I last saw tongue on a plate at a hotel by the seaside in 1987. Following the starter of a single maraschino cherry atop a slice of gala melon, the tongue was served grey, dulled, and with a full complement of taste buds intact on the upper surface. I didn’t try it.
Some of you will have been merrily eating tongue for decades. For those of you that are less au fait with that part of the anatomy, there is no other way to put this: tongue looks revolting. I am not sure there is even one stage of the cooking process where you won’t think “Why the hell am I doing this?”. Envisage the giant gustatory tool of a ruminant, not dissimilar to a slimy sea creature dressed in elephant hide. It will lurk at the back of your fridge, a pan, then your hands and finally a bun.
I assure you that preparing a tongue is a triumph of perseverance over common sense. There is reason for all this unpleasantness; it is gloriously rich, packed with beefy flavour, unfussy, impossible to ruin, and tender — almost mousse-like — served hot. I do not doubt I have unknowingly been served tongue in pies, stews, rillettes, or burritos for years whilst praising such dishes for their complexity of taste. However, relentless chewing renders a fresh tongue tough as an old boot so it needs a long slow preparation. You should allow close to a week to brine and simmer the beast, plus a night to set in the fridge if you prefer the meat more tidily sliced.
It may help that there will be no taste buds – we’ll whip them off before they get near anyone’s mouth.
1kg tongue – if your tongue or pot is larger, just scale up the recipe so the brining solution covers it (see picture below)
2l of water
1tsp of juniper berries
3 bay leaves
Aromatic vegetables (celery, onion, carrot)
Two pan-toasted star anise
1tsp of juniper berries
2 bay leaves
Prepare the brining solution by putting all the ingredients into a pan (without the tongue) and heat until the sugar and salt dissolve. Leave until cold. Place tongue in a non-metallic pan, pour over brining solution, and return to the fridge for 3-5 days. This process helps to tenderise the meat, so with all these things, the longer you leave it the better. If you are sensitive to salt then soak it for another day in fresh water before cooking. I used it straight from the brining solution, though rinsed it well, paying particular attention to the underside of the tongue.
Place rinsed tongue, along with any aromatic veg that you have in a pan of cold water (an onion, a couple of carrots, some celery), plus the star anise, juniper berries, and bay. You probably won’t taste these if you serve the tongue with anything heavily flavoured (gherkins, horseradish, capers, etc), but they do give a lovely smell and flavour to the pieces you pick on while you cook!
Bring to the boil and simmer very gently for a long time – the longer the better. Anything from 1 hour in a pressure cooker to 8 hours without. I was aiming for four hours, but by the time I’d rounded people up, put together sauce gribiche to have with it, and done the dishes, it had been simmering for a happy 5 hours. Remove from the water, and – using a pair of tongs if it’s too hot – just peel off the skin with your fingers. The top is very much like an old leathery insole, and will be deemed delicious by any dog as gluttonous as mine.
Left over can be wrapped tightly in cling film, and left overnight in the fridge to set into a more pleasing shape to cut cold the next day.
Unwrap and slice neatly. Really, I promise it still smells and tastes delicious. It is again ready to serve, but a little tidier than yesterday. The juniper and star anise shine through… until – of course – you add heavily flavoured vinegary condiments as I did.
If you prefer the beef softer, put the slices in the base of a saucepan and gently pour over a little boiling water, letting them sit for a couple of minutes to warm through. Pat dry with some kitchen roll or other tissue. The meat is heavily flavoured and fatty, so relishes a sharp accompaniment. I served it warm in a toasted bagel, with sliced gherkins, and chirayonnaise*.
* Chirayonnaise was bought along with the bagels from a Jewish deli in Stamford Hill – a great combination of beetroot, horseradish, mayonnaise, and a touch of salt. So gloriously pink, and easy to put together at home.