An occasional column by author, musician, and organic farmer Chris Stewart about life on his sheep farm in the Alpujarra region of Andalusia, on the southern slopes of the Sierra Nevada mountain range.
A dinner favourite down El Valero way is brains with gnocchi. “So what?” you may say, and in a sense I’d be with you. But, when all is said and done, there is a certain singularity to having such a supper, and you get delicious, nutritious, value for money. And, if one were to meditate a while upon the theme, a number of thoughts might manifest themselves
Let’s take the brains first. We eat a lot of lambs’ brains; they’re delicious in a disgusting sort of a way. We provide lamb meat for a small number of very select customers. Generally they don’t want the offal, so we sell the meat and get to eat the liver (tender, succulent and flavoursome), kidneys ( a pleasingly bowelly sort of a texture), balls ( the most exquisite offal eating of all, with a texture of wet bread and a flavour so subtle as to deny perception), brains (no apparent flavour at all, but made up for by the most deliciously slippery texture)… and lungs (a thing so utterly repugnant that nobody in their right mind would even consider it as food… nonetheless highly prized by Spanish country folk). Also one ought to bear in mind that offal is terribly good for you… full of amino acids, free radicals, riboflavins, antioxidants and all that other stuff that’s said by the experts to keep you from the door of death.
Another element of the equation is that meat itself – and especially most of the meat you get in Andalucía – is not big on flavour. Farm animals are often kept and fed in unspeakably awful conditions, and then the meat is not hung for long enough. The result is so bland, tough and flavourless that it would almost drive you to vegetarianism.
So not only are the brains and other questionable parts of the animal no worse than the meat itself (rather better in fact), but they’re cheap, too. You’re thinking perhaps of school food, the liver and kidney that passeth all understanding. But over the years I have learned how to deal with this stuff. The thing with brains is not to bother with all that washing and soaking in acidulated water that they talk about in the cookery books… just get in there and do it. Cut the brains up into bite size pieces, dip ‘em in beaten egg and roll ‘em in seasoned breadcrumbs. Then slap them in the pan for just the merest minute on either side. What you get is the most gorgeous crunchy outside as an exquisite counterpoint to the slinky slithery texture of the warm brain. Unforgettable.
As for liver and kidneys, keep ‘em pink on the inside, too much cooking makes them rubbery, as with just about everything else. And the balls, well, the balls are for me the caviar of the offal world; there’s really nothing quite like them. Cook them just like the brains, and they’re even more sumptuous but with the added benefit that there’s a hit of testosterone there big enough to give you a boner like a baseball bat.
So much for the offal: it’s cheap and it’s terrifically good. As for the gnocchi… well, this is a home made economy number. If you’re making mashed potato – or even aligot (mashed potato with cheese) if you’re a little more ambitious – try making three times as much as you need. To the leftovers add a heap of white flour and a generous portion of grated nutmeg. Now treat this as if it were plasticine: roll it out into sausages, cut it into chunks and roll each chunk between your palms into a ball. Could anything be more fun?
That’s it: that’s gnocchi. You can freeze them, in which case they can be cooked in a saucepan of boiling water direct from frozen, or you can drop them straight into the boiling water and have it right away. The beauty of gnocchi is that you know when they’re cooked because they float to the surface… and not many things in this life are as convenient and well conceived as that.
I wasn’t thinking of writing this as a cookery column, but this time it just turned out that way. After a supper of brains and gnocchi I had this delicious, nutritious dish, well, on the brain. Its great value for money is another plus, especially at a time like this. So Brains and Gnocchi it is.