I don’t think I’m being especially controversial by saying our food preferences are largely culturally-influenced. My dad traveled to China on business quite a bit during his career, and came back with stories of food that often sounded delicious, but also occasionally made my toes curl. Being raised on alligator (usually dry, stringy and flavorless), frog legs (pretty darned good, if a little tough), and boudin (head cheese and rice stuffed into a sausage casing, and slap-yo-mama-good), I’ve had my share of strange looks when talking about meals that aren’t so popular outside of Louisiana. Yet the very same people who introduced me to those foods somehow make the poo-face at tongue, a meat popular at both hole-in-the-wall taquerias and Jewish delis in this part of the country.
Boggles the mind.
But the gross-out factor aside, tongue is damned good eating — rich, moist, tender, and so, so flavorful. I realize I tend to wax rhapsodic about certain things, but I fell in love with this cut of meat probably 20 years ago and that’s a long time to go without shouting it from the mountaintop. Those were the years before Food Network, so I was still in my PBS cooking show phase; one of the many programs in the rotation was The Frugal Gourmet. Not my favorite by a long shot, I watched mostly to see how badly Jeff Smith would treat his poor assistant, Craig; I found it fascinating that someone so prickly could’ve been both a minister and a successful TV host. And it was on one of his shows that I was introduced to the wonders of the tongue taco. If you remember his enthusiastic proclamations at all, you’ll understand why I sought it out at the earliest opportunity — at Taqueria Corona in New Orleans. Those tacos never disappointed, and I even managed to turn on a few of my more adventurously-paletted friends to their charms.
But oddly enough, I’ve had trouble finding an equally good version here in New York (in Chelsea, specifically, since I don’t have much time for lunch). Sure, there’s a decent place across 6th Avenue, but the meat is too gamey for my taste. So when I saw tongue for sale at the Snoep Winkel Farm booth at the farmers’ market, I picked some up to try my hand at recreating the experience.
After exhaustively researching the topic, I decided on a simple approach — braising the tongue for four hours on the stove, cooling it overnight in its cooking liquid, then baking it in the oven for another hour the next day. That protracted cooking time is magical, so just step back and get ready for an experience you won’t forget.
To serve, I heated some corn tortillas in a cast iron skillet until they were lightly charred, then topped the tongue with a mixture of onion, cilantro, and lime juice, a sliver of avocado, shredded lettuce, and copious amounts of Cholula hot sauce. We had it for lunch and dinner yesterday, which should tell you how good it was.
And Santa Maria Pinquito beans were the perfect accompaniment, though I didn’t do anything special to them. After an overnight soak, I cooked them for a couple of hours with the usual cast of characters — beer, bay leaf, jalapenos, onions, garlic, and a smoked pork hock. At that point, I added cumin, paprika, chile powder, and salt and let everything simmer for another hour.
So if you’ve never tried tongue and don’t feel comfortable doing so, please give it a shot. For me? Pretty please? You won’t regret it.
recipe after the jump
I have a few ideas for next time, mainly adding spices and pepper to the braising liquid and crisping the meat in the oven just before serving, but this is a good, basic recipe.
1 beef tongue, 2 1/2 to 5 lbs.
a bottle of your favorite beer
1 bay leaf
1 onion, quartered
4 fat cloves of garlic, smashed
1/2 small onion, finely diced
handful of cilantro chopped
1 avocado, sliced
Scrub beef tongue with salt to get rid of any slime. (I didn’t have any problems with slime, but took this step as a precaution.) Rinse thoroughly under running water and place in a large pot with beer, bay leaf, onion, and garlic. Add water to cover and bring to a boil, then immediately lower heat, cover, and simmer for four hours.
Remove tongue from pot and allow to cool. Once cool enough to handle, remove the outer layer of skin. (It’ll peel right off, but might give you the heebie-jeebies. Just a warning.) Place in a covered container with about 1 cup of the cooking liquid and refrigerate overnight.
The following day, preheat oven to 350 degrees. Place tongue and cooking liquid in a baking dish, cover with foil, and bake for one hour.
Remove from dish and set aside until just cool enough to handle. At this point, shred, dice, or thinly slice the tongue and place in warm oven until ready to serve.
Combine diced onion, chopped cilantro and juice of 1/2 lime in a bowl with salt and pepper to taste. Heat tortillas in a screaming hot cast iron pan, assemble tacos as desired, and dig in.