Sometimes you need to simplify your life, to accept that it may be better if the forks in the road have a few less tines. If you are a "food television" fan, you may have noticed that Andrew Zimmern, the host of the Travel Channel's show "Bizarre Foods," has this season taken his show in a much more civilized direction. It used to be that Andrew traveled to very exotic places and ate things like giant grubs, fried insects, lizard, and field rats, and indulged in such traditional meals as stinkheads -- fish heads and fish guts placed in sacks, buried at the water's edge to be bathed by the tides, and left to rot. But this season, he's been tooling around the States and pretty swanky areas of Europe, driving a nicely appointed luxury SUV or a sexy European sports car, and eating in fine restaurants, and by invitation, in the homes of local culinary legends.
I can't say I blame him. He made his name by being adventuresome enough to eat anything, but I think that this season has shown the spotlight on one of his other talents. He is a good storyteller, with humor and infectious optimism that makes him somebody you wouldn't mind taking a trip with. So while Andrew may have traded in the cheese with live maggots in it for Grandma's meatloaf, his shows are still highly entertaining.
It was Andrew that sparked my interest in beef heart. After watching him extol the virtues of this very much overlooked meat, and after finding that our local supermarket meat department actually carried beef heart, I was willing to give it a try. With a bit of trepidation, I bought a heart, looked up a recipe, and made beef heart stew, which much to my delight, was really, really good. As a bonus, beef hearts sell for $1.68 per pound, a price that has held steady now for two years. That's a great price for any protein.
I also was inspired to overcome my initial trepidation and to try my hand at snails, the pesky little critters that litter our gardens. These little guys are an even better deal than beef hearts since all one needs to do is go outside with a bucket and pick them up. Trust me, they can't outrun you, and they don't put up a fight, and while it is not a unanimous opinion in the family, I think they are tasty, almost indistinguishable from clams.
So you might understand why I thought that I should try some tripe. I've heard various chefs on television talk about it, and it does fall into that category of food that I like, the rustic foods that kept our ancestors fed in simpler times. Living in California, there are plenty of local sources for menudo, the Mexican soup that is made with tripe, hominy and chilies. I've never tried it. I did however happen upon some tripe at our local market, so I thought I might as well try it. I was hoping to be as pleasantly surprised as my other food adventures.
Yes, I was indeed surprised, but in this case, pleasant was not the adjective I would use.
Tripe is something that must be cooked for a long time to get it in an edible state. If you're starting from fresh tripe, you need to meticulously clean it, then boil it for six or more hours until tender. Fortunately, the tripe that is generally available in the supermarkets is tripe that has already been cleaned and mostly processed, so it only needs to be boiled in salted water for one to two hours until tender. However, therein lies a problem.
I did not know what simmering beef guts would smell like, so just to be safe, I set up to cook my tripe on our gas stove out on the patio. As it turned out, that was a very good idea. Pretty much as soon as the tripe hit the water, there was what I can only describe as a noxious odor coming out of the pot. I hoped that maybe it would lessen in intensity as the tripe cooked, but I'm sorry to say that it only got worse and worse. I'm pretty sure that if I had been cooking this on the stove in the kitchen, I would have had bring in one of those professional cleaning services that come in after a house fire to remove the smoke smell.
So after letting the tripe simmer odorously away for about ninety minutes, it had indeed gotten to a nice tender state that allowed it to be cut into bite-sized chunks. I also did this outside because I could not yet bring myself to let it in the house. I picked up a piece with my fork and took a sniff, and sure enough, it smelled bad, not like anything I would voluntarily put in my mouth. However, channeling all the Andrew Zimmern I could muster, I resolved at least to taste one bite. I closed my eyes and popped it in.
Surprisingly, I did not gag. In fact, I was pleasantly surprised that the tripe did not taste anything like it smelled. In fact, it had almost no taste at all. Texturally, it was like eating a warm gummy worm, I suppose, although I'm not in the habit of doing that either. I repeat -- I did not gag.
Tripe has the reputation as one of those foods that more often than not ended up on the scrap pile, and would have been thrown out except for the enterprising cookery of mothers with very limited means who saw a source of very cheap protein, and as such, I respect it. Not wishing to give up on tripe too easily, I got a jar of salsa off the shelf, a very tasty concoction of tomatoes, onions, peppers and spices, threw it in a pan to heat it, and chucked in a handful of the tripe pieces. I let this simmer for a bit.
The rich aroma of the salsa was enough to mask the lingering odor of the tripe, and the flavor of salsa was more than a match for the bland taste of the tripe, and while I was still not impressed with texture of the tripe, I could see myself eating this dish -- a serving of protein swimming in a vegetable stew. It could work.
And as long as the tripe was cooked in somebody else's kitchen, I might even enjoy it.
You know, I could not even bring the pot of tripe water into the house to clean it. I walked it around the house to the street out front, emptied the pot into the sewer, then thoroughly hosed off the pot before I brought it in, and immediately put it in the dishwasher set to run with an extra rinse cycle.
I'm sorry, but tripe is one culinary adventure I will not be returning to any time soon. Not to worry, however: I bought a can of jackfruit for my next foray into exotic foods, and how bad could jackfruit be?