10 September 2009

Khorak-e zaban — or, how about some tongue?

I knew, when I launched this project, that I'd be exposed to some things I'd rarely (or never) cooked, or even eaten. Heck, that's what I was hoping for; it's sort of the point of the exercise.

Nevertheless, despite the excitement about the prospect of the new, there's still the intimidation factor. Any time one attempts something one hasn't done before, there's the prospect of making mistakes and falling square on one's ass. Some of the recipes would be no sweat; for example, I've made lots of omelettes and frittate, and a kuku isn't all that different. But other recipes require me to handle ingredients I've never cooked, to wield my knife in ways I've never experienced.

I was aware of that going in, so I planned to mix things up: do something easy, and follow with something difficult. I wouldn't let the daunting tasks pile up and loom; I wanted to knock them off here and there, building up the confidence bank and then spending it along the way. Which leads me to this, the third outing in my Persian cooking adventure.

So what's my ingredient? Here's a hint:

Moo.That's right: beef tongue.

Now, this is not to say I've never eaten tongue before. I have, fairly often. It's delicious, an underrated and underrepresented item on the American menu. I don't remember the first time I had it, but I know it was in a "classic" context, either a deli sandwich or a roadside taco, one of the places you're "supposed" to have it. Now, if I'm in a restaurant I trust, and I see tongue as an option, I'm as likely as not to choose it. I know people can react to the thought of eating tongue with squeamishness, but it doesn't deserve that response at all. Cooked properly, it's richly flavorful, and tender like butter.

But while I've eaten lots of tongue, I had not, prior to this day, actually cooked it.

Just to be clear, I didn't really expect the cooking, in the sense of the application of heat, to be much of a challenge. Tongue is a tough muscle, which means long, low, and slow, usually a braise, to break down the tissues and make it tender instead of rubbery. When I've asked restaurant chefs about their approach to the ingredient, they've consistently described cooking times of three to five hours. That, obviously, is pretty straightforward; just set it up and relax, keeping half an eye on things during the process.

No, the challenge here would be in the idiosyncrasies of the tongue's preparation. The base of the tongue (where it was attached in the mouth) has lots of weird little cartilagey bits, possibly including shards of bone. The tongue is also covered in a layer of skin, which needs to be "peeled" at some point. I know some people are already shuddering; it's bad enough to think about eating a tongue, but to imagine peeling it first, that might be too much to ask. Peeling a banana, no problem; but peeling meat? For some, that's just strange. Me, the only strange part is that I'd never done it before, so I wasn't sure what to expect.

Let's get to it, shall we?

The basic preparation in New Food of Life is essentially a stew, flavored with mushrooms and tomatoes, plus yogurt. Here's the ingredient lineup.

I'm using a mix of red onion and shallot, because that's what I had in the pantry. The little bowl in the middle is leftover diced shallot from cooking breakfast a day or two before. The tomatoes are a mix of heirloom varieties, picked up by the Princess on a visit to the farmer's market. The spice jars contain bay leaf and whole clove.

And, of course, there, on the left side, are the tongues.

Here's a closeup:

Tongue: the taste that tastes you back!

To begin, I prep my ingredients: slice the onions, chop the garlic, measure the spices, and eyeball the tongue with trepidation, wondering what surprises it will hold in store over the next couple of hours. I'm briefly thankful that my anxiety is private, that there's nobody else in the kitchen to observe me and talk about it, and then I remember that the tongue is one of the primary organs of speech, and if any ingredient is capable of talking, it's this one. I mean, it's not as if we describe gossipy people as wagging their kumquats.

For reassurance, I remind myself that I'm using a bad-ass knife.

Ooo, shiny.

So: preliminary ingredients done, everything goes into a big pot.

This first stage, basically, is doing two things: First, we're cooking the tongues, of course. But we're also making a meat broth, which the recipe says is to be reserved, and (partly) used for the sauce. Stocks and broths, I've made plenty of times; but in my experience, when you're done, you've cooked most or all of the flavor out of your base protein (chicken carcasses, shrimp shells, veal bones, etc), and you can get rid of it. It's not very often to have something that infuses its taste into the cooking water and is kept for eating on its own. Quite a testament to the rich flavor of tongue, yes?

