Wine & Food

    Devilled kidneys: Why I’m wild about offal

    13 November 2020

    I fear that it may be something of a lost cause to try and persuade kidney-deniers of the error of their ways. But I can’t resist it. I get the yuck factor of offal, of course I do; we’re more comfortable with chicken breasts that we are with slippery organs. I know that it can be intimidating to eat and to prepare something unfamiliar. Kidneys look old-fashioned, and they taste old-fashioned; perhaps we’ve become used to milder – dare I say it, blander – flavours.

    But I persevere in my offal-evangelism because kidneys are a genuine treat, and I hate that so many people miss out on them. And offal’s robustness is actually its strength: kidneys can take bold flavours – feisty seasonings and rich sauces, which is why they are so suited to devilling.

    Devilling – whether it be eggs, kidneys or joints of meats – is an old culinary technique which dates back to the late 1700s, and simply means for something to be spiced or hot. According to Theodora Fitzgibbon, James Boswell regularly dined on ‘devilled bones’; the bones themselves were actually joints of meat, and the devilled sauces were a range of sauces made with mustard, Worcestershire sauce, curry powder, mushroom ketchup, chutney and cream. The devilling sauce we make now doesn’t stray far from this: cayenne is used more often than curry powder, but the Worcestershire sauce is still a must-have, and most sauces use mustard or mustard powder, and many (including mine) are thickened by cream.

    Although the earliest reference to devilled foods is in the very late eighteenth century, devilled kidneys became particularly popular during the Edwardian era. Devilled kidneys may be a robust breakfast choice – but then so were the other breakfast favourites of the time, with offal sitting on mahogany sideboards alongside chafing dishes of kedgeree and kippers.

    If you’ve never prepared kidneys before, then the membrane and core instructions might sound weird, but it makes a lot more sense when you’re actually handling the kidneys. The kidneys have a natural thin membrane on them, but your butcher or supermarket will almost certainly have removed it for you, or will do if you ask – but you’ll need to do the core yourself. In the middle of the kidney is a little spot of white tissue. If you cut into into, you’ll find that it is attached to the kidney at various points: snip each of these points with sharp scissors and it will remove easily – as well as being unappetising, the core will cause the kidney to curl in on itself as you cook it, which you don’t want.

    The sauce in this recipe is a delight: rich, boozy, dark and savoury. The cream brings instant glossy, richness, and if you’d rather not use alcohol, a splash of dark vinegar will also do the job and bring a bit of acidity into the mix. A fast, bold cook ensures the kidneys don’t end up tough – just two minutes a side are all that they’ll need, dark and taut on the outside, still pink on the inside; I fry in butter, for a rounder, nuttier flavour. A word on the vehicle: you need a bread which will hold its own against the thick sauce and the weight of the kidneys: I like sourdough, toasted, but a thick slab of brioche grilled until firm is fantastic.

    King of offal, Fergus Henderson of St John restaurant, has his devilled kidneys with a glass of black velvet – a cocktail of stout and champagne – which may sound like a strong start to the day, but then so are devilled kidneys.

    Devilled kidneys

    Makes: Breakfast for two
    Takes: 15 minutes
    Bakes: No time at all

    4 lamb kidneys, membrane removed
    ½ tbsp plain flour
    ½ tsp mustard powder
    ½ tsp cayenne powder
    ¼ teaspoon fine salt
    30g butter
    30ml sherry, marsala or madeira
    ½ tbsp Worcestershire sauce
    30ml double cream

    To serve
    Bread, toasted
    Parsley, chopped

    1. Slice each kidney in half, and then snip out the white core in the centre of the kidneys using sharp scissors.
    2. Stir the flour, mustard powder, cayenne and fine salt together in a bowl, then toss the prepared kidneys through the spiced flour.
    3. Melt the butter in frying pan over a medium-high heat. When the butter is foaming, add the floured kidneys. Cook the kidneys for two minutes on each side.
    4. Deglaze the pan with the sherry, and then add the Worcestershire sauce. Set the kidneys to one side, and add the cream. Bubble briefly until the sauce is spoon-coating and glossy. Return the kidneys to the pan, stir through the sauce and serve on hot toast; garnish with chopped, fresh parsley.