There has always been a dreary little bin of calves’ feet and oxtail and chicken gizzards in the refrigerated meat case of our local grocery story, but what caught my eye recently was a gorgeous, extremely clean, garnet red beef kidney wrapped tight and pristine in plastic and prominently displayed like a jewel in a storefront window. And next to that, several packets of bright, superb-looking honeycomb tripe. I stopped in my tracks; you just don’t see that in a grocery store very often. Then I noticed that the whole section had been expanded, and these organ meats looked uncommonly vital, so to speak, and not nearly as questionable as the adjacent foam trays of “tri-tip” and ground sirloin packed on gel pads stained like a day-old Band-Aid.
I buy my dairy and dry goods and dish soap, bananas and limes and onions, at the supermarket, but I haven’t bought meat there in about 15 years. It’s an inconvenient commitment I made to the animals and to my then-pregnant body to try to use only my excellent butcher instead. But still, I always take a look at the supermarket case to see how it’s going in the commodity-meat world. And here’s how it’s going in my neighborhood, of late: There’s now shin-, heart- and flanken-cut short rib in that case. I checked out two other grocery stores within a 10-block radius and noticed the same trend — pigs’ tails, beef necks, chicken feet. The sections are expanding and showing quite nicely and are extremely well priced. With our restaurant closed indefinitely and Ashley and me barely drawing a steady income combined, I’ve been relieved to revisit my scruples with such good-looking product available.
I was raised with offal. My French mother and her wartime mentality had the seven of us in our family eating brains and shanks and necks that she braised on the back burners low and slow all the years of my childhood. We grew up as marrow suckers, tendon gnawers, cartilage crunchers, skin-on bone-in eaters. I know this is repulsive to many and nirvana to very few. And I know those very few come to the innards and offals through either penury or well-developed Epicureanism. Either way, it matters not. It’s to these very few that I dedicate this slurpable, slippery and superb dish of stewed and spicy tripe that you will still crave even when it’s back to work and the days of a reliable paycheck spent at the artisanal butcher shop are again upon us.
Tripe is the lining of the stomach of ruminants. Ruminants’ stomachs have several chambers, each with its own type of lining (only rarely will you come across book tripe and blanket tripe), and what we’re after here is honeycomb tripe — from the second chamber. That is, two clean, white flaps that uncannily resemble those swimmers’ caps from the Esther Williams era of synchronized water ballet. They are blanched to remove any lingering impurities, sliced very thin to resemble noodles and simmered all day. When Prune was still open, I used to give specific instructions not to do the first blanching of the organs too late in the prep day, lest that challenging smell would be lingering in the dining room when customers arrived for lunch. But that was when we were blanching 20 pounds at a clip at the restaurant and would get tripe that hadn’t already been bleached and treated during its original processing. Everything now is already cleaned before it gets to the supermarket.
Two beautiful pieces, totaling about four pounds, will be quick and painless — olfactorily speaking. I also like to rinse well the split calf’s foot. Anything that has bone and goes through a band saw where the grit can get stuck in the fat could benefit from a good sturdy rinse and rub before going into the pot. Water will work, but over the years I’ve always had meat stock as a basic staple in the walk-in, and I’ve noticed that it takes the tripe from mighty fine to holy-cow outrageous to have all that collagen in the broth. The broths now available in cartons at the same grocery store where you buy your tripe and your dish soap have also gotten very good, and it pleases me that this whole recipe is a one-stop-shop experience. You won’t need to zigzag around town to source the ingredients. The ancho and guajillo peppers add warmth and fruitiness, and the arbols add a zing just shy of sting. This ratio is just right — freestyling it with the amounts called for can end up with a chile powder that’s too raisiny or too muddy or too acidic even, so in this regard I urge fidelity to the recipe as written. Once assembled, it simmers all day, until it’s tender and soft. Then spoon it into pasta plates, and shower with slivered scallions.
I often eat it with chopsticks as if it were a plate of dan dan noodles and slurp the broth right from the bowl. Our mother may have scolded us to keep our elbows off the table and to sit up straight, and insisted on our pleases and thank-yous and excuse-mes; but in a household accustomed to slurping and gnawing, she would definitely approve of tilting broth from the bowl right to your lips.