Tacos de Lengua

I wish I could tell you that what follows is my grandmother’s world-famous recipe for beef tongue, a treasured family secret passed down through the generations. It is not. While I expect my grandma has a beef tongue recipe – she grew up on a farm, after all – that recipe would never have made it past my dad, who would often tell us horror stories of being forced to eat tongue when he was growing up. Needless to say, tongue did not make an appearance on my childhood table.

For whatever reason, though – the trendiness of tongue tacos, foodie cred, etc. – I recently felt a strong compulsion to cook a tongue. With no recipe from either of my real grandmothers, I turned to my surrogate grandmother: the Internet. A quick survey of the top four or five search results for “Tacos de Lengua” revealed consensus on the cooking method: place the tongue in a pot with aromatics and water to cover, bring to a boil and then simmer a few hours. When the tongue exhibits some signs of tenderness, allow it to cool in the braising liquid, then remove it from the pot, peel off the white skin with a sharp knife and slice. Fun and delicious!

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves: before doing any of that I needed a tongue. As of this spring there has been a new meat vendor at the Midtown Farmers Market – Hilltop Pastures Family Farm – who among many other delicious offerings listed tongue for sale. I was offered a large tongue or a small tongue and opted for small. A minute later on the counter before me was a 1.58# beef tongue, frozen and plastic-wrapped, for $1.54. That’s right – I paid 99¢ per pound. Damn those chi-chi farmers market prices! (Incidentally: this Saturday – October 30 – is the last Midtown Farmers Market of the year.) I’d advise you to get these great deals while you can before beef tongue is the new flank steak, selling for $12.99/lb.

Having been denied (or spared) tongue as a child, I didn’t know what to expect as I let the meat thaw in the refrigerator over the next few days. Well, what I should have expected was a giant cow tongue, because that’s what I got. This was not meat sliced up and plastic wrapped on a neat foam tray from the grocery store! My tongue came complete with the rough skin familiar from a cat’s tongue and a black spot at the base that was just enough to remind me of a cute little black and white spotted cow in the field. I could almost hear it mooing at me.

As perhaps you can tell, I was slightly grossed-out at this point. But hey, I eat animals, and animals have tongues, so I pressed on, placing the tongue in a pot with cilantro, half an onion, a few cloves of garlic, some peppercorns, dried oregano and a couple of dried chiles then filled it with water to cover. After bringing it to a boil I left the tongue to simmer for three hours, adding water as necessary to keep the tongue submerged.

The raw tongue put me a little ill-at-ease; that in no way prepared me for what the tongue would be like when it emerged from the pot. Cooking had contracted the muscle, so when it was removed the tongue was arched in perfect tongue-like position: it was not hard to imagine this thing sitting in the mouth of a happy heifer. As if this weren’t disturbing enough, I was now expected to peel the skin off with a sharp knife. But again, the cow had been killed, and what could be more respectful to the animal at this point than making best use of all of its parts? So I donned my best Hannibal Lecter face, selected a sharp paring knife, and began peeling off that rough skin in large pieces. Too bad fava beans are out of season.

Although I wouldn’t describe peeling skin off of a cooked tongue as one of the most pleasant experiences in my life, the reward when the job is done is that the tongue begins to look like any other piece of cooked beef. Slicing it makes the meat even less tongue-like. Since I was preparing the tongue the night before, I stored the slices in the refrigerator and cleaned up the rest of the evidence.

Before putting the container away for the night, I did sneak a taste of the tongue. Hopeful though I was that this 99¢/lb meat would be delicious enough to eat on a weekly basis, I didn’t love the flavor. Although there was some beefiness there was also a strong mineral taste – the kind you sometimes get from organ meats. I am willing to admit this is probably due to the way I cooked it – is anything at its best boiled for three hours? If I make tongue in the future, I will try braising it for longer in a more flavorful, thicker sauce.

