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Book review – Offal: The Fifth Quarter

10 June 2011 by
Book review – Offal: The Fifth Quarter

Offal: The Fifth Quarter By Anissa Helou
Absolute Press, £25
ISBN 978-1-906650-55-1

Lebanon-born Anissa Helou has waged a long campaign to convert the British public to the delights of offal. But her timing hasn't always been great. Her first attempts to write the Fifth Quarter came at the height of the BSE crisis when obtaining the brains, spinal cords and heads she needed to test her recipes became impossible without foreign travel. Even when the book was first published, she admits it was still arguably ahead of its time.

But attitudes towards the fifth quarter - the mathematically inexact term given to offal by French and Italian butchers - have softened. Now, as Helou publishes the updated, new edition of her book, offal is acquiring a cult status among chefs and the wider public.

The book could scarcely be a more comprehensive guide to the practice of cooking with offal. It kicks off with a gory A-Z of the less-celebrated parts of an animal's anatomy, explaining the uses for each ingredient and a brief description of how to clean and prepare them for cooking. It's important to know, for example, that a brain will require at least half an hour of soaking in several changes of water to rid it of any excess blood, before poaching it in a court bouillon for three minutes to firm it up before cooking.

As for the recipes themselves, they are divided up by starters, mains, and sweets (although there is just one sweet). There is also a section on ‘the acceptable face of offal'. That means dishes like foie gras au sel, terrine of game, and grilled chicken wings.

The less acceptable face of offal contains some of the more interesting-sounding dishes, such as brains in coconut cream, pig's lungs in almond juice, and Corsican brawn (the head meat of a pig with wine and seasoning).

Overall, the book could have benefited from a few more photos to illustrate the dishes (or perhaps the publishers decided this would be too off-putting), but it should serve as a real source of inspiration if you have the odd brain or testicle spare.

If you like this, you'll love these:
by Fergus Henderson
â- Charcuterie: The Craft of Salting, Smoking and Curing by Michael Ruhlman
â- Terrines and Verrines by Franck Pontais

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