When Gerald Frazee worked as a butcher in Reedley, California during the 1950s, he had to throw away the less popular cuts of meat. His customers would almost never go for brain, heart, or tongue when there were pork chops to be had.
Today, the concept of eating nose-to-tail is becoming ever more popular, and that's a great thing for butchers and eaters alike. However, the idea is hardly a new one. In many parts of the world, cuts of meat that might seem strange or inedible to us are celebrated as delicacies. Gerald's family traces its roots to Lebanon. Levantine cuisine encompasses many universally loved dishes -- hummus, tabbouleh, and fattoush -- and also a number of foods that, before I met Gerald, I had not seen before. One of these is lamb tongue salad.
I will admit that the dish makes me a bit squeamish. There is something about the thought of tongue-on-tongue that worries me. But Gerald's eight grandchildren all rave about how much they love his version of lamb tongue salad. They request it on birthdays, beg him to make it for holiday dinners, and gush to each other about how tasty it is. (You may remember Gerald's wife, Nancy Frazee, and her Lebanese baklava.) I was still apprehensive about trying lamb tongue, but I also felt like I was missing out on all the fun, so I worked up the courage and asked Gerald to teach me the recipe.
He boiled the lamb tongues, carefully and deftly peeled them, then sliced them into thick pieces. "It's just like slicing a banana," he said. The slices were doused in olive oil and lemon juice and seasoned with minced garlic, black pepper, chopped green onions, and parsley. Then came the big moment. He wrapped a piece of tongue in pita bread and handed it to me. It tasted tender and meaty, with the rich intensity that lamb so often has, yet it was lean and vibrant.
"The key to great lamb tongue salad," Gerald said, "is getting really fresh lamb tongue." In Glendale, where he lives, it's relatively easy to find it in Middle Eastern markets. His favorite one is Golden Farms. It's also important to choose the smallest lamb tongues because the older the animal, the tougher it is to peel the tongue.
I had conquered my squeamishness and was feeling a bit over-confident when Gerald turned to me and asked, "Can I show you how to make kishk, our sour milk porridge?"
Gerald Frazee's Lamb Tongue Salad
Feel free to add as much or as little garlic, green onions, and parsley as you like. Gerald says his father would use a whole head of garlic instead of the two cloves called for in this recipe.
Serves 8 as a first course
1 teaspoon baking soda
2 pounds lamb tongues
2 cloves garlic, finely grated
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 bunch parsley, stemmed and chopped
1 bunch green onions, chopped
Pita bread, for serving
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Fill a pot with 2 quarts of salted water, stir in the baking soda, and add the tongues. Bring to a slow boil, then skim any foam that rises to the top. Cook the lamb tongues for about 2 hours, until they are completely tender. Turn off the heat and let them cool in the water.
When the tongues are cool enough to handle, strain them from the boiling liquid and save about half of the liquid. Use a serrated knife to peel away all the skin and trim any excess fat. Cut the peeled tongues into ½-inch slices. Place them in a shallow bowl, season with salt and pepper, and pour in a splash of the reserved boiling liquid. Add just enough liquid to moisten the slices.
In a small bowl, stir together the garlic, olive oil, lemon juice, 1 teaspoon salt, 1 teaspoon pepper, and another splash of the reserved boiling liquid. Pour over the slices. Top with the parsley and green onions. Serve with little wedges of pita bread.