To finish the tacos the next day, I cut the slices of tongue into a medium dice – a step Martha appreciated for its further obfuscation of the origins of the meat – and fried the dice in a little oil to produce some flavorful browning. Before serving the tacos, I mixed the meat in the pan with a little salsa verde (recipe follows), which I also served on the side. With sour cream, cilantro, fresh radish slices and warm corn tortillas, I think even my dad would try one.

Salsa Verde

  • 1.5# tomatillos, husked
  • 1 medium red onion, peeled and cut into quarters
  • 1 poblano chile, halved and seeded
  • Several bunches cilantro
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced or pressed through a garlic press
  • Salt
  • Fresh citrus juice (lime is ideal but I used the juice of 1 lemon because I had it on hand)

Heat the broiler. Place tomatillos, onion and chile on a sheet pan and broil until brown spots start to appear, about 5 minutes in my broiler. Place onions, chiles, garlic and cilantro in the bowl of a food processor. Pulse to chop roughly. Add tomatillos and process until consistency is as desired. Transfer mixture to a bowl and adjust seasoning with citrus and salt.


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10 comments on “Tacos de Lengua”

  1. Brian 29 October, 2010 at 8:24 am

    Tongue is one of my favorite proteins to work with. So much flavor. Tacos de ojo are also really good. The eyes have the texture of soft tendons and can taste mildly of tripe.

  2. Linda 29 October, 2010 at 7:28 pm

    This posting really made me laugh out loud. I too have cooked a few tongues in my life and swore off ever preparing another one many years ago. It was that peeling off the outside skin part that cemented my decision. But you do now have Juan talking about how good tongue is. Perhaps you can make him one when you’re home.

  3. Stacie 30 October, 2010 at 11:34 am

    Aaahhhhh! Thanks for the nightmares. I get squeamish about tongues, hearts, feet, and gizzards. Although, I’m sure its was delicious. Also, pass on the meat grinder knowledge to Johnny so ours doesn’t rust in our cupboard. Happy Hallows Eve to the both of you.

  4. Amy 30 October, 2010 at 1:18 pm

    Tom, I’m sorry, this is a little too disgusting to digest. There was apparently a really good reason that tongue wasn’t found in your childhood kitchen, although I wasn’t aware of it at the time.

  5. Brian 30 October, 2010 at 11:24 pm

    I’ll usually blanch, skin, and sear before putting it into a slow cooker overnight with a good homemade stock or whatever braising liquid I need to use for the final dish. I’ve used tongue in tacos, pho, biryani, and various stews so far.

    Also, I wonder if the strong mineral flavor can be attributed to the tongue being from a potentially older cow. Maybe next time see if you can get your hands on some fresh veal tongue. I’ve rarely had tongue with a noticeable mineral flavor. Usually the flavor is pretty clean and beefy.

  6. A Ann 1 November, 2010 at 9:06 am

    Ah, but I do remember that it was your father who once cooked alligator for us. After that how could anyone quail at tongue? I guess it’s the organ meat aspect.

  7. Kevin 1 November, 2010 at 3:03 pm

    Tom- I am saving this blog for Kayleigh and Mary so i can read it to them, as well as show the pictures, next Halowe’en; it will be certain do give them nightmares!

  8. Juan 4 November, 2010 at 5:47 pm

    Tom, Linda read to me the various comments about your tongue cooking events. I was very surprised by the lack of appreciation for one of the best meat cuts available to mankind. As you can probably guess, I grew up eating not just tongue but every part of the cow and the bull. It was one of my favorite meat delicacies and still is. If we think of the hammer as the echo of the hammer blows, the cow tongue is the echo of the cow’s mooing. Every bite that you put in your mouth brings memories of green fields and happy moments in the cow’s life. It is more than a piece of meat.
    Coming to practical information, I would suggest that next time you cook it in a rich tomato paste sauce. That will take away any memories of grass chew up several times and will transform the cow’s phonetic organ into the most delicious delicacy that your own tongue can experience. You will be so happy that I can already hear you mooing. To reduce the cooking time, use a pressure cooker and do not cut it into small pieces, Serve and slice as you would serve a pork tenderloin.

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