A couple of days ago I put up a post on sesos a la romana, “roman style brains”. I didn’t really get into the whole “issue” of eating brains. Surprisingly, the post passed by with no negative commentary – usually when I post something about eating innards there are two or three people either here on the blog or on my facebook or twitter feeds, who feel obliged to head into the “ewwww” territory. In fact, all the response has been rather positive and only one friend felt the need to toss in a zombie reference, but even that one positive. One chef friend even offered to share her recipe for brain pakoras next time she’s in BA – that’s definitely going to happen!
So I was all set to go into a little diatribe about brain eating and cooking. Now I feel like I have to tone it all down. Because usually when I talk about stuff like this I get the whole “how can you even think about eating brains, that’s really icky?” Now, there tend to be two camps of the naysayers. The first are those who pretty much just won’t eat offal of any sort (or, have a religious proscription against certain innards). Those, I’m not going to address – if the whole thing is simply taboo, psychologically or philosophically, I accept that. The second category are the ones that I find interesting – these are the folk who eat innards, but draw the line at brains, or some other organ of their choosing.
Why? I’ve asked. The general response is something to the effect of, “because that’s the organ we think with” or “the brain embodies the soul” or something to that effect – a very transcendental reason. But, I’m going to assert that it’s a completely disingenuous reason. Because here’s the thing. If you feel that animals reason or have souls that put them on the level of human cognition or morality, and you truly believe that, how can you eat them at all? Go become a vegetarian or vegan, because otherwise, you really are just indulging in some form of cannibalism (unless, of course, you have no problem with that, in which case it’s an entirely different conversation, and no, I’m not going to join you on that field trip to the woods where we’ll try to scavenge up something for dinner). If you don’t believe that the brain is the seat of all that you hold holy or dear, then that argument is invalid, you’re just making excuses, and this really just falls into the “brains are icky” camp.
But what about that camp? The brain is an organ, with a soft, squishy texture. But so are sweetbreads, and so many of you are perfectly willing to eat those – in fact, I’d bet you couldn’t tell the difference if I served up a plate of one or the other. And the brain as an organ isn’t secreting anything particularly weird. Not like that pancreas pumping out insulin or thymus pumping out hormones. It’s not filtering toxins like a liver or kidney, it’s not processing excrement like a stomach or intestine. If you stop and think about which organs you’re perfectly willing to throw on the grill or into a pan, the brain is pretty much the most innocuous one of them. So let’s get on to the cooking.
This is a small cow’s brain, straight from a local butcher. Two lobes, encased in a membrane, there’s still blood and fluids inside there. We’re going to clean all that up. By the way, they’re really cheap. This entire brain cost me less than 5 pesos, which at the “blue rate” exchange isn’t much over a US quarter. Started to make me rethink paying 60-70 pesos for a plate of them with mashed potatoes.
First thing to do is soak it in cold water for about 2 hours. I usually put a splash of white vinegar into the water as well, it helps draw out some of the fluids, or at least that’s what I was taught. I just stuck the bowl in the refrigerator and went and did something else.
At the end of the 2 hours, take the brain out – it doesn’t look radically different, but given how much cloudiness and blood was in the water, it is.
This is the delicate part. Remove the outer membrane. I find it easiest to do with my fingers, just kind of peeling it away, getting it out of the crevasses, it’s tedious, taking about 10 minutes to do, but necessary. And behold, the brain sans
all the icky stuff.
Pop it into a pot of cold water in which you’ve dissolved a couple of tablespoons of salt and a couple more of vinegar. Over low heat, bring it just to the point where it is barely starting to boil.
Turn off the heat, remove the brain. It’s the perfect amount of poaching to just set its texture.
I had in mind smaller portions, so I cut each lobe into three roughly equal sized parts.
I really liked the Albamonte presentation of their version as sort of spherical meatballs, so I wrapped each portion tightly in plastic wrap, while still hot, and stuck them in the refrigerator to chill and set.
As cooking time approached, I needed to think about the accompaniments. I steeped star anise in half and half for about half an hour. There’s about a cup of liquid here.
Meanwhile, I boiled up a large peeled potato, passed it through a sieve, and then whipped it together with the entire cup of liquid (strained), a tablespoon of butter, and some salt and white pepper. It’s actually pretty amazing that one potato will hold that much liquid, but it will, and you get very rich, creamy potatoes.
for the rest of the cooking. Some fresh parsley and rosemary; chopped lemon segments and garlic; blanched, shocked and peeled fava beans; three containers for frying – rice flour, egg beaten with salt, black pepper and chopped parsley; panko breadcrumbs.
Strip the parsley and rosemary leaves from their stems and quickly fry them in hot oil. It only takes a few seconds.
Unwrap the spheres of brain, roll in the rice flour, then in the egg mixture, and then in breadcrumbs. Fry them up in a mix of olive oil and butter.
In a separate pan (the one you used for frying the herbs is perfect, you can even use the same oil, just pour off excess, you only need a couple of tablespoons) over low heat saute the garlic in good olive oil. When it just starts to brown, take it off the heat…
…and add in the lemon segments, some salt and freshly ground pepper.
Our fried up brains are ready, just let them drain a minute on some paper towel to remove any excess oil.
And here’s the final plate. A swath of the star anise infused potato puree. A portion of the brains – I thought that three small ones would be a perfect appetizer size – it is, but it’s also such a rich dish that all I wanted afterwards was a green salad. Spoon some of the garlic and lemon olive oil around and over the brains. Scatter the herbs and fava beans around. I also placed some rolled up boquerones
(vinegar cured white anchovies) on the plate – I think if I were to redo the dish I’d chop them up and add them to the garlic and lemon mixture instead.