They do not taste like pee. Veal kidneys with mustard sauce are one of the great classics of French cooking for a reason: The dish is fantastic.
Ingