Ach, Tongue, Baby

Recently at a market that carries some good local meat I spied a big old cow tongue. I’ve never cooked it, but I have memories of my Grandfather serving it to me on occasion. It always sort of creeped me out; that boiled beef smell and the gray pallor of the giant tongue just didn’t add up to appetizing. I did eat it, and it did taste pretty good–if kind of bland–but I sort of filed it away in the “things old Jewish people eat because they grew up dirt poor in Poland” category and didn’t give it much thought for a long time. So, seeing in the cooler, I decided that I would give it a shot, and do what I could to minimize those qualities that had turned me off it as a child: I would make it into pastrami.

Boom! There’s really no escaping the reality of a cow tongue. It looks more like some kind of parasitic space lamprey than something you’d voluntarily eat, but there it is. The thin end looks a lot like some slip-ons that Satan himself might sport–say, to Bristol Palin’s wedding.

First off, I brined the pieces in a mixture of salt, herbs, garlic, pepper, vinegar, and a pinch of sugar in the fridge for three days. The next step was getting the very thick skin off, so I made some long cuts in it and blanched the pieces in simmering water for about 10 minutes. It could have gone longer, but the cuts allowed me to get most of it off pretty easily. The rest I sort of whittled away with my sharpest knife. Cow tongue skin is serious stuff. It probably would make good shoes.

Once peeled, I rubbed the pieces all over with the standard pastrami spices of pepper and coriander. If you’re going to do this–to a tongue, a brisket, or anything else–make sure you grind whole spices. Do not waste your time with powders; pre-ground black pepper is worthless. Then into the smoker they went, where they spent about two hours bathed in hot smoke from wind-felled maple branches gleaned from the yard. I took them out when their insides had reached 140˚F.

Gene Simmons wishes that his tongue looked like this.

There are a few other recipes for tongue pastrami, but most involve simmering the thing for five hours to tenderize it before smoking it. And there’s no doubt that this is one tough muscle. It sorely needs tenderizing, but I really didn’t want to end up with that awful grayness. So I tasted it for salt, and then vacuum-sealed the pieces in a bag with a little extra sprinkled in there because the brine had not been saline enough. And I cooked it for 18 hours at 150˚F. The result? It had the lovely, rosy smoke ring of good barbecue, and was still pale pink throughout like any self-respecting deli meat should be, yet perfectly al dente. Not chewy, not falling-apart, and no deathly, ashen hue to be found. I also ended up with about half a cup of the pastrami juice that cooked out into the bag. I’m saving it for mushrooms, I think.

And the tongue tastes very good: a classic pastrami profile, but with much less fat. Now I loves me some copious, chin-dripping pastrami fat, but sometimes it’s a bit much. This is amazing in sandwiches. My current favorite lunch is a croque-monsieur with homemade bread, two-year old Vermont cheddar, and a layer of tongue. It also makes a wicked Reuben with homemade sauerkraut. (See also my nearly 100% from scratch Reuben TNS post from last year). Last night I was using some leftover risotto I made with puréed carrot soup (a brilliant yellow-orange, and very tasty) to make makizushi for Milo’s lunch today. Since we didn’t have any salmon, he asked me if I’d roll some “cow tongue” up in the middle instead. So I did. Here’s a shot of a platter I put out for a meeting here yesterday, along with duck prosciutto, bread, and some cheese. I just had the uneaten portion in a superlative sandwich for lunch.  Now I have to buy a brisket and make a real pastrami; one gets accustomed to having homemade deli meats around, and in this dismal weather the thought of doing without smoked meat in my grilled cheese is too grisly to contemplate.

14 comments to Ach, Tongue, Baby

  • El

    Fascinating. My daughter has been bugging me for a tongue sandwich ever since we saw a Two Fat Ladies episode (for high tea, no less) so I have a tongue in my freezer (along with cheeks and tails: the butcher thinks I am old school) and I have not a thought of what to do with it. Peeling the skin off does not sound pleasant but indeed life is full of less than pleasant tasks. Milo’s a lucky kid.

  • Allison

    Holy Gunga Din…TONGUE?!?!? Yikes. My inner child is telling me to run like the dickens!! But it must be ding dong dang awesome if it’s on your site. Everything you post on here always looks yummy (aside from raw tongue pic above…that almost made me lose it). I’ll take your word for it, this time. I don’t think I’m quite adventurous enough for any tongue recipes.

  • I keep wondering how this would do under pressure (extreme, papillae-pulverizing pressure, not the sexy sous-vide kind). Once it’s corned I don’t think grayness should be an issue?

    I think you should go full taco on summa that.

  • Next, let’s see if you can rehabilitate schav.

  • What a great and interesting read! I have a tongue in my deep freeze that has been calling my name for some time but.. I keep running! You’ve inspired me to give this a try! Thanks for linking up to Simple Lives Thursday!

  • In my family, we cooked it whole with aromatic veggies in a pressure cooker to hasten the process. The skin comes off easily, after that. Ours were rather brownish, certainly no pink left, but quite delicious in a very mild sort of way. When I grew up and had to prepare it myself, I still enjoyed the taste but I couldn’t cook it and eat it the same day – the prep was still too vividly in my mind – ulp. gag.

  • That’s pretty amazing, but will you make it again?

  • Okay- I’m suitably impressed. Where did you find the recipe?

    And I like your much more obnoxious tongue pun than mine.

  • Peter

    El: Peeling it is not fun. But not hard if you do simmer it for a long time. I was just trying to avoid that.

    Alison: Try it with another cut of beef. Brisket is traditional. The raw tongue is advanced meat, no doubt.

    Blanche: If you cure it with pink salt, it will stay pink. True. The pressure would make that skin slip off as easily as (insert Palin underwear simile here).

    Franklin: I was just having a comment-conversation about sorrel the other day. If mine hadn’t died in the heat this summer, I would make it right away. Spring.

    Diana: Thanks for coming by. Let me know how it turns out.

    Zoomie: Yeah. The early stages require discipline.

    Julia: In a second. This was (is, still) awesome.

    Paula: I made it up, as I do with most things. If you google “tongue pastrami” you’ll find the same posts I did. And if you like obnoxious puns, you’ve come to the right place.

  • what pisses me off is that you don’t call me and ask if i want any. just a bit. like for 2 measly sandwiches. yes, you really could/should have called…

  • It looks like carpaccio, only more verbal. Tongue grosses me out in theory, but I have a feeling it’d be delicious. Kind of like cheeks. So gross, yet so tasty.

  • Peter

    Claudia: I still have some. *call me*

    Kristie: It’s super-delicious, but the pastrami treatment definitely helps.

  • [...] the last pastrami ran out. (Here’s an account of my from-scratch reuben, and here’s the post about the recent tongue pastrami). I love Moroccan flavors, and in general I prefer lamb to beef, so I thought I’d make lamb [...]

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I'm a painter who happens to also spend a lot of time growing, making, and writing about food. I'm particularly interested in the intersection of frugal peasant cooking techniques and haute improvisation. And I have a really great personality.

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