Eat & Drink

Elite Athletes Want You to Eat More Brains

Organ meats are good for the environment, good for performance, and ethically the right thing to do. Now, top chefs aren’t the only ones trying to convince people that offal isn’t awful.

Elite Athletes Want You to Eat More Brains

Pro cyclist Lucas Euser advocates eating offal. Photo: Kevin Kreck/AP

It’s the kind of scene that would get anti-doping agents’ spidey sense tingling: On a foggy night in San Francisco, Lucas Euser, then a pro bike racer who’d been feeling run down after a hard season in Europe, stepped out of a building and into the street, clutching a blue cooler in his arms. 

“Somehow, I felt like I was doing something wrong,” he says. 

To be clear, he wasn’t. There was no transfusion-ready blood or EPO in the cooler. Instead, he was carrying seven pounds of freshly cleaned beef heart. 

Euser was stepping out of Incanto, the now-closed restaurant of celebrity chef Chris Cosentino. For years, Cosentino has been The Offal Guy. What many see as unlovable meat bits—brains, hearts, liver, intestines, feet—Cosentino sees as delicacies. “It’s this incredible product,” he says. “I’m riding on the coattails of all the grandmothers who cooked offal before me.” In fact, he remembers his own grandmother cooking organ meats to perfection during his childhood. 

Cosentino also knows a thing or two about pushing your body to the limit. In the late 90s, he raced as a pro ultra-endurance single speed mountain biker. While his compatriots were sucking down gels, Cosentino found that whole foods worked better for him. “I ate fried chicken during Montezuma’s Revenge and it was the most sustaining moment. Cold fried chicken at the base of a climb is pretty rad.” 

It was actually fellow pro cyclist Jonathan Vaughters who, in 2009, told Lucas Euser to seek out offal. Vaughters was managing Euser’s team, Garmin-Slipstream. His advice to many of the men at the end of a tough season was to bulk up on Pâté and other dishes starring liver. But when Euser asked Cosentino about how to cook chicken livers, the chef thought he could offer one better: Beef heart. “Hearts have a high concentration of creatine in them. What supplement are weightlifters always taking? Creatine. So why not eat something natural that has it, and also has all of these minerals?” says Cosentino. 

Even better: It’s delicious. Or at least that was the verdict from Euser. Because heart is so lean, it has a texture similar to a steak. However, all of the minerals impart those rich, tangy notes that make offal so interesting. Euser described it as eating a liver-flavored steak. 

If you aren’t sold on offal’s nutrition and taste, consider its moral and environmental benefits. For every rack of ribs or filet mignon, there’s a heart, brain, tongue, liver, and kidney lying around too. In fact, edible organ meat makes up 12 percent of the average slaughtered cow and 14 percent of the average slaughtered pig. Since few Americans eat these bits, the byproducts are often shipped overseas or turned into pet food. Which means we have to raise more animals here in the U.S. to supply our population with its meat demands. If we all started to eat more organ meat, we could likely raise less livestock. “It’s just the right thing to do,” says Cosentino about eating organ meats. He says that the closer he’s gotten to the ranchers who raise his animals, the more he appreciates every bit of the animal. “When you see how much of it people tend to throw away, it’s a really disappointing thing.”   

Come on America—let’s start using those brains…and all the other parts too. 

Tuscan-Style Chicken Livers

Serves 6 
Extracted from Beginnings by Chris Cosentino 

Ingredients:

1 ½ lb chicken livers, trimmed of any sinew or green or brown patches 
3 shallots, sliced
1/4 cup vin santo (an Italian dessert wine)
2 tsp fresh thyme leaves
1 fresh bay leaf
Finely grated zest of 1 orange
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
Small pinch of licorice powder (available from online retailers)
4 tbsp rendered duck fat, plus more melted duck fat for sealing
3 ½ tbsp unsalted butter
24 baguette slices

Method:

  1. In a shallow bowl, combine chicken livers, shallots, vin santo, thyme, bay, orange zest, 2 teaspoons salt, ½ teaspoon pepper, and the licorice powder. Mix well. Cover and refrigerate for 3 hours.
  2. Remove and discard the bay leaf from the chicken livers. In a large sauté pan over high heat, warm the duck fat. When it is hot, working in batches so as not to crowd the pan, use a slotted spoon to transfer the chicken livers and shallots to the pan. Cook, turning as needed, until the livers are well colored on the outside and pink in the center, about four minutes. As each batch is ready, transfer it to a food processor. 
  3. Pour the remaining marinade into the pan, stir up the brown bits, and add the contents of the pan into the food processor. 
  4. Process the liver mixture until smooth. With the motor running, slowly add the butter until the mixture is emulsified. 
  5. Pass the mixture through a drum sieve and into a bowl. Pack the mixture into one or more ramekins and top with a thin layer of duck fat to seal. Cover and refrigerate for at least 6 hours or up to 4 days.
  6. Just before serving, preheat a stove-top grill pan over medium-high heat. Place the baguette slices on the grill rack and grill, turning once, until etched with grill marks and crisp on both sides, about 2 minutes on each side.
  7. To serve, set out the ramekin, the baguette slices, and a spoon.

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