The only way to get more comfortable with cooking a certain type of food is by cooking it. Maybe for some the challenge lies in steak, or a roast Thanksgiving turkey. Maybe you’re intimidated by cooking curries or poaching eggs. But maybe it’s something a little more… unsightly than that.
Somehow, the nose-to-tail movement that has captivated chefs, butchers, and maybe some home cooks doesn’t seem especially big on cooking tongues of any type. But beef tongue is a traditional offal eaten around the world—from marinated slivers in Sichuan appetizers to sandwiches in a Jewish deli. And to tacos, one of the most accessible, lovable food vessels in existence.
So I decided on making tongue tacos for a taco party last weekend (to reminisce a fun Mexican getaway with friends the week before). I knew that it wasn’t going to be a pretty task preparing a tongue taco filling from scratch, but after bringing home the hulking, snakelike beast from a butcher store, the struggle was real.
The most unfortunate—or beneficial towards getting over your food fears?—part about preparing tongue happens after it’s been cooked. You then have to peel off the bumpy, leathery layer of skin. This stuff is like a thick rubber band and clings a bit, and it’s totally not for keeping (although my dog loved it and I’m sure yours would, too). I couldn’t get a non-blurry photo of the skin-peeling part because I’m just a poor photographer where peeling tongue skin with one hand and shakily holding the camera with the other is concerned.
Why was I doing this again? Because tongue tacos are pretty good, once you get past the initial appearance of the raw protein (not that you’d usually see that in a taqueria). It’s a smart way to render the fleshy muscle that is cow’s tongue into something delectable. And it should, in theory, be pretty easy. You just boil that tongue with a few seasonings until really tender. Then chop it up into small cubes, and brown them ‘til crisp on a pan. Put whatever you want on the taco along with these nibbles of what finally looks like meat.
But since you’re going through that nonsense, cooking tongue for a long period of time until tender, you might as well cook another taco filling for your friends while you’re at it. This could be a more crowd-pleasing, easy sell. This could ideally be pork carnitas.
And if one long-simmered taco filling fails for whatever reason, you’ll have the other. (Note, this entry is not for a pork carnitas taco recipe, which I tacked together through looking at several recipes and is also quite simple, just the tongue.)
Tacos are just great foods for throwing parties with overall. You put out a bunch of tortillas, fillings, sauces and garnishes, and everybody can make their own plate. They won’t even know the trouble you went through to make that tongue palatable—definitely a good thing, unless your friends are really weird. But you’ll know, and will have grown five inches taller in food-making comfortability, from the daunting chore.
(makes about 1 quart of taco filling, or enough for 12-15 tacos)
2-3 lb beef tongue, halved lengthwise if necessary to fit in a pot
1 large onion, halved
8 cloves garlic, smashed
2 bay leaves
1/4 teaspoon ground cumin (optional)
salt and pepper to taste
Place the tongue in a pot with the onion, garlic and bay leaves, and fill with enough water to cover. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to a simmer and cover the pot. Cook, covered, for 3 hours or until the tongue is very tender. Reserve some fat from the cooking liquid to brown the meat with later (or just skip and use lard or oil in the next step below). Drain and let cool until cool enough to handle.
Peel the thick outer layer from the tongue, using a knife if necessary to scrape. Discard this skin (or give it to your dog). Chop the tongue meat into one-quarter to one-half inch cubes.
Heat the reserved fat (or lard or just olive oil) in a heavy-bottomed pan, such as cast-iron. Add the chopped tongue meat to the pan along with a few pinches of salt and pepper, and the optional cumin. Toss the cubes in the oil over high heat to brown evenly and adjust seasoning to taste. Remove from heat and serve with tortillas and your choice of garnishes.
(for about 1 quart of taco filling, or 6-8 servings)
2.5 lbs beef tongue (at $6/lb from Paisano’s): $15
8 onion: $0.25
8 garlic cloves: $0.25
2 bay leaves, 1/4 teaspoon cumin, salt, pepper: $0.25
Total: $15.75 (not including tortillas and other garnish)
Five brownie points: I think tacos are a great opportunity for eating meat and veggies in fairly equal proportion. They’re best when topped with a pile of crunchy vegetables like shredded cabbage, fresh, zingy herbs like onions and cilantro, as well as hot peppers and tangy sauces to balance the richness of the meat. With tongue as your protein, you’ll have much of the same nutrition as beef, such as Vitamin B12, minerals and protein, along with its cholesterol (depending on how fatty or how much you trim or skim away from flesh). It’s also a flavorful cut of offal, so you won’t necessarily need to load up on it in your taco.
Seven maple leaves: If you’re going to eat meat (as in the fleshy, “normal” muscle parts of animal), you should also eat offal (the organs and entrails that come with the animal, too). It’s a way of experiencing everything that the sacrifice of the creature has to offer, and it should make you appreciate some parts of it more. Let alone that offal is usually much less expensive than normal muscle meat — it’s a responsibility as a carnivore that can really help out the small farmer or butcher for buying more.