Brad Farmerie / July 2011
Cuisines: Though it’s used worldwide in any number of dishes to various effect, blood, which may be thicker than water, is not easy to bring up in polite culinary conversation. Thank goodness Brad Farmerie has no such qualms.
My parents raised three boys, each a year apart. My mother recently told me that all during our childhood, she prized those days when she could wake up without being confronted by the sight of blood—sometimes mine, but often my brothers’. I recall a similar sentiment in rural Oxfordshire, England, while working at Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons, where, by 8 a.m. I was usually ruing the fact that I was already elbow-deep in pig’s blood and intestines, attempting to make boudin noir out of what appeared to be a sink filled with a crimson soup.
There’s no denying that blood is a polarizing ingredient—on one hand, nutrient-rich, abundant, and affordable; on the other, maligned, overlooked, and taboo. Waved as a bright red flag of honor among the nose-to-tail contingency and abhorred or ignored by the American dining public, blood has been part of a tale of waste, want, necessity, nutrition, and sin throughout history around the world.
But what is blood? Blood picks up nutrients from food and oxygen from the lungs for delivery to the body’s cells. It also helps take the waste from the cells to the liver and kidneys and deliver carbon dioxide to the lungs, where it can be exhaled as waste. Blood is a complex combination of red blood cells, which move oxygen and give blood its color, and white blood cells, which fight infection. Both are suspended in plasma, the liquid component of blood primarily comprised of water.
This amazing liquid, present in the animals we eat, has been a primal point of nutrition and sustenance since the beginning of humankind. From raw to cooked, blood shows up in a variety of preparations as a coagulant, a thickener, a nutrient booster, or a flavor binder, most commonly in sausages, which gave rise to its earliest known written reference almost three thousand years ago in Homer’s Greek epic the Odyssey:
rolling from side to side
as a cook turns a sausage, big with blood
and fat, at a scorching blaze, without a pause,
to broil it quick
It’s also in this form that I first fell for blood while living in London, smitten with the black pudding that graced so many menus and accompanied so many breakfast egg dishes. Time and travel exposed me to various forms of blood sausages throughout Europe, each country the proud parent of its own blend of blood, fat, and filler. My beloved British black pudding is packed with oats for a dense texture that often eliminates the need for a casing to contain it. Just across the English Channel, the French boudin noir traditionally uses cooked onions, cream, and very little filler, resulting in a lighter, more delicate sausage. The Spanish, on the other hand, bulk up their morcilla with cooked rice and often flavor it with a whisper of paprika. These three sausages are the main inspiration for variations that appear in the New World, as voyages of conquest from Western Europe impregnated their North American, South American, and antipodean colonies with these culinary traditions.
Eastern European blood sausages often use potato, buckwheat, cured meat, rice, or rye as hearty fillers. In Iceland, on the other hand, lamb’s blood and suet are stuffed into the lamb’s stomach to make blóomör (not surprising it’s lamb’s blood in a country that pours melted lamb fat over cooked salt cod). Soondae, a Korean sausage, often augments the blood with cellophane noodles or bean sprouts and gives it some kick with a bit of kimchi. In Vietnam, doi huyet contains a large dose of shrimp paste and the unmistakable flavor of coriander leaves, while in Thailand sai krok lueat incorporates a curry spice that adds fireworks to the basic blood sausage blend.
While blood most commonly shows up in sausages, it’s also employed by cooks to thicken sauces, soups, and stews. Because the protein structure of blood shares some resemblance to eggs, it’s often added at the end of the cooking process like a traditional cream/egg liaison and lightly heated to bind a soup or sauce. One of the oldest examples of this is melas zomos, a hearty soup of pork, blood, and vinegar that reportedly provided the Spartans with equal parts nutrition and courage. Modern day Poland mirrors this application of blood to enrich the sweet-and-sour czernina, a combination of duck broth, dried fruit, and vinegar. In the Philippines a stew of pig’s ears, liver, stomach, and heart is finished with pig’s blood to make the ominously black-hued dinuguan (disturbingly and confusingly called chocolate meat). It’s no wonder that this technique is falling into the realm of “lost art”; even Julia Child left it off of her list of ingredients for coq au vin, a French example (as is civet, game stew, usually of hare) of a blood-thickened stew, traditionally made by adding rooster blood at the end to bind the sauce.
