The first of May is la Fête du Muguet in France, or lily-of-the-valley day. It celebrates the arrival of spring, and people pick (or buy) little bunches of lily-of-the-valley to give to family and friends to wish them happiness. (Photo from Wikimedia Commons. Definitely not mine.)
la Fête du Muguet during my semester abroad in Paris. Like most college students, I studied on a program that arranged for accommodations with host families. Unlike most students, I lived with just a "host grandmother" - a sweet little old lady named Madame Philippe.
Though Madame Philippe had a rather impressive grasp of modern technology (she had a laptop, looked at bridge scores online, and even exchanged e-mail with her grandchildren), she had firmly old-fashioned notions about food. She served meals that my professors told me I would be unlikely to encounter at a modern French dinner table: tripes à la caen, boudin noir, and langue de boeuf aux cornichons (braised beef tongue with sour gherkins.)*
Beef tongue is one of my favorite kinds of offal, so langue de boeuf aux cornichons was the dish I immediately thought of when I read about the offal-themed Meat & Greet event hosted by Hunter Angler Gardener Cook. It has a long cooking time, but the preparation is fairly straightforward, and I tend to think it's one of the tamer forms of offal when plated and dressed.
Braised beef tongue has a rich, beefy flavor (it doesn't taste "gamey" the way a lot of other offal meats do) and an exquisitely tender texture. Sliced and dressed in a light tomato sauce with cornichons and capers, it's not all that different from brisket.
I don't know if Madame Philippe has discovered the food blogosphere yet, and if she has, she's probably not reading English-language blogs. Still, on the off chance that she does come across this page: Bonne Fête du Muguet, Madame Philippe!
Beef Tongue with Cornichons and Capers
Langue de Boeuf aux Cornichons et Câpres
To make this recipe gluten-free, just omit the flour in the sauce.
(Serves eight normal people. Serves one if you're like me. More leftovers = more cold tongue sandwiches.)*
Take a nice large beef tongue, about three or four pounds in weight, and give it a good rinse so that it's free of blood and any gunk that might be sticking to it. Yes, it looks like a tongue. You can close your eyes if you find this particularly disconcerting.
Bring a big pot of water to a rolling boil. Add the tongue. Cook the tongue for twenty minutes, then remove it from the pot and discard the water. Rinse out the pot.
Add one chopped carrot, one chopped onion, a teaspoon of peppercorns, six cloves, six juniper berries, two bay leaves, a few sprigs of fresh thyme, a glug of white vinegar, and a tablespoon of salt. Put the tongue back in the pot. Add enough water to just cover the tongue.
Bring the water to a boil, then turn the heat down to a simmer and put a lid on the pot. Cook for three hours or so - until tongue is tender when poked with a fork, and it looks as though the skin is starting to peel away. If you have any doubts, cook it for longer. Add more water as necessary. Turn off the heat when the tongue is done.
To prepare the sauce, make a roux with a generous lump of butter and a teaspoon of flour. Add a splash of white wine and a cup of tomato puree (canned is fine, though fresh is better), then add several teaspoons of capers in vinegar (with the vinegar) and ten or twelve sliced cornichons. Season with salt and pepper. Let the sauce simmer.
Remove the tongue from the pot. It will look whitish and alarming; this is normal. By this point it should be cool enough to touch without burning your fingers (or burning them too badly). Take a small sharp knife and cut through the outer layer of skin. Peel away the skin; it should come off in strips. The meat beneath will be pinkish. Slice the tongue into rounds.
To serve, place rounds of tongue on a bed of white rice, and dress with the sauce. Poached leeks are a good accompaniment.
Leftovers are best slathered with grain mustard and served on rye bread with more cornichons.
*For a Parisian restaurant that still serves offal, and is an interesting historical place to boot, try the Crémerie Restaurant Polidor, at 41 Rue Monsieur-Le-Prince (near Métro stop Odéon.)