Back in March when Cindy graciously organized our recipe assignment, I did a double take as I read through the “Variety Meat” section. Did that say calf brain? I immediately grabbed my newly purchased cookbook to make sure this was not a typo. Sure enough there it was –Fried Calf’s Brain. I have to admit I was excited. I have looked forward to making this recipe since then. My only concern was would I be able to find a calf brain.
The first step I took was looking on the United States Food and Drug Administration website. Thanks to a Mad Cow Disease indecent a few years ago I was not sure I could even buy beef brain in the United States. The guidelines clearly state that the sale or purchase was not prohibited if the listed guidelines were met. Good news but were can I make the purchase.
I called every grocery store and nearby butcher in the area. I e-mailed several organic farms in Missouri and not one of them was kind enough to respond. No luck. I even spoke with the meat purchasing managers at Whole Foods and Global Foods. Both said they were not allowed to order brains because it was illegal and the company did not want to deal with any liability issues. The truth was really the latter.
Then one afternoon after visiting my in-laws, I drove past a butcher shop I had not called. This little place by the railroad tracks looked like its heyday was a couple of decades ago. I walk in and looked around at the many cases of fresh and frozen meats. There was so much meat in there it smelled like a meat locker. I half heartedly asked the man behind the counter if he could order calf brain for me. He replied, “I have some right over there in the freezer.” I was shocked and quickly hurried over to grab the Cryovac package. He told me he had a good relationship with the farm where it came from. He also mentioned how sad the two of them were because she may not be able to continue providing brains in the future because of pressure from the government.
Now let’s fast forward a few months until last Monday. Deborah and I visited Schubert’s Packing Company. The first thing I noticed when I walked in was the smell. There was not much of one at all. The only thing I small was a little smoke. As I looked around I realized the smoke smell was from their house made sausages. I took several deep breaths. This butcher shop had that fresh non- smell that indicated cleanliness. I had a great time chatting with Larry and his helpers and sampling sausages. I could not believe I was standing in front of a case of freshly slaughter meat. This is the way it should always be. Larry learned all about our variety meat section. I mentioned I would have to make calf brains soon. He said they have them from time to time.
I could not get the smell or lack there of the new butcher shop out of my mind. Maybe I had made a mistake buying from the other place. My frozen package looked like dark chopped up meat bits not brains. How old was it? Was it safe to eat? I wondered if it was too late to find calf brain somewhere else. For two whole days I pondered if I should use what I had or try to get more. I only had five days left. I could not rest so I called Schubert’s to ask when they would have calf brain again. The lady on the other end remembered my visit and said we have some now. We just slaughtered this morning. She offered to put it aside for me. I hung up the phone and shouted, “Road Trip!” My husband, son and I piled in the car and traveled to Illinois to pick up order. I walked in the butcher shop, gave my name at the counter, and they gave me this:
HOW COOL IS THIS! Who would have thought I would get to buy a whole brain. First of all this dish violates my innards policy but for some reason I did not care. I felt like a mad scientist as I prepared the brain for poaching. After soaking in cold water the membrane and outer blood vessels are removed. The membrane is extremely thin. The flesh of the brain is very delicate. One must use patience and tender care to remove the membrane without tearing up the brain. I learned this with the first section I prepared.
Top Side -membrane removed
Underside - membrane removed
The texture of the raw flesh was wonderful. It was soft and almost silky. I could not stop rubbing it. I realized right then that cleaning chicken was much grosser than cleaning calf brain. At one point I stopped to sniff the brain so I could remember the smell. I wanted to be completely present during this process. To my surprise it smelled very faintly like beef. In a blind smell test I would not be able to guess what it was. The poaching liquid was water with carrot, onion, celery and salt added. I slipped the clean brain into the liquid and gently simmered it for twenty minutes.
Poached brain draining and cooling. Now it looks like gray matter.
The brain is placed in the refrigerator to cool until firm. Next it is frying time. The chilled brain is sliced into 1/2 inch pieces, dipped in egg and rolled in plain bread crumb. I fried the pieces in vegetable oil until golden brown and served immediately.
Pile O' Fried Brain
One piece cut in half
The brain must contain a lot of fat because it has a creamy smooth, rich taste. In fact it reminded me of the fatty bits you get on cold water fish. The texture was like a cross between hard boiled egg whites and soft tofu. It was firm enough to cut through but still soft and slightly spongy when squeezed. These little bites don’t really have a lot of taste. This is my best description:
Imagine you took a bit of very high quality pate. After you chewed and swallow it you take a drink. You start to chat for a couple of minutes with one of your friends. The flavors that linger in your mouth are what this tasted like to me. No, it does not taste like liver or beef. It has a unique taste I have never had before but at the same time it seemed familiar. I liked it better with a squeeze of lemon. The acid cut through the richness and provided a nice citrus kick to the crunchy coating.
My husband could not get past seeing me prepare the brain. He was adamant about not tasting this dish but I insisted. I’m sure he only complied to have some peace. I should have taken a picture of his face as he bite down. You would have thought he was eating an unripe kumquat. I know he really could not tell what he tasted because he was having a mental block about what he was eating.
This is the most exotic thing I will probably ever cook and possible eat. Who knows? Given the right fresh ingredient, good company and a glass of wine…the possibilities are endless.