Blood fortifies common foodstuffs by adding complex protein, with its full array of amino acids, to everyday items. A simple way to preserve blood for use in this way is to turn it into a dried powder, either by prolonged cooking at low temperatures to eliminate its moisture content or by freeze-drying. This resulting powder, which contains 96 percent protein, can then be added to almost any dish or processed food to bolster its nutritional value. Many European countries take this same approach with fresh blood and have been resourceful in adding it to dishes for nutrient rather than culinary value. In northern Alpine Italy, cooks blend fresh pig’s blood with rye flour and eggs for pasta al sangue (or blutnudeln), a flat noodle that traditionally gets served in a sauce of butter, sage, and a crumble of local cheese. Scandinavian countries also disguise blood in everyday items like blodpalt (potato dumplings), blodplättar (savory pancakes with fresh blood as one of the main ingredients), and a rich and hearty rye bread recipe, given to me by Emelie Kihlstrom, an owner of Colonie restaurant in Brooklyn, New York, from her grandmother’s treasure trove of Swedish cookbooks from the 1950s.
Hidden away as a supplement, blood becomes easy to ingest. The same can’t be said for presenting blood in its raw state. The most straightforward examples of this can be found with the numerous nomadic tribes around the globe, as they convert their livestock into renewable nutrient resources. I first watched this centuries-old ritual on a trip to Kenya, where Masai tribesmen carefully pierce a cow’s artery with an arrow and collect the animal’s blood without harming it. This blood is either ingested straightaway or gets mixed with milk and slowly cooked until it reaches the consistency of scrambled eggs. I also chalked up a memorable blood moment many years ago in a small village north of Hanoi, Vietnam, where I was offered freshly drawn snake’s blood mixed with liquor and snake’s heart, stirred ever so gently with a lemongrass stalk. More recently, chef Andrew Ricker of Pok Pok restaurant in Portland, Oregon, gave me a raw blood epiphany when he introduced me to laap meuang, an Isan (northeastern Thai) dish of pork offal and raw pork blood, seasoned with a complex spice mixture, cilantro, sawtooth, mint, crispy pork skin, and fish sauce. This rustic dish defies its simple origins and could make a raw blood believer out of almost anyone. Sharing some of these same flavor profiles is tiet canh, a Vietnamese specialty consisting of a thin layer of duck’s blood that’s allowed to congeal on a plate before being garnished with lime, fresh herbs, and peanuts. Modernization is slowly pushing this dish toward extinction, which would be an unfortunate end for a memorable slice of regional cuisine.
Only in the Middle East does blood remain taboo, largely due to Jewish and Muslim religious prohibitions. Jews follow the teachings of Leviticus 17:11-13:
For the life of the flesh is in the blood… Therefore…no soul of you shall eat blood, neither shall any stranger that sojourneth among you eat blood. And whatsoever man there be of the children of Israel, or of the strangers that sojourn among you, which hunteth and catcheth any beast or fowl that may be eaten; he shall even pour out the blood thereof, and cover it with dust.
The Koran also turns its back on blood in verses 2:173, 5:3, and 6:145, simultaneously forbidding the consumption of blood and the flesh of the swine. These beliefs began in the Middle East and have followed the historic tracks of the Jewish migration and the teachings of Islam, taking root and influencing diet in nations far beyond the region of origin.
But why is blood consumed by almost everyone else? The better question would be: Why not? Blood is abundantly available, making up between 2 to 9 percent of an animal’s weight (with cattle, pigs, and sheep all in the 3 to 4 percent range). It’s also a major source of nourishment and nutrients, containing as much protein as lean meat and a type of iron in the form of hemoglobin not found in any other source, not to mention vitamin B, copper, and other vitamins and minerals. Watching this rich food source drip down the drain seems like a waste.
