Nigel Lawton on why New Zealanders don’t like organ meats – and why they should get over it.

‘It’s organ, organ, all the time with him!’
– Mrs Organ Morgan in
Under Milk Wood (1954), by Dylan Thomas.

A restaurateur of my acquaintance says that every time he puts offal dishes on his menu, they sell out. That’s very encouraging, because offal is one of the Cinderellas of contemporary cooking. In New Zealand, where roasts, steaks and other prime cuts have traditionally ruled the roost, offal has long been looked down upon as cheap meat. To add insult to injury, we’ve suffered through a couple of generations of unimaginative home cooks whose efforts have given offal dishes a bad rap. And on top of that, there are now tons of picky eaters around (most of whom, in my opinion, simply need firmer parenting), whose princessy behaviour can wreak havoc with the eating choices and enjoyment of an entire family. The last reason is probably why offal dishes do so well when diners in a restaurant can freely choose what they eat.

Offal, nevertheless, is meat with a PR problem. Because it comes from sometimes unglamorous parts of the animal (think kidneys, brain, heart, liver, lungs, tongue, marrow, nose, head, glands, trotters, large intestine, tripes and yes, testicles) it has traditionally been viewed as ‘dirty’ and somehow suspect.

For a long time in New Zealand, offal was widely considered as only suitable for dog food. It’s been given a variety of euphemistic names, including organ meat and the American term variety meat. The Italians call it quinto quarto, the fifth quarter. But even etymology works against it. The word ‘offal’ comes from the C.14th century words ‘Off + Fall’, referring to parts fallen or cut off, and which are linked to the German word Abfall, meaning rubbish. Oh dear. The suspicion remains that offal is something that kicks about on the floor of the abbatoir and is uplifted for sale.

This is certainly not the case in New Zealand, where animal rearing and processing practices are stringent. Nor should you worry that animals here, unlike in many places overseas, are pumped full of antibiotics and hormones and growth enhancers which concentrate themselves in glands and other dodgy-seeming bits. Here they are not so pumped. The use of growth enhancers is illegal and has been for decades and antibiotic use is sparing and hedged about with safeguards. Offal from New Zealand-raised animals is therefore perfectly safe to eat and is utterly delicious – a fact which our thrifty European cousins have long known because offal dishes are one of the glories of French, Italian and other Continental cuisines – and many Asian ones to boot. In Europe, you’ll often find offal on the menus of the most haute restaurants.

Next time you’re in your local butcher shop too, have a look at the labelling on any boxed packs of brains or sweetbreads you might see: chances are it’s in French and is mostly destined for export. So, turn your nose up at offal and you’re not only depriving yourself of delicious and nourishing taste sensations but you’re also missing out on a bargain because offal meats remain determinedly cheap. For the sustainability-obsessed, eating offal also ensures that all of the animal is used and avoids waste.

Which brings me to kidneys – an organ which of course suffers by association from its role of filtering urea, mineral salts, toxins, and other waste products from the blood. The flitering function also means that it comes with membranes, which are unappealing chewy and can be tricky to remove, even with a sharp knife. If you are buying whole kidneys and are not confident about removing the membranes effectively (it is fiddly), ask your butcher to do it: he or she will be happy to do so.

It’s also true that, perhaps because of their filtering function, kidneys have a slightly unusual taste – which makes Dijon mustard the secret weapon for the following dish. Dijon mustard, by the way, is one of the Desert Island things I must always have in my kitchen. Its flavour is divine, it’s very good for you (especially spread on bread as an alternative to butter) and there are now several brands available in supermarkets and speciality stores – a very good thing. Choose and use the brand you like. I like the smooth, non-grainy ones.

The recipe below, which I first enjoyed about 30 years ago, is intended as a pathway to more offal eating. It can be whipped up in about 30 minutes and once you have it under your belt you can start looking up recipes for brains, sweetbreads, liver and (if you are really courageous) tripe.

One thing you must take care with is that this recipe uses flour to make a roux (a mixture of flour and fat – usually of butter or oil or milk, used to thicken a dish). You must ensure that you cook the mixture sufficiently so that the flour taste goes out of it – it tastes awful if you don’t. If in doubt, keep cooking and tasting – the dish can handle it. Try and get hold of lambs’ kidneys if you can, but if not, ox kidneys are just as good.

Kidneys à la Dijonnaise

Serves 4

You will need:
3 tsp (teaspoons) unsalted butter
3 tsp extra-virgin olive oil or vegetable oil
6 tsp plain flour
1.25 cups (300ml) milk
6-9 tsp smooth Dijon mustard
Small handful (30g) of chopped parsley
3 cups steamed rice (Basmati is good)
750g lambs’ (or ox) kidneys, membranes removed and roughly chopped.

Turn on your oven warmer drawer or put your oven on low. On the oven top, place the oil and butter in a large, heavy saucepan, add the chopped kidneys and cook over a medium heat for 5 minutes. Turn the kidneys frequently to ensure they cook evenly. Remove on to a plate and place in the warmer drawer/low oven.

Do not deglaze the saucepan and leave the element on medium heat. Add the flour to the saucepan, stir well, and then add the milk and stir until the mixture forms a smooth, thick sauce.

Stir in the Dijon mustard, season with salt and pepper, add the chopped parsley and simmer gently for five minutes.

Return the kidneys and their juices to the saucepan and stir them in to the sauce. Cook till warmed through and check that all the flour has cooked out: if it hasn’t, let it cook a bit longer. Keep tasting.

Place the mixture in the middle of a serving dish and surround it with a ring of cooked rice. Serve with a simple green salad, or have the salad afterwards, the way the French do.