Anyway, an hour and a half later, I'm looking at this:

Notice the hard white shell-like layer. That's the skin, which needs to be peeled, as described above. And here, just for giggles, is a close view of one of the grodier bits. Check out these little rubber spikes — they look like something you're not supposed to drive over at the entrance or exit of the parking lot.

(It's the weirdo stuff like this, I imagine, that turns a lot of people away from working with the more exotic ingredients.)

New Food of Life calls for three and a half hours of cooking time for beef tongue, the skin to be removed at the end. However, in Googling tongue preparation, I note a definite divergence of opinion on the timing of the skin-removal step: Most experts suggest that the tongue should be cooked partway, then peeled, and then returned to the pot to finish cooking. Others, however, differ, and hold to the New Food of Life recommendation to peel at the end. Why? Nobody explains their reasoning, one way or the other.

Since I've eaten tongue before, though, I expect a fairly soft texture to the meat when I'm done, and I can imagine it might be easier to work with an only-partly-cooked piece of meat than one that's fully cooked. After all, it's easier to peel an apple than a tomato. On the other hand, as far as I know, once the tongue is fully cooked, the skin might slip right off, like a sock. None of the reference sites I found, unfortunately, provides any justification for the differing methods.

So, I make a command decision to depart slightly from the book, and I pull the tongues from the pot for a quick cooling bath.

I give them a couple of minutes — I don't want to cool them off completely, because they're going back into the pot to finish cooking; I just want them safe enough to handle — and then move them to the cutting board.

I have to say, skinning the tongue is one of the weirder things I've done in the kitchen. It doesn't really behave the way you'd expect it to: the skin comes fairly easy off the top, but adheres stubbornly to the sides and underneath, forcing me to shave more than peel. I also find myself poking around in the base of the tongue — oh, okay, let's call it what it is, the stump — finding more and more little pockets of gristle and warm, greasy goo. As that goo leaks across my fingers, knife, and cutting board, the tongues start to get slippery and hard to handle.

All told, it takes me about forty-five minutes to bring both tongues to what seems to me to be an acceptably clean state:

That's unexpected time I will regret later, in terms of delaying dinner. With experience, I'm sure I could do this a lot faster, knowing how the skin behaves under the knife, and where all the unwanted bits are lurking. Still, when I looked at the clock, I was surprised and dismayed at the elapsed time. The recipe says preparation time should take 20 minutes; that's just not realistic for even a modestly seasoned cook. Something to bear in mind.

Anyway, the tongues go back into the pot for another couple of hours, giving me some leisurely time to prepare the rest of my ingredients.

Mushrooms first. I'm not much for repetitive tasks, but I actually enjoy slicing up a big pile of mushrooms. Must be the earthy-foresty scent.

And then the tomatoes.

Just look at the color of these. Beautiful. Night and day from the blandly orange interiors of your typical supermarket hothousers.

Finally the timer goes off, and I pull the tongues out of their broth.

The smell of the kitchen is amazing. It's sort of like a hearty beef stew, but with this wild undercurrent: not gamey, exactly; maybe primal. I've got another half hour to forty minutes before I can serve dinner, and my mouth is already watering.

I carefully slice the tongues into medallions, holding them gingerly with my fingertips because those suckers are hot.

Now I get to saute the veg for the sauce. I know from experience that cooking mushrooms can be a little finicky; they have a lot of moisture, and reduce a lot in the pan. However, if you overcrowd them, they give up that moisture in the form of steam, which interferes with browning, which is where the flavor comes from. If you have a small pan, you need to cook your mushrooms in batches; you can't just pile them in, or you'll wind up with shrunken, tasteless blobs.

Fortunately, I am not restricted to a small pan. Time to bust out this bad boy.

It's sort of hard to tell, perspective-wise, just how big that is, so here's my ten-inch chef's knife laid across the bottom.

Honey Comb's big, yeah yeah yeah; it's not small, no no no.