So why do I always hear chefs complain that they can’t find blood to buy? In theory, the collection of blood from a slaughterhouse should pose no problem. In the United States it may be collected by any facility that has been passed as a “federal establishment” by the Food Safety Inspection Services and has a documented Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point system in place that documents its method of blood collection. This process is made easier (but also made much more expensive) with a “closed draining system” that employs a hollow knife, which enters either the heart or a major blood vessel of the animal at the beginning of the butchering process. Once the knife is in place, a vacuum extracts the blood through the hollow knife along a length of tubing and into a chilled storage container that rapidly lowers the temperature of the blood to reduce the risk of bacterial growth. This closed drainage is the Ferrari of slaughterhouse systems—stylish, expensive, and rare.
More often, blood is collected by the legal “open vat system” that involves cutting the jugular vein of an animal hanging upside down, taking care not to rupture the esophagus, which could introduce contaminants into the blood, and allowing gravity to carry the blood out of the animal and into an open vessel below. This system is effective but less than perfect. One almost inevitable hazard during this collection method is the contact of blood with the animal’s skin, which is still considered unsanitary at this stage of processing. Another pitfall is the open vat itself, which can allow debris, hair, and other contaminants to fall into the container, with nothing to safeguard the collected blood from these foreign objects.
With either of these collection systems, multiple animals’ blood would often be “pooled” together into one container to reduce the time needed for the collection process. This can pose a problem, as the animals at this stage of slaughter have yet to be cleared by a USDA inspector. It’s only after an inspector has signed off on the meat of an animal that the blood can be sold, so if one of the animals whose blood drained into the large holding container doesn’t pass inspection, the whole mixture of blood must be disposed of (Meat Inspection Act of 1906 and the 1967 Wholesome Meat Act).
Once the blood is collected, it has to be treated within one or two minutes to keep the liquid from coagulating, a natural defense mechanism that keeps an animal (or human, for that matter) from losing excessive blood when it has been cut. Under normal circumstances, blood will begin to thicken and clot when exposed to air, as the fibrin protein within it begins to bind into a complex mesh to defend the animal’s body from the loss of blood. For an item like “blood tofu,” used in Asian cuisine and as a dim sum item, this coagulation process is what turns the liquid into a gelatinous cake, ready to be used in a multitude of recipes and preparations. But to keep blood fluid, the coagulation process must be halted. Throughout recent history, this would occur with the addition of an acid, usually vinegar, in a ratio of one part vinegar to five parts blood—a method still carried out in agricultural societies around the world. In modern slaughterhouses in America, a solution of sodium citrate or phosphate can be added as an anticoagulant (among a list of permissible additives listed in the Code of Federal Regulations, Chapter 21), but more often than not the blood will go through a mechanical defibrination process to disrupt the coagulation. Bill Kleemeyer, of Green Village Packing in Green Village, New Jersey, describes the defibrinating equipment as a “giant milk shake machine” that agitates the blood, breaking up the fibrin protein and rendering it inactive. Kleemeyer then adds salt, which “brings out the light red color, enhances flavor, and acts as a moderate preservative.” Blood always starts as a sterile liquid as it leaves the animal’s body but since it is such a nutritious liquid it is an ideal environment for pathogens or spoilage microorganisms. For this reason Kleemeyer suggests using it within five or six days or freezing it.
So if the supply of blood isn’t the problem, what’s keeping chefs from getting their hands on it? Quite simply, demand. There are definitely markets for blood, but they’re few and far between. Kleemeyer collects and processes all of the blood from every animal slaughtered at Green Valley Packing to sell to Asian restaurants, but the demand for blood as an ingredient is almost nonexistent in American culture. Ariane Daguin, the owner of D’Artagnan in Newark, New Jersey (and my source for pig’s and cow’s blood), lets the numbers do the talking: of the 5,000 restaurants her company works with, only 12 of them have ever purchased blood. That is .2 percent of her customers. Is an ingredient that sells for very little money and has such a small following really worth the time and effort? Fortunately for me and the other 11 restaurants, the answer is yes. Daguin is decidedly French and grew up with plates of la sanquette, a celebratory duck’s blood “omelet” of sorts as a childhood treat, so she makes sure we have blood available when we need it.
