Rocky mountain oysters, calf fries, cowboy caviar…. I prefer calling a spade a spade. I ate testicles.
Last Sunday at the Hillsdale Farmers Market, Farmer Alan Rousseau of Pine Mountain Buffalo Ranch gifted me a package of buffalo testicles. I’ve found that as a chef at farmers markets, I am often the recipient of food gifts. This pleases me greatly, and I treasure the riches that are bestowed upon me. If it is something I am unfamiliar with, I am even happier. Some ingredients challenge my culinary know-how. Such as goat liver. Elder flowers. Yak. And most recently, buffalo testicles. I take them home, pour through my collection of culinary resources, cookbooks, periodicals, the internet, and colleagues, then dive head first into some sort of preparation, usually with enough success that I will seek it out again.
“I must say that is a strange gift,” commented meat authority Bruce Aidells when I asked his advice on what to do with this most curious of cuts. This time, cookbooks failed me. Even Fergus Henderson’s “The Whole Beast: Nose to Tail Eating” didn’t delve down there. The internet was a mish mash of disturbing images, frat house-style jokes and puns, and recipes that sounded more blech than yum (like testicle pizza). “Treat them like sweetbreads,” was Bruce’s advice, “Cover them in olive oil and cook in a 200 F oven until they reach an internal temperature of 150 F. Once cool, slice and bread in panko crumbs and fry until crisp.”
Now, I’ve eaten my share of strange. In fact, one of my very favorite foods is sweetbreads. I love snails and sea urchin, raw meat and sashimi. When I go out for Korean food, I request the tiny whole fish, stiff and stinky, and munch them happily in their entirety. Once, a Chinese co-worker made his fellow cooks his mother’s special chicken feet recipe. I blissfully gnawed the toes, enjoying the sweet-sticky feeling on my lips.
At my last restaurant gig, we butchered whole animals – I made a skewer of lamb heart and liver, rabbit kidneys, and braised artichoke hearts. I called it “spiedino of hearts and parts” and served it with the lamb mixed grill. And I have very vivid, very delicious memories of the first time I tried brains. I was working at March Restaurant in Manhattan, a now defunct fine dining luxury restaurant, where I ate more caviar and foie gras than perhaps I should have. There was a large bowl of veal ravioli filling sitting on the prep table. I cruised by on my way to the walk-in, nabbed little blob of soft white, and popped it in my mouth. On the way back, I paused and tasted another. And another. I said, “Wow, this cheese is incredibly rich and creamy, what is it?” I turned to Steve, a fellow line cook, and he smiled, knowing. “That’s not cheese,” he said looking at me sideways, talking out of the corner of his grin. “What is it?” I puzzled. “…It’s brains.” he said, his smile spread, ready for my horror. “Oh!” I lilted, truly surprised, “Well, it’s delicious!” and helped myself to a spoonful of filling.
But what got me here was that there was nothing to hide. It took me all day to muster up the courage to face the testicles. At 11 PM, I unwrapped the now thawed and drippy package to reveal two disturbing blobs of squishy, veiny, pallid orbs. I pushed on one with my finger. It was mush encased in membrane. Knobby cartilage-laden membrane. It made me remember the slippery water snake toy that slides out of your grip. I thought if I picked one up, it would escape my grasp and splat on the linoleum. They flopped into a bowl and I rinsed them off.
Cooking helped with the visual – sort of. At least they were not so glistening and fleshy. But between the distinct odor of offal that perfumed the kitchen, and the fact that they firmed up so much (despite the correct internal temperature), I thought they’d prove totally inedible. In fact, when I went to probe them with a kitchen thermometer the first time, I underestimated the force necessary to puncture the outside membrane. The probe bounced off as if I were trying to puncture a rubber ball (pun truly unintended). I was admittedly becoming uncharacteristically squeamish. Fully cooked, and much shrunken, I let them cool, then re-submerged them in the oil, decanted of cooking juices, and went to bed.
I had breakfast. I had lunch. I couldn’t face eating testicles on an empty stomach. Late afternoon, I took to preparing my fried snack. I was unsure what to do, so I cut a round off the end. It became immediately clear that I would have to peel the testicle before proceeding. The rest was a breeze. Slice, flour, eggwash, panko breadcrumb. Fry until crisp, salt liberally. “What isn’t good breaded and fried?” my husband offered. His few words of encouragement seemed shallow when he then refused a taste. I plated them with a few pickled fiddlehead ferns, both for flavor contrast and as a palate cleanser, if need be.
“You know, it’s hard to describe,” I said.
“Like meat? ” she asked, “Strong?”
“No,” I paused, “it was both rich and bland. Kind of like eggs, but less flavorful. They were nice and crisp on the outside, so there was that fine browned, fried flavor. But as for the meat itself, kind of offalesque, kind of chickeny…gizzard? I think they were a little like gizzard.”
She seemed puzzled, “What was the texture like?”
“A cross between a very firm paté and a fried mushroom.”
“That would make me think it was dense and spongy,” she quizzed.
“Did you like it?” she posed.
I sipped my martini. I had done my best to channel my inner Andrew Zimmerman. I felt a little like I failed the farmer, who had so enthusiastically presented me with the package of offal, noting, “People are really surprised – they try them and love them!” I didn’t love them. I loved kidneys the first time I tried them, but then I had no knowledge of what I was eating. It was very early in my career, and once I found out, I couldn’t eat them with the same zeal as when they were an anonymous component of the meal. I thought that if I had been served the plate of fried testicles, without having experienced them every step of the way, I might have indulged with more abandon. And I probably would have enjoyed them more. I wanted to like them.
“If someone made them for me, I’d try them again.”
Here is a photo documentation of my testicle-eating experience: