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August 14, 2007

Brain food: Mario Batali's lamb's brains ravioli


My first exposure to the glories of lamb offal was entirely accidental.  "Abbacchio con funghi," read the chef's recommendations at one of Rome's oldest restaurants, La Campana, and a succulent lamb chop or tender braised shank did seem like a perfect fall supper in the Eternal City.  Moreover, because of my almost non-existent knowledge of Italian at the time, I was tickled about having understood the Roman dialect word for lamb.

"Pride goes before a fall," they say, and I was about to learn my lesson.

The full name of the dish is actually "animelle di abbacchio con funghi."  I naively ignored that first word, dismissing it as nothing more than a minor detail.  This is Rome, however, a city that prides itself on its culinary artistry with the "quinto quarto," or "fifth quarter" of the animal, the collection of snouts, guts, brains, and tails that have been staples of the city's working class cuisine for millenia.

When my meal finally arrived, I couldn't help but notice the extensive network of ridges and crenelations running through my piece of lamb.  "Rachel," I muttered, "I think I've ordered brain."  Not quite, it turns out, but nestled within my pool of rich brown gravy and mushrooms lay a tender, plump lamb sweetbread.  I had a decision to make: suck it up, try it, and then reach an informed opinion, or take a mulligan and order something new.  My decision: eat first, ask questions later.  So I screwed up my courage and took a bite.  Not bad, really.  The texture was smooth and rich, pillowy like a dumpling, and the meat gravy superb.

Having finally eaten a sizable portion of my meal, I tried to ask our waiter what I was eating by tapping my temple while asking, "Dove?" -- the Italian word for "where" -- hoping he would understand the implication, which he did.  "Si," he confirmed.

I continued to eat more, though I didn't attack supper with my usual gusto.  Yes, even I -- gobbler of rabbit ears and glutton for horse fat --  get culinary cold feet.  I'd like to rationalize my anxiety by claiming fear of mad cow disease, but no lamb has ever been diagnosed with BSE and no case of Creutzfeld-Jacob disease, the human equivalent, has ever been linked back to sheep.  No, my fears about eating lamb brains aren't about what's in the lamb's head.  It's about what's in mine.

Brain presents a big culinary problem for most of us.  It's squishy; when cooked, it's grey.  Both factors are a huge turn off.  But the bigger issue with brain, I think, stems from the unmistakable resemblance of an animal's brain to our own, and from the immense symbolic weight we place on that organ as the locus of thought and as the seat of the soul.  We rather easily disassociate ourselves from animal flesh, but we've all taken enough high school science classes or watched enough sci-fi and monster movies to recognize that a lamb's brain looks almost exactly like a miniaturized version of our own.  We recognize a little too much of ourselves in a brain.


I first tasted actual lamb's brains a few years ago at Babbo, Mario Batali's flagship New York restaurant.  Batali actively promotes cooking with offal, and his menus reflect his passion.  At Babbo, our server urged us to try the lamb brains francobolli -- postage stamps of fresh pasta stuffed with a mixture of poached brain, ricotta, sauteed onions, and a little seasoning, dressed with gently heated butter, some fresh sage, and a sprinkling of parmesan -- so I took the plunge.  I'm glad I did.  The brain's contribution is more texture -- a slightly creamy lusciousness -- then flavour, but the dish really does taste marvelous.

Of course, Batali does his best to make "the nasty bits" palatable to his patrons.  As others have already pointed out, he usually mixes offal into his dishes in small quantities, and it's probably no coincidence that the lamb's brains are hidden within a pasta envelope.  As they say: out of sight, out of mind.

It's an entirely different story when you're both diner and chef.  Any illusions are forgotten the instant you hold a chilled, slick brain in the palm of your hand.  No easy task given how difficult it is to find naturally raised lamb in Toronto.  The most pleasant surprise I received when preparing lamb brains is price -- they were free.  According to my butcher at Cumbrae's, no market exists for the product in Canada.  The next step, cleaning the brains, can hardly be described as pleasant.  For one, there were a few small chunks of skull wedged into the brains -- a by-product, no doubt, of extracting the brains from the skull using a saw -- and, for two, there's the pain-in-the-ass task of removing the outer membrane and blotches of congealed blood.