And this is definitely an ingredient we need. In my travels I have seen a myriad of uses for blood, ranging from the good, the bad, and the downright unusual, but my original reason for searching it out was to put my own twist on the beautiful black pudding that I enjoyed while living in England. My first delivery was a bit intimidating, a gallon plastic milk container with crimson contents, bulging almost to the bursting point from its frozen expansion. My initial attempts at black pudding were good but not great, but eventually I revised my recipe until it became a memorable addition to the brunch menu at Public, my restaurant in Manhattan’s NoLita neighborhood. Boudin noir followed, as did Swedish blood rye bread and Taiwanese pig’s blood popsicles, along with more progressive recipes such as cocoa/blood sauce for foie gras. Like anything in the cooking world, the more I used it, the more I learned and the greater the scope of use. By far the most valuable piece of information to come to light was blood’s similarities to eggs through their shared protein albumin, although blood contains a higher ratio of water to protein than eggs. Through trial and error I realized that this fluid will act in a similar way to an egg/milk mixture when heated. When cooked quickly or at high temperatures, blood proteins will tighten and squeeze the moisture out from between them, taking on a tough, rubbery, and sometimes slightly curdled texture. Conversely, when blood is cooked slowly over low heat in a bain-marie or lightly poached in liquid, the blood will achieve a delicate, almost custard-like texture. Dr. Ata Chaundhry of the USDA Food Safety Inspection, Albany District Office, informed me that the USDA provides no guidelines or warnings about the safe cooking temperature for blood, but understanding that the serum-albumin, or blood-albumin, coagulates or “cooks” at a temperature of 152.6°F should make that a starting point for exploring blood cookery. Bloody good stuff, this.
A World of Blood CookeryBrad Farmerie
Though it's used worldwide in any number of dishes to various effect, blood, which may be thicker than water, is not easy to bring up in polite culinary conversation. Thank goodness Brad Farmerie has no such qualms.
Biroldo (Italy) Also called sanguinaccio, an Italian blood sausage that usually contains pine nuts, raisins, pig’s snouts or pig’s skin, and either pig’s or cow’s blood.
Black Pudding (United Kingdom & Ireland) A sausage made of pig’s blood and a high proportion of oatmeal, which creates a dense texture. Always part of a traditional “full English breakfast.”
(Trinidad & Tobago) Pig’s or cow’s blood sausage with bread as filler plus chives, hot pepper, herbs, and spices. Often the mixture is cooked before it is stuffed in the casings. Traditionally served with hot sauce.
(Antigua & Barbuda) Sausage made from pig’s or cow’s blood mixed with rice; often confusingly called “rice pudding.”
(Barbados) A sausage of pig’s blood and sweet potatoes, traditionally served with souse (pickled pig’s head).
Blodpalt (Sweden) A potato dumpling enriched with blood (cow’s or pig’s in the south, reindeer’s in the north); boiled and served with grilled pork during the winter months.
Blood Tofu (China) Coagulated chicken’s, duck’s, cow’s, or goose’s blood cut into blocks. Called xu douf in China, it’s also served in Vietnam, Thailand, and other countries close to the Chinese border.
Blutwurst (Germany) Blood sausage made from pork, beef, blood, spices, and herbs; sometimes barley or oatmeal is included as filler.
Boudin Noir (France) A blood sausage containing cream with apples or onions as filler. Generally served with either cooked apples or mashed potatoes.
Chouriço de Sangue (Portugual) Effectively a version of chorizo with blood added.
Confrérie des Chevaliers du Goûte Boudin (France) AKA Brotherhood of the Knights of Blood Sausage. Created in 1963, this organization is based in southern Normandy and aims to identify the best blood sausages in France, preserve the recipes and techniques used to make blood sausage throughout France, and encourage the continued pursuit of the highest quality product.
