“If you’re going to kill the animal it seems only polite to use the whole thing”, says Fergus Henderson in his award winning 1999 book “Nose to Tail Eating: A Kind of British Cooking”. It deals with the philosophy of using the whole animal and not just the prime cuts. In today’s conscious society, aimed at protecting the environment, this holistic approach to ingredients seems extremely relevant.
Chicken feet are a staple of the Chinese yum cha tradition. Chitterlings or pig intestines are eaten all over Latin America and considered a delicacy. Tripe, the lining of the stomach of ruminants like cows, can be used to make a variety of soups all over Eastern Europe. The list goes on, and they go on to show how a little ingenuity can change our views about these unusual animal parts.
Some cuts of the animal are obviously prized: the tenderloin of beef, the breast of chicken, the fillet of fish. However, it forms a tiny part of the entire animal, and if we use just that, a lot of potentially usable parts of the animal go to waste. To see how we can use them to their full potential, let’s consider a few examples.
Let’s start with the tough cuts of meat: the oxtail, the beef cheek, the pork belly, the lamb shank. These cuts have a lot of fat and connective tissue in them, unlike the more expensive cuts like tenderloin. However, cook them low and slow with spices and herbs and you can make an amazing braise, and all that collagen breaks down into gelatin and creates an incredibly complex dish with a luscious mouthfeel. Cook lamb shanks right and this tough, resilient cut of meat will melt in your mouth.
One of the most famous “waste elements” of the animal are the organ meats, called offal. Liver and heart, brain and testicle, these are usually parts we either throw away or at best, eat with much hesitation. But a lot can be done with them. Chicken livers can be used to make a delicious pate. Brains, if cooked correctly, have luscious, almost custardy texture. Try frying some brains coated in panko breadcrumbs and you have a delicious treat, crunchy on the outside and tender on the inside. Certain offal dishes like foie gras (goose liver) and sweetbread (pancreas or thymus of a calf or lamb) have attained gourmet status.
Instead of discarding the bones, you could use them to make a stock, which can be used as the base of numerous other dishes including soups, sauces and curries. The same applies to fish and shellfish. After retrieving the precious fillets of salmon or the prized lobster claws, chuck the bones and shells in a pot of water with some vegetables, spices and herbs to create a delicious seafood stock, the basis for French classics like lobster bisque and bouillabaisse. You can save the skin, put it between two baking sheets and chuck it in the oven. You’ll end up with a wafer-thin crisp that can provide a textural crunch and lovely flavour to any seafood dish. The same can be done with pork skin to make super crisp and flavourful pork crackling.
People in the West usually discard the fish head, whose appearance is off-putting to many. But fish heads too can be used in making a delicious fish stock. In Bengal, where fish plays a central role in cooking, the head is an incredibly prized part. The head and gills are rubbed with salt and turmeric and fried in mustard oil, which infuses the already flavourful oil with a delicious fishiness. This punchy, flavoured oil can now be used to make vegetable dishes and lentils. The fried head and gills are then broken into smaller chunks, and added at the very end. It is an ingenious way of making full use of the fish.
This no-waste approach to food applies not only to animals, but also to plants. Beetroot leaves work really well in a salad. Coriander stalks are full of flavour and great in stocks. A lot of Bengali dishes use vegetable skins, peels and stalks to their full potential. Not only is it a practical way of dealing with the ingredients, these commonly discarded parts are very rich in nutrients, which we tend to discard.
You could make a simple bhaja or fry, using the skins of potato or bottle gourd. Or you could take it a step further to make a charchari, a fiery combination of vegetables and spices. Peels of unripe banana, skins of bottle gourd, stalks of cauliflower; anything can be used to make a charchari. “A well-cooked charchari, dry, sharp and biting, is the test of a competent cook”, says Minakshi Das in “The Calcutta Cookbook”.
Tough cuts and organ meats are not only cheap, they ensure that all parts of the animal are judiciously utilised. A lot can be done with all those bones, skins and peels we throw away without a second thought. In today’s era of food shortage, we cannot afford to cherry-pick, and indeed, we should not. Instead, we should learn to respect our ingredients and utilise them to their full potential.