Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Will 2009 be an offal year?

I was surprised offal didn’t make the National Restaurant Association’s list of what chefs foresee as next year’s hot menu items. Surprised, but not exactly disappointed.

Certainly the trends suggest we’ll see more internal organs showing up on menus. Maybe not a McGizzard Happy Meal, but perhaps a beef liver steak or a calf’s heart, as famed New York butcher Stanley Lobel has predicted. He’s noted that innards have the two hallmarks of a winning menu item, whether you’re talking about French fries, fried chicken, or a pork shank David Burke popularized at Maloney & Porcelli: The food cost is low, and the cooking process is something the public isn’t likely to undertake at home. Offal is often tougher than muscle meat, and hence requires more prep and cook time, according to Lobel. Yet butchers often regard it as scrap, so it’s available in large quantities at bargain prices.

Benchmark Hospitality, an operator of upscale hotels, noted a few other positives in issuing its predictions of 2009’s likely buzz makers. “Bold flavors are sizzling hot right now, as is the willingness to experiment,” it explained. “American Chefs are just discovering that offal, when applied to a dish correctly, creates the 'Food of the Gods,’” as internal-organ meat was apparently known at one time to European chefs. The company picked the embrace of offal dishes as its Number Three culinary trend for next year.

My own attitude toward edible innards has always been mixed at best. Growing up, sautéed chicken hearts—served with a rich gravy on rice—ranked among my favorite dinners. But then there were those therapy-ensuring days when my parents indulged in calf’s brains, served whole in a soup bowl. The dinner table was just one mad scientist away from becoming “B” horror movie set, where a wire basket would go over one set of brains, another over my head, and a huge electronic switch would be thrown to commence the transfer.

I’ve not had much trouble with offal since, though I did falter on the first occasion I was served marrow. A chunk of bone was presented upright on a plate, prompting me to look for a beloved golden retriever we’d feed serially in some arcane Old English ritual. But the tiny fork next to it provided the telling clue. The delicacy wasn’t exactly a white-truffles pizza, and I’m not sure it even technically counts as offal, but I’m at peace with it.

There are some dishes made with animals’ internal organs that I’m dying to try. Acquaintances who’ve tried chittlings swoon when they recall the experience, which appears to be a rare one indeed. I’ve been sternly warned never to try a frozen version, and the real deal—the delicate meat inside a pig’s intestines, served fresh—apparently requires too much labor to be found often in restaurants or homes today.

But other types of offal? It’s not that I’m against them. But many of the other foods predicted to surge in popularity next year are far likelier to make me a convert. Peruvian food, for instance, and a class of drinks that’s been cited again and again in recent days as a Next Big Thing, albeit with different labels. The best one seems to be “green drinks,” or libations featuring organic and less-refined ingredients, like cane sugar.

Thanks to Laura Hber of Croc’s 19th Street Bistro in Virginia Beach, I’ve even signed up to learn of green-drink outings in New York City. I’ll be sure to let you know if organic hangovers have anything over the garden variety.

In the meantime, if you know of a New York restaurant that serves fresh chittlings, please let me know.

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