When my mother married my father, she was in her early 20s and he was a high-level military officer who soon ascended to being a military governor. Mom tells me how intimidating it was to have to host official dinner parties practically every night. She had two cooks under her command, one who prepared French food and the other was a master of Vietnamese and Chinese preparations. She learned from her staff, and took private lessons too, so that she would know how the flavors of all three cuisines came together and could oversee their work and plan menus.
After we arrived in the U.S. in 1975, Mom no longer had a kitchen staff, except for her four daughters, but she had no problem whipping up Vietnamese, Chinese, and French classics herself. That's why and how I grew up enjoying braised beef tongue. It was a part of the extensive Vietnamese repertoire, which is an amalgam of Southeast Asian, East Asian, South Asian and French influences. With the Vietnamese diaspora, let's just say the cuisine of Vietnam spans East and West.
My mother made this tongue dish every once in a while, and I relished its savory rich flavors and velvety soft, fine texture. After not having had it for years, I requested it and my mom revealed that beef tongue was pricey and it was a splurge to feed our voracious family of seven. Duh, a cow has only one tongue, which made this dish even more precious to me!
In honor of Bastille Day (yesterday), I decided to prepare beef tongue myself. This preparation is based on one for luoi bo (langue braisee) from a 1940s Vietnamese cookbook written by Mrs. Van Dai, Lam Bep Gioi. A fabulous teacher and straightforward writer, she had an entire section of her classic book devoted to French preparations. I compared her recipe to those in the popular French home cookbook, La Bonne Cuisine de Madame E. Saint-Ange, which was published by Larrouse in the late 1920s and recently translated into English by Paul Aratow. The recipes are practically the same. Given the time span between publications, Mrs. Van Dai may have gotten her hands on Saint-Ange's book. Plus, beef tongues don't change that much over time and long cooking is required to sufficiently soften the muscle fibers.
I've seen few Vietnamese preparations of beef tongue. (It's not a widely popular dish since there's only so much tongue to go around.) The one recipe I came across is similar to this one here, though the instructions were for slicing the raw tongue up, marinating it in onion, fish sauce, and pepper, simmering it with chopped fresh tomato and then thickening the cooking liquid with flour mixed with water; the tough outer skin of the tongue isn't removed. That recipe is quite akin to Mrs. Van Dai's slightly more refined French approach. And I suppose that if she didn't have parsley or thyme, she may have substituted a handful of cilantro, or omitted the herbs altogether. She knew about parsley and called it western cilantro in her writing. Bay leaf would have been available since many Viet cooks included it in curries.
Serve this old-fashioned, homey French preparation with mashed potatoes or buttered noodles and a blanched seasonal vegetable like green beans, peas or broccoli. In late fall-early winter, chestnuts would be fabulous.
The tongue I used is from last year's grass-fed beef supply, which I had to use up in the freezer to make room for this year's order from rancher Joe Morris. Tongues from regular markets often lack the black marking. Don't be squeamish about cooking tongue. It's marvelous, and if you're going to eat beef, practice a head-to-tail rigor to pay full respect to the animal.
1 (3 to 4 pound) beef tongue
2 tablespoons rendered pork fat or oil
1 large yellow onion, cut into ¼-inch thick slices
2 carrots, cut into coins
¼ cup dry white wine or vermouth
2 bay leaves
4 to 6 sprigs fresh parsley
4 to 6 sprigs fresh thyme
3 ripe Roma tomatoes, cored and coarsely chopped
1 teaspoon salt
4 1/4 cups water
1 tablespoon cornstarch dissolved in 1 1/2 tablespoons water
1. Rinse the tongue and put it into a large, deep pot, like a 6-quart Dutch oven. Add enough water to cover by 2 inches. Bring to a boil over medium high heat and reduce the heat to simmer vigorously. Cook for 20 minutes. Remove from the heat, put the tongue in a bowl of cold water and allow to cool.
2. When cool enough to handle, drain, discarding the liquid. Remove the tough outer white skin and any black parts from the tongue. Use a sharp knife with a thin blade, and start from the pointy tip to cut away the skin. I usually remove the top layer and then attack the underside. You won’t be able to get at all of it on the first pass and will have to scrape and/or cut off residual bits. Rinse to remove any clinging bits and pat dry.
3. Position a rack in the middle level of the oven and preheat to 375F. In an oven-safe pot, heat the fat over medium-high heat. Add the onions and then snuggle the tongue between the onions. Reduce the heat a tad and brown the tongue lightly, about 4 minutes total. The onions will turn color a bit by the time you’re done.
4. Add the carrots and give things a stir. Splash in half of the white wine, and put the lid on. Cook for 6 to 8 minutes, shaking the pot about every 2 minutes to prevent the onions and carrots from burning.
5. Add the remaining white wine, bay leaf, parsley, thyme, tomato, and salt. Cover and cook for about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the tomato has softened and is nearly collapsed.
6. Add the water and bring to a boil. Cover the pot, and then slide it into the oven. Bake (the liquid should simmer) for 45 minutes per pound, or until a toothpick easily pierces the tongue. Every 30 minutes, turn the tongue for even cooking.
7. Remove from the pot from the oven. Transfer the tender tongue (which resembles an old shoe) to a plate and cover to keep warm and prevent drying. Strain the cooking liquid and degrease it. You should have about 2 1/2 cups. (If preparing in advance, allow the tongue to cool in the pot and refrigerate. Degrease by lifting off the fat that will congeal on top. Reheat the tongue and cooking liquid over medium heat before proceeding to remove the tongue and straining the liquid.)
8. Bring the liquid to a boil and let it reduce to 1 3/4 to 2 cups. Taste and add salt or pepper, if needed. Give the cornstarch a stir, and add to the sauce. Cook for about 30 seconds longer, or until the sauce is silky and slightly thickened. Turn off the heat and cover to keep warm. (If the tongue is cold by this point, put it into the sauce to gently reheat it before slicing.)
9. To serve, halve the tongue lengthwise and then cut into slices or cut the whole tongue into slices. (You can do a bit of both too since the more end is a lot bigger than the tip.) Regardless, cut at a slight angle in the narrower parts to craft more evenly-sized pieces. Arrange on a plate. Pour some of the sauce on top to moisten the tongue and serve the rest on the side.
You can also put the sliced tongue in the sauce to warm and lightly coat and then arrange on a plate to serve.