After soaking the brains overnight in a couple of changes of water to drain any remaining blood, the recipe, which I adapted from an identical recipe for calf's brains in The Babbo Cookbook, is entirely straightforward.  Rather than fuss over the pasta envelope, I prepared basic, square ravioli, not postage stamps with fancy edges.  The homemade dish, though less artfully presented, is every bit as good as the restaurant version.  The richness of the filling marries artfully with butter, flavours complemented by the sharp herbal note of sage and the zing of lemon zest.  We even found one friend eager to taste the dish, and he enjoyed it too.

Having come this far, we must now decide if we want to explore brains further.  Where Batali uses brains as just one note in a broader harmony, Fergus Henderson features them front and centre.  The Whole Beast: Nose to Tail Eating includes a small section of lamb brains recipes, everything from deep fried brains to a terrine.  There's even a recipe for cold lamb's brains on toast, "for those who particularly enjoy the texture of brain."  Hmmm.  I'm not sure we're there yet, Fergus.


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I love your posts. I wanted to put in some brain related comment about how this post made me think, but I've restrained myself...


Rob, I remember finding in one of my grandmother's old Mexican cookbooks a recipe for lamb brain tacos; to my ten- or eleven-year old self that sounded like pretty much the most appalling thing ever. Fast forward twenty years and I still haven't mustered the courage to try brain - or most other kinds of offal for that matter, and who knows if I ever will. Luckily that doesn't get in the way of my (morbid?) fascination with your adventures. My hat is off to you for all the envelope-pushing going on around here! ;)


i have made that deep fried lamb brains. it's fiddly removing the thin membranes..i am afraid i dropped some of them(interestingly, this offal is actually pretty expensive...there goes the argument that offal is 'cheap' and is for 'poor people') because i was initially slightly taken aback by the texture, but they are not as fragile and delicate as one would imagine...they stood well to the poaching...and yes, it's an acquired taste..but i suspect more people will like it if they arent told what part of the anatomy it really is...

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Yeah, i've never had lamb brains but when I was a kid my grandfather used to make me pork brains with scrambled eggs and I remember loving it.

bea at La tartine gourmande

This is clearly one of the foods I like to eat, but would just not be able to cook. Or perhaps I just need to toughen up, as they say in New Zealand!
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Ms. Glaze

I used to have to cook brains for staff lunches at The French restaurant I work at. I hated it. Such a pain in the butt to prepare – picking out all those awful tiny little blood vessels. And the texture too – Yikes!!! Slime city!!! Congrats on experimenting. Mario's ravioli actually looks edible.

For more brain amusement:


You sure do like eating some strange crap don't you ?

I think something might be wrong with you as you need to bring us all these titalating naughty foods even some peasants won't eat.

You would make a good Chinaman. They eat anything.I mean anything.

Scott at Realepicurean

I've never seen anywhere selling them, but have heard good reports. Perhaps I'm not going to the right places.


I love you simply for the fact that you've eaten and cooked lamb's brains.

Steamy Kitchen

Now that is simply the most beautiful photo of brain I've ever seen!


Oh, I just don't know if I could ever do it! Sorry, I know I came across this post late, but it's brains! It couldn't help but elicit a reaction!


Lamb brains may not be connected to BSE or CJD but, have you ever heard of scrapies? It seems that BSE was caused by feeding sheep pieces/parts to cows- a cross-species jump that usually doesn't occur. If you want to risk becoming the first human to get OSE (ovine spongiforme encephalitis- a disease I just made up), go ahead.
We already have cases of CJD that seem to have been caused by eating squirrel brains (southern US) so there is a risk of cross-species transmission of prionic diseases. Since there does seem to be a risk, I'll pass.


Bistro D'oc in downtown Washington, D.C. has a great sautéed lamb brain hors d'oeuvres on their specials menu.

The texture, in my opinion, is quite similar to a tender Swedish meatball.

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I think something might be wrong with you as you need to bring us all these titalating naughty foods even some peasants won't eat.

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Pork brains with scrambled eggs are delicious!

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Wow, that brain looks disturbingly gross. I don't see how anyone can stomach it!

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