While I am sure many will pick up Odd Bits as an "Iron Chef meets teenage boy dare meets Fear Factor episode", the reader will be swiftly and joyfully swooped up into one of the top books of 2011. Jennifer McLagan's final stage of her trilogy, including the much lauded Bones (2005) and Fat (2007), is a comprehensive exploration of those animal parts that are ignored or tossed in the bin, and the word fascinating would be the ultimate understatement in describing this book.
The Australian-born Jennifer McLagan is a Toronto-based chef and writer who is a regular contributor to Fine Cooking and Food & Drink. She is committed to the use of the full animal (à la Fergus Henderson) not only for purposes of economy or sustenance, but also culture and tradition. Odd Bits is her final manifesto to the world of daring or squeamish cooks to take a new look at less common parts of the animals.
At 256 pages the book is divided into five chapters and one "Interlude":
* Get a Heat: Challenging
* At the Front: Comfortingly Reassuring
* A True Snout of a Tail Meal
* Stuck in the Middle: Familiar and Exotic
* The Back End: Convention and Beyond Belief
* Basic Recipes: Odd Stocks
I presume for most readers, the front and the back of the animals will be the most challenging, however McLagan's knowledge and her reassuring voice are like a mother holding a child's hand as they walk to the haunted bedroom closet to reveal the monster. In each chapter she begins with an overview of the body parts and what we might expect to see (thereby removing the scary monster). Next she has an overview of how to select, prepare and cook the parts. And then she opens the closet door by presenting a relatively easy, but sure to please recipe for the body part(s). The very first recipe is characteristic of her goal and tone - Headcheese for the unconvinced. This is followed by numerous recipes ranging from common to eccentric:
* Veal Cheeks with Swiss Chard and Olives
* Cheese and Just a Little Brain Fritters
* Sweetbreads with Morels and Fresh Fava Beans
* Moroccan-Style Braised Heart
* Minted Tripe and Pea Salad
* Wild Boar Shanks with Cranberries and Chocolate
* Bone Marrow and Mushroom Custard
McLagan is realistic in the challenge before her. She starts the second chapter with "This chapter covers some more familiar territory, so if you are still recoiling from the idea of eating eyeballs, you'll be much more comfortable here." She manages the challenge by surrounding the "odd bits" concept with so many useful tips and contextual discussions that the book is elevated from freak show cookbook to indispensable cultural flagstone. Take, for example, her explanations of cooking with swiss chard, the use of parchment paper in the kitchen, how to cook proper eggs (hard-cooked eggs), how to prepare bread crumbs and where the term "tartare" originates (the Mongolian Tartars loved raw meat).
And then she drops in more recipes like Devilled kidneys and mushrooms, Peruvian heart kababs, and Pistachio brain soufflé. The latter is the lead-in to a wonderful history lesson that has danced off my tongue at numerous cocktail parties since I read the page on Mock Turtle Soup. McLagan's comprehensive knowledge jitterbugs the history of 18th Century green turtles on London tables, calves heads, pig's ears, and Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland... all the way down to Sir John Tenniel's illustrations in Alice of a mock turtle standing on the beach with the head and feet of a calf. Absolutely fascinating and with brilliance seldom encountered in a cookbook.
And the tips keep flowing. Each recipes offers alternative cuts for cooks not having access to her recommended cut. This is especially helpful for American readers who have a government agency that bans many animal parts that are commonly eaten elsewhere around the world. She also provides tips for talking with your butcher or meat supplier to maximize your recipes and gain better value, such as how you should have a certain cut of meat trimmed.
If there is one criticism (and I offer this very lightly), it is the overabundance of quotes. The quotes mix the modern and historic, and range from directly related to interestingly parallel. However, in many cases they distracted me from the section that I was reading so much so that I stopped reading the quotes until I finished the book, then I returned and read just the quotes. And more precisely, I believe the problem is with the layout of the quotes, as they are directly aligned with the text, making it challenging to ignore them. A small price to pay for sure, if even a price at all.
Odd Bits will not be the rockstar book that will fill the holiday stockings of every cook, but it should be. Readers will be hard-pressed to find a more well researched, interesting and useful cookbook in 2011. McLagan has triumphantly capped her trilogy, and regardless of why you buy the book, you will no longer fear the odd bits, but rather you will be striking up the grill to savor them with enthusiasm, confidence and joy.