Cooking calves' brains is easy, Michael Lachowicz says. "I've been doing it for 30 years. It's very classic in French cuisine." Challenged by Lee Kuebler of Milwalky Trace restaurant to create a dish with the ingredient (also known as veal brains), Lachowicz—the chef at Winnetka's Restaurant Michael —took a traditional approach.
"I'm not the unusual, outside-the-box guy. I defer to Grant [Achatz] and Homaro [Cantu] for those things," he says. "I'm the oldest 44-year-old chef you ever saw in your life. . . . As far as being more exotic and adventurous, that's not my game."
Lachowicz describes calves' brains as "misunderstood. People get very squeamish, they think of Hannibal Lecter, they think of science experiments and cows on torture chamber walls. It's ridiculous. They're beautiful."
The only problem with the organ meats, Lachowicz says, is that he can't eat them anymore because he suffers from gout. "I don't feel as old as I should, to have gout. I can't eat foie gras. It makes me cry sometimes."
After cleaning the membrane of the calves' brains, Lachowicz soaked them in milk for several hours to extract the blood, then cooked them sous vide with garlic, olive oil, and thyme. He sliced up the brains, dusted them with flour, and sauteed them in brown butter until a crust formed on the outside but the inside was still creamy. "You could prepare an old shoe in brown butter and it's—maybe not tasty, but definitely edible," he says. He also fried toasted hazelnuts and capers in butter, and garnished the dish with tangerine microgreens and chive flowers.
Though Lachowicz wasn't able to eat the dish he'd prepared, he knew what it tasted like from memory. "It's got that nice creamy contrast between the crust and the interior," he says. "[The calves' brains are] supple and creamy, there's no connective tissue, and they just fall apart in your mouth. They yield to the fork. They yield to a spoon. They're very much akin to foie gras, but not as fatty. It's a lovely ingredient, and I think it's really unsung."
Lachowicz has challenged John Coletta of Quartino to create a dish using fennel pollen. "Fennel pollen and its delicate anisette flavor and perfume remind me of when I was a kid. I used to help my grandfather hand grind Italian sausage for our family dinners. The smell of fennel was very distinct," Lachowicz says. "John's cooking reminds me of my grandfather."
4 to 6 oz veal brains, soaked for four hours in milk to remove blood and sliced into two-inch medallions
All-purpose flour (to dredge brains before sauteeing)
Kosher salt and finely ground white pepper
1 tablespoon capers, dried on a clean towel
1 tablespoon chopped toasted hazelnuts
3 oz diced cold, unsalted butter
Squeeze of fresh lemon juice to finish sauce (optional)
Season veal brains with salt and white pepper. Dredge lightly in flour. In a hot saute pan add one tablespoon of butter and melt until light brown and toasted. Add brains to pan and allow to cook for 30 to 45 seconds. Flip the brains and cook an additional 20 seconds. Remove brains from pan to a serving plate. In the same pan, after pouring out original butter from the brains, add the remaining two tablespoons of butter over medium high heat. When butter is brown add capers and hazelnuts. (Optional: adjust seasoning and splash with a squeeze of fresh lemon juice to counter the richness of the butter.) Pour warm sauce over brains and serve immediately.