Good fresh brains are firm-looking, the form cleanly and symmetrically defined, the surface moistly glistening in aspect; they are white with a pearl cast, only the filigree network of thread-like veins in the surface membrane showing red. These conditions are not always met—otherwise good brains are often discolored by blood clots. In any case, those whose form and whose superficial cannular structure are ill-defined, the surface dull and messy in appearance, should be rejected.
Brains should be put to soak in cold water and the vein-threaded surface membrane carefully peeled off; it often facilitates the work to dip them repeatedly in water while removing it. Usually, with healthy-looking, firm, fresh brains, it slips free with little difficulty, but, occasionally, it offers frustrating and sometimes insuperable resistance; if after further soaking, it refuses to come free, leave it . . . Brains that have been badly bloodstained should be soaked again for 1 hour or so with several changes of water in order to draw from them the maximum discoloration (in professional kitchens, they are often parboiled to hasten the work of peeling, a process which, although permitting the membrane to be removed more easily, firmly stamps the flesh with a brown color and a muddy flavor that detracts greatly from their delicacy).
In the south of France and in Italy I have often eaten brains (usually those of sheep), the membrane of which had not been removed and which were put to cook raw, dredged in flour, in butter or olive oil. The crisp golden surface disguises, although imperfectly, the presence of the membranes; the flavor, without the support of court bouillon, borders on the insipid with a vaguely sweet edge—not altogether unpleasant—and the texture, even when well cooked, remains somewhat mushy. Neither is that disagreeable, but no hint is contained there of the wonderful creamy body, at once firm and melting—something of the same texture as that of foie gras cooked pinkly—that takes form through a preliminary passage in court bouillon. And the imprecise taste of faded things is transformed into subtlety and nuance by an aromatic vinegar court bouillon. Perhaps because I do not want anything else to imperfectly resemble the savor that I associate with brains—the fragrance of the court bouillon alone contains that single association for me—I reserve vinegar court bouillon for that limited use, preferring white wine in most other instances. Whatever their destiny, poach calves’ brains for about 25 minutes (lambs’ brains 18 to 20 minutes) in a court bouillon, slipping them gently into the simmering liquid and keeping it at a near simmer, saucepan covered, without permitting the boil to be reached. The court bouillon may first be strained to remove herbs and vegetables (there are, however, certain kitchen pleasures that are not shared at table—the beauty of a pair of brains floating among carrot and onion slices and straggles of herbs is among them. It is the only reason, also, for slicing the onion into rings rather than halving it and slicing it much more rapidly).
Copyright © 1974 by Richard Olney. Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.