Coq au vin (France) Chicken, capon, or rooster braised in red wine, bacon, mushrooms, and small white onions, with blood added at the end to thicken the sauce. Same techniques used in making civet, a game stew that usually calls for hare and hare’s blood.
Czarnina (Poland) Soup made of duck’s blood and clear poultry broth with a sweet-and-sour taste that comes from the use of sugar and/or dried fruits with vinegar.
Dinuguan (Philippines) Stew of pig’s stomach, intestines, ears, heart and snout simmered in rich spicy dark gravy of pig’s blood, garlic, chiles, and vinegar. Has earned the nickname of “chocolate meat” based on its creamy dark brown appearance.
Doi Huyet (Vietnam) A herbaceous pig’s blood sausage with ngo om (rice paddy herb), rau ram (Vietnamese coriander leaves), shrimp paste, and coriander leaves.
Drisheen (Ireland) A form of black pudding from county Cork originally made from sheep’s blood, cream, oatmeal or bread crumbs, spices, and the herbaceous plant tansy.
Foire au Boudin (France) The French Black Pudding Fair, usually held in March in the village of Mortagne-au-Perche, to award the coveted International Best Black Pudding Prize.
Kishka (Poland) Slavic word meaning “gut” or “intestine,” which lends its name to a variety of sausages or puddings. The Eastern European kishka is a sausage made with blood and buckwheat or barley, traditionally served at breakfast.
Morcilla (Spain) A sausage of pig’s blood and fat, rice, onions, and salt. Varieties include those made with bread crumbs, pine nuts, and almonds; also varieties vary the proportions of ingredients or flavorings, producing even a morcilla dulce, which is fried and served as a dessert. In Chile, morcilla is called prieta, and in Panama and Colombia it’s called rellena or tubería negra.
Moronga (Cuba, Puerto Rico, Central America & Mexico) A sausage made of pig’s blood, spices, herbs (such as oregano and mint), onions, and chiles often served in a red or green chile sauce.
Mustamakkara (Finland) A blood sausage specialty of Tampere made by mixing pork, pig’s blood, crushed rye, and flour traditionally eaten with lingonberry jam.
Mykyrokka (Finland) Also called tappaiskeitto or “butchery soup,” containing myky, a dumpling made from blood and rye flour cooked in a soup that contains potatoes, onions, and offal.
Saksang (Indonesia) An obligatory dish in marriage celebrations, this spicy preparation from northern Sumatra can contain minced pork, dog, and/or water buffalo meat stewed in blood and coconut milk flavored with kaffir limes, coriander, chiles, lemongrass, ginger, galangal, and turmeric.
Sângerete (Romania) A sausage made from pork shoulder or butt, pig’s blood, and filler such as pre-boiled rice seasoned with pepper, garlic, and basil.
Soondae (Korea) A street food blood sausage that can be stuffed with a wide variety of ingredients, such as cellophane noodles, barley, sesame leaves, fish, fermented soy paste, rice, kimchi, or bean sprouts.
Ti-Hoeh-Koe (Taiwan) Also known as pig’s blood popsicle or pig’s blood cake. This street snack is made of pig’s blood and sticky rice that is most often fried or steamed, coated with chile sauce, then rolled in crushed peanuts and cilantro. Another use is as an ingredient for the traditional hot pot, where it’s added for texture, color, and flavor.
Tiet Canh (Vietnamese) Made from raw blood, usually duck’s or goose’s, sprinkled with crushed peanuts and chopped herbs. The finished dish is refrigerated, which allows the blood to coagulate, then eaten immediately with fresh herbs and lime juice.
Verivorst (Estonia) A blood sausage similar to the Finnish mustamakkara eaten mostly in winter as a traditional Christmas food and served with lingonberry jam, butter, or sour cream.
Zungenwurst (Germany) Known as blood tongue, this variety of German head cheese made with pig’s blood, suet, bread crumbs, oatmeal, and chunks of pickled ox’s tongue—bears some resemblance to blood sausage with large cubes of fat and tongue throughout. It’s commonly sliced and browned in butter or bacon fat.