(By the way: The pan was a gift from my mother. I'm extremely picky about my kitchen gear, so I had a moment, or more than a moment, of ugly ingratitude about it. I subjected my family to a lecture about what separates a good pan from a bad pan, and I expressed some skeptical hope, if that makes sense, about whether this pan would measure up. I later found that this pan is made extremely well, distributing heat evenly and efficiently, and that there was no reason for me to be such a dick about it. And even if there was reason, even if the pan was a piece of junk, I was still being a dick. I apologized to my mother, and quietly resolved, in similar future situations, to keep my concerns to myself. I'm apologizing again now. Sorry, Mom. I love the pan; it's perfect for applications exactly like this one.)

We start with some butter:

Brown the onions a bit:

And then add the mushrooms.

Notice that the mushrooms make a single layer, more or less, with some open spots where the pan is visible. That's what you want to see. If your pan isn't big enough to hold the mushrooms in a single layer, and you can't see the bottom through the piles of sliced fungus, then you'll need to cook in batches. Or ask your mom to get you a giant pan at Godzilla's supply store. Either way.

(Incidentally, I have a giant cast-iron pan, too, but since this is a tomato-based sauce, I can't use it, lest the acid in the tomatoes damage the seasoned bottom, and render the pan nonstick.)

(And speaking of tomatoes...)

I cook that for a while, letting the tomatoes break down, and then add the final ingredients: some of the reserved tongue broth, the yogurt, some lime juice, and salt and pepper. This gets simmered for a bit, and reduced to a sauce.

New Food of Life doesn't provide an explicit warning here, but I have to be careful about my heat at this point, because if you overheat yogurt, it will "break." That is, it will curdle, or separate, the solids coming out of emulsion with the thin liquid whey. It's why, when you make a cream sauce, the recipe always says to bring the dairy (milk, cream, whatever) just to a boil, and then reduce the heat immediately. If you let the boil continue, the dairy will separate. It still tastes okay, but the texture will be unpleasantly clumpy, and if you have more cooking to do, the dairy won't behave the way it's supposed to.

Ten minutes later, we have dinner.

The sauce is a little bit thin, and could have stood another ten minutes of careful reduction. Alternatively, rather than worrying about breaking the yogurt, I could reduce the sauce with just the broth, and stir in the yogurt later.

By the way, note the plate of greens in the background. This is sabzi khordan, a traditional Persian salad composed of fresh herbs, roughly torn, with green onions and radishes for bite, and cheese for salt and richness. It doesn't warrant a recipe of its own in New Food of Life, but it's mentioned in passing, toward the beginning of the book, among the lineup of appetizers expected in a Persian feast. It's described as an "assortment" of raw vegetables and herbs, "usually" including this-and-that-and-the-other. Everybody makes it a little differently, using whatever is most convenient, which is why it doesn't merit a formal recipe; it's more a thrown-together thing, with ingredients balanced in proportion to get the correct fresh-plus-mint-plus-spice quality. The strong herb flavor is definitely an acquired taste for the American palate, which looks at salad as a mix of frequently bland greens with the flavor provided by whatever's been added on top. Sabzi khordan is, assuredly, not that kind of salad. Once you get what it's about, though, it's pretty refreshing, and very healthy.

In general, the meal turned out pretty well, though again the sauce needed further reduction, and in the end four hours wasn't enough cooking time for the tongue. Maybe these American tongues were bigger than their Iranian counterparts; maybe my interruption to cool and peel should have been balanced with more than the additional half hour of cooking time I gave them. Maybe both. Regardless, another hour in the pot would have made them even more tender and delicious. The taste, though, was outstanding, luscious and rich, with the sour yogurt and lime juice weaving everything together, producing a lovely but subtle savory tartness.

Postscript: After we were done, at the Princess's suggestion, I returned the remaining slices of tongue to the pan with the leftover sauce, and turned the heat to low for a while. We wanted to reduce the sauce to the proper consistency, and as long as we were doing that, some more cooking time on the tongue would help their texture. And I have to say, the next day, this tasted even better than the first day; the meat had a more buttery chew, and all the flavors had matured and combined beautifully.

It would have been perfect, except that, in the process of reheating and reducing the sauce, I broke the yogurt. Oh well.

Next up: Stew, Iranian style, and a unique combination of flavors.

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