My culinary school program is broken up into modules, each building on the last and a practical, hands-on exam is required to progress to the next. Module one contains virtually no actual cooking. Instead, we are focusing on the basics: knife skills, mise en place (how you set everything up,) sanitation, basic sauces (making mayonnaise is part of the Mod 1 practical) and fabrication.
Fabrication means to take your animals from carcass to ready-to-cook. We started with fish. Exciting! Relatively easy, familiar smells (comforting, even.) We moved on to chicken and duck, then beef. All identifiable and approachable. Today however, we fabricated veal.
Let me address the ethics of veal-eating, really any meat-eating, or if you stretch the definitions and want to starve, eating in general. Veal is a calf, no more than 4 months old. Not to point out the obvious, but take a look at your shoes, jacket, wallet, purse, belt and car seats. The product that is fabricated into leather is a slightly more mature version of that which is fabricated in to food, so take a long, deep breath before shrieking “Baby Cow!” I’ve already addressed the ethics of eating meat as I see them, so I’ll direct you here if you want to catch up. If you really want to never eat veal again, fabricate one.
The process starts like any other fabrication: you take the big, hulking chunk (primal cut) of your animal out of its packaging, find the USDA stamp, and begin removing inedible parts to one pile, edible parts to another, and you continue refining the edible pieces to a nice, neat, clean pile of sub-primal cuts like tenders or chops.
In the United States, a chicken, any poultry for that matter, must be purchased fully eviscerated and so when you open up your turkey this week and pull out the packet of neck and liver, hearts, etc., know that unless you bought your turkey from a farmer and specified that you wanted your turkey to come to you with its own guts, what’s inside could have belonged to anyone else whom Sarah Palin failed to pardon.
Veal comes eviscerated, but the kidneys are still attached to the inside of the back. I want to say that modern science and engineering would have figured out a way to remove the kidneys without damaging any of the sub-primal cuts, but apparently not. So, step one in fabricating veal is to remove the excess fat (we’re talking pounds of brittle, white fat that comes apart in pieces like baseballs) and remove the kidneys.
People eat the kidneys and so, if you throw them away, you are missing an opportunity to recoup some of the money spent on having veal on the menu, so you remove the mass that weighs about 5 pounds and looks like a dark brown brain and chop it into bite-sized pieces.
The smell is ungodly. Its awful. Its permeating. It smells like a urine-soaked subway car in the heat and humidity of midsummer. I actually gagged and went from fearless chef to “I’m not eating that” in a pulse.
My chef agreed. Anything that smells so wretched is not meant for consumption. If I was starving and my choice was death or a diet of kidneys, I’d find my way to the bright light.
Chef did say that for those who wish to eat them, a soak in several changes of milk over 24 hours is necessary to remove the smell, blood, impurities, etc. Here’s where the machismo kicked in and my 19-year-old classmate decided that HE was going to eat those kidneys. Today. Not in 24 hours when they might have given up their Bog of Eternal Stench profile. No, no. Today. He, of course, is a real man.
He proceeds to get the chef’s instruction on how to prepare them, and the room fills with the smell of shallots, sauteeing in butter, a reduction of brandy, and then… the kidneys hit the heat. No, instead of the smell being contained to each of our fingertips and knife points, it permeates my clothes, my hair, my nostrils.
So even when the beautifully cleaned veal tenderloins and medallions came ready, all I could taste was kidney. I think that I’m off veal for a while. Not because of the poor-baby-cow problem but the now-I-know problem and both myself and the calves of the future are happy about it.
Sauteed Veal Kidneys
1 veal kidney, cleaned of sinew and fat and cut into 1″ pieces
1 quart milk for soaking
Salt and Pepper for seasoning
2 T salted butter, separated into 2 1-T lumps
1 medium shallot, minced, about 1 T
1/3 cup brandy
Put all the kidney pieces in a large bowl. Pour enough milk over, just to cover them. You won’t use the whole quart right away. Cover with saran wrap and refrigerate 24 hours, changing the milk two or three times. Drain the kidneys just before you are ready to cook. Season with salt & pepper.
In a sautee pan large enough to hold all the kidney pieces, melt 1 T butter. Add the shallots and sautee over medium heat. When the shallots are softened, add the kidneys and cook, stirring occasionally until they are cooked through, about 8 minutes all together. Remove cooked kidneys to a warm plate.
Add the brandy to the sautee pan (off the fire to prevent fire from flaming up) and deglaze (scrape all the browny bits off the bottom) saute pan. Continue to cook, stirring regularly until the brandy has reduced by half. Add the second tablespoon of butter and melt. Add the kidneys back to the saute pan, toss to coat with the brandy reduction. Serve immediately.