For those of you interested in food history, there’s a great magazine called Eaten that explores a number of different culinary topics. Every month or so they do a food challenge and Challenge No. 4 was all about 19th-century Creole food!
Sadly, my project took a day longer than I expected and I missed the deadline to submit this historic beauty. Still, I wanted to give the magazine a shout out because it’s doubtful I would have read this cookbook otherwise.
This recipe comes from an 1885 cookbook called La Cuisine Creole by Lafcadio Hearn. Creole food is a culinary tradition that originated in 18th-century Louisiana in the American South. This culinary style is a unique and complex blend of French, African, Native American, Caribbean and Spanish with hints of other dishes borrowed from Portuguese, Indian and German settlers, among others.
As with all culinary traditions, the way it evolved over time was largely dependent on which ingredients the people had access to. Life on the bayou was significantly different from elsewhere in the New World and Creole cuisine is an obvious reflection of Louisiana’s geographical location and the cultural diversity of the people living there.
Popular Creole foods include jambalaya, gumbo, bisque, grits and grillades, seafood (shrimp, crawfish, salmon), beignets, muffaletta, beans and rice.
Note that Creole and Cajun are two distinct cuisines that are native to Louisiana and they share many similarities. There are subtle cultural differences between the two and some variation in the use of spices and cooking methods, but the main distinction is Creole is the “cosmopolitan” haute cuisine tradition of New Orleans while the Cajun tradition has more rural, swamp country roots and is enjoyed in cities like Lafayette.
When flipping through the book I was immediately drawn to this recipe. It sounds so unappealing to me in every way that I absolutely had to give it a try. Aspic is not nearly as common in the United States as it once was, though in New Orleans you can still find the Creole classic daube glace, which is like a jellied beef stew served on bread or crackers.
- 1 beef tongue
- 2 onions, sliced
- Head of celery, sliced
- 4 cloves
- Salt and pepper to taste
- 2/3 cup brandy
- 1 Tbsp. sugar
- Blade of mace (substitute 1/2 tsp. ground mace or nutmeg)
- Bunch of thyme
- Bunch of parsley, roughly chopped
- 3 packets of plain gelatin
Step ONE: The Tongue
As expected, there are some details missing from this recipe because it was assumed the cook would already know what to do with beef tongue.
Start with a thawed tongue and wash it the best you can, scrubbing it if you have the tool to do so. Put it in a deep pot and cover with salt water. The tongue will eventually float but for now just fill with enough water so it is barely submerged. Bring the water to a boil, turn down the heat and simmer for 2-3 hours.
If you do not know where to get beef tongue, check with your local butcher. I found mine at a Mexican grocery. Lengua is a fairly common Mexican dish.
Peeling the Tongue
Remove the now-tender tongue from the pot (do not dump the water) and mentally prepare yourself to peel it on a clean cutting board or other surface. Let it cool just enough to not burn your fingers, but you’ll want to do this while it is still very warm.
Using a knife, cut a slit in the tip of the tongue and peel off the top layer. You’ll immediately see the meat underneath and it should actually peel very easily. Peel all the way up like a banana, using a fork or your fingers.
All of the meat underneath is edible, but you’ll probably want to trim it a bit, especially around the base. Tongue is a very fatty meat anyway, but you can trim away some of the excess fat if you prefer.
Place the tongue back into the pot of water.
Step TWO: The Broth
Then place it in a stew-pan with two onions, a head of celery, four cloves and salt and pepper; cover it with the liquor it was boiled in; add to it a glass of brandy, a tablespoon of sugar, a blade of mace, a bunch of thyme, and a bunch of parsley. Let it simmer gently for two hours.
Add your onions, celery, cloves, sugar, mace, thyme, parsley and brandy. Salt and pepper it to taste. I did not measure out an exact amount of salt and pepper, but I ended up needing to add a lot more later. It might be better to add additional salt in the next step anyway, after the tongue is fully cooked and when you can taste the broth.
Simmer the tongue and broth for two hours.
Step THREE: The Aspic
Take out the tongue, strain the liquor it was boiled in, and add to it a box of Cox’s gelatine which has been soaked in a goblet of cold water. Heat it and pour it over the tongue.
Take out the tongue and set it aside to cool.
Depending on how much broth you need, use one cup per packet of plain powdered gelatine per cup of broth. That’s about 1/4 oz. or 2 1/2 tsp. gelatine per packet. My recipe calls for three packets, but assuming someone other than me actually makes this, you may need more depending on how you plan to serve the tongue.
Strain three cups of the broth and put in a separate pot. Add additional salt if needed (I recommend being generous with the seasoning). Take one cup of strained broth and set it aside to cool. If you’re short on time, put it in a bowl over some ice. Once the cup of broth is cold, sprinkle three packets of plain gelatine over it and let it soak for 1-2 minutes.
Meanwhile, heat the two cups of strained broth then add the soaked gelatine. Heat until the gelatine has completely dissolved but do not let it boil.
Step FOUR: Mold, Set, Serve
Depending on how you want to present your tongue, you can do this next step a number of ways. I honestly don’t know how it would have been served in 1885 and the recipe provides no additional details!
In my mind, it’s most likely this dish would have been served in slices with a piece of tongue encased in aspic. You could just place your entire tongue in a bread pan and fill it up with the aspic. It might make slicing it a bit difficult, but maybe not.
Another possibility is that it was served a bit like “head cheese.” The tongue may have been cut up or even shredded and placed in a pan. The aspic would have been poured over it, sliced and served like cold gelatinous meatloaf. But the fact that this recipe is called Braised Tongue with Aspic and there are no directions to shred or even cut the meat makes me doubt it was served this way.
I wanted to experiment a little with the cooked tongue and I preferred not to put the entire thing in aspic in case it turned out to be really awful. So for practical reasons, I decided to use the Russian dish zalivnoj jazyk / zalivnoe (Jellied Beef Tongue) as my presentation inspiration.
Slice the tongue lengthwise. Line the bottom a cake or other deep dish with slices of tongue and pour the aspic over the top. If you’re feeling fancy add a couple little leaves of parsley as garnish. Put it in the refrigerator to set overnight. Cut the aspic into squares/rectangles and serve.
I’ll be honest, this was a very off-putting dish texture-wise. Aspic is not an easy food to jump into without having some level of an acquired taste for it.
The flavor, however, was pretty good. The tongue on its own was great and tasted a bit like extremely tender and fatty slow-cooked roast. Eaten with the jelly it reminded me a little of what it’s like eating a big chunk of beef fat, but cold.
If you’re feeling adventurous and want to try something very unique and possibly a little frightening depending on what you’re accustomed to eating, consider this 135 year-old Creole dish. It’s surprisingly less technically challenging than you might expect, but it takes about 8 hours total to make.
Although it’s not my personal favorite dish to eat, it is probably the most memorable and entertaining project I’ve taken on in a while!