Butter-Sherry Vinegar sauce. Perhaps it was the pig's brain that has such a high-ick factor. Or maybe it was the fact that Thomas Keller was cooking that made it truly delectable. I don't know. I've never tasted brain, so I don't think I'll be much help to you.

I think I might be babbling.

Ryan said...

You should seriously try this again with lamb brains. I can't recommend them enough.

dp said...

Happy coincidence! I'm reviewing a Hmong cookbook that has a recipe for pig brain pate that looks promising (for you, not for me :-). And the texture may not be an issue when served this way. At least if it turns out terrible and you swear yourself off pig brains forever, you can say you gave it a fair chance. Let me know if you'd like the recipe.

Just Cook It said...

Sorry about that, Rich. Not intentional, I guarantee

Sylvie - Not so sure about brave. Stupid, perhaps, but not brave.

Baobobs - It is quite a hurdle to leap over but once you do, there's little that can quell the desire of an adventurous palate

Lee Beth - A brain is definitely and unmistakably brain like.

Thanks Laura. I'm with you on that one. Very odd consistency

Hayley - I would definitely eat brain prepared by Keller. Been meaning to read that book for ages

Ryan - You're not the first to say that. I might seek them out

DP - go on then, send it over. I'm intrigued/

Helen said...

Wow. You are brave. I couldn't do it. I've tried most things but brains. Nah. It sounds awful. I almost retched when you were telling that story about the not quite liquid not quite solid.

Hollow Legs said...

That sound awful, but made for a very interesting and amusing post! I love strange textured foods (being from an Asian background), so I have a feeling I'd probably like it...

theundergroundrestaurant said...


saltychickenfiend said...

Ha ha ha ha, just found this post through the "you might like this" section at the end of your other posts – the Jane Austen style intro cracked me up.

You are a brave, brave gastronome. They look gross. Well done for giving it a go though!

Jo said...

When I lived in the north of Thailand, some of the market stalls sold a dish which was minced pig's brain, combined with a spice paste, made in to very flat little square cakes, wrapped in banana leaves and barbecued. It was probably one of the most delicious things I've eaten. So I guess it all depends on what you do with the ingredients. I've got a recipe for a similar thing just with ordinary pork, though I haven't got round to trying it yet.

hannah @ bake 5 said...

hi, im speechless.