Understanding Offal with Chef James Ahearn

Chef James Ahearn • Photo by Matt Furman

Squeamish about offal? Or maybe you don’t even know what an offal is? In either case, I recently had some help in understanding offal from executive chef James Ahearn of Verde Wine Bar and Ristorante in Deer Park.

Offal is defined as “the entrails and internal organs of an animal used as food.” When an animal is butchered, the pieces and organs from the carcass “comes off” and “falls,” thus the term offal. In the United States, organ meat has not been especially popular among consumers, let alone with restaurant diners. In other countries offal has always been eaten, but it has been a concept that has been difficult for Americans to grasp. We go to the supermarket or butcher and buy nicely packaged pink meat. Most of us don’t want to see all the other parts of the animal. We don’t really want to know where our food is coming from.

Things, however, are changing. Known as the nose-to-tail movement, chefs around the world are embracing offal. In 2004, London restauranteur Fergus Henderson coined the phrase, “If you’re going to kill the animal, it seems only polite to use the whole thing.” His award-winning book, The Whole Beast: Nose to Tail Eating, sparked a new way of thinking on how we can become more connected with our food, while at the same time, have very little waste.

Chefs are becoming more creative with food and how they prepare it, while consumers are becoming more adventurous in what they are willing to eat, or at least try to eat. Chef James Ahearn of Verde has mastered the preparation of offal and is one of the few chefs on Long Island to offer an extensive offal menu which rotates seasonally. The new offal menu was just released last month. When I asked what his customers’ response has been, he replied, “When I first put it on the menu, people were hesitant at first, but the trust started to build. I have a really good service team in front of the house who really know what it’s about so they can explain it to people and sell it. We’re selling more and more now. It just snowballed.”

There are also health benefits to eating offal because they are packed with nutrients. Offal contains all kinds of vitamins including vitamin A and B12, minerals and iron. Offal are also high in folic and amino acids, especially in liver, and are a good source of protein.

Chef James Ahearn grew up eating offal so it was not something new to him. What he is doing now, is honing in on his skills to make a tasteful, creative dish that will ‘wow’ his customers. He explained how technique is very important. There is definitely a process to it. First, it is imperative to know how to properly clean offal, then how to cook it correctly while incorporating the right ingredients to enhance the flavor and texture of the offal. For gizzards, there is a clarifying process to remove impurities. For tripe, the cleaning process is lengthy.

Chef James explains, “First the tripe is soaked in a salt water solution for four days. After that you put it up and spike it with vinegar, and then you change that water as you’re cooking it, four or five times. So you have to start a week out because of the curing process, which removes impurities, and then there is the cooking process. You can’t just cook it. It is un-edible. It has to be clarified.”

I asked Chef James how he comes up with recipes for offal and he simply said, “They just come to me.” No surprise there, because Chef James is a truly talented and sophisticated chef known for blending flavors and textures, and for putting his own spin on things. Taste and textures vary, depending on the offal, so each dish is constructed differently.

Verde’s new offal menu has a nice variety to choose from. One of the more popular and widely known offal is Foie Gras, which is made from the liver of a duck or goose. It is an item which is always on the menu, but the ingredients change seasonally. For the winter, Chef James is offering two Foie Gras specials on his menu. The first is prepared with flax seed, pistachio granola, endive and pomegranate. The second is prepared as a torchon, where it is cured, poached and then wrapped in Wagyu beef pastrami, and is served with pickled beets, cress and ciabatta.

Two tripe dishes appear on the menu. The first is a more traditional tripe which is served with potatoes and carrots. The second is a lamb tripe made with mushrooms, chilies and chives, served over trofie pasta. The tripe is ground and adds wonderful texture to the dish. Chicken gizzards have been popular and are made with root vegetables, a cured egg yolk and horseradish. Lastly, Chef James has included a very old school Italian dish from Sicily called “cotenne,” which is a pork skin braciole made with pine nut gremolata and goat milk ricotta.

“Things are changing. People’s perspective on food is changing,” says Chef James. “We, as Americans, are probably the only people who eat the way we do. Now everything is used. Nothing is thrown away or wasted.”

Verde’s offal menu is offered during both lunch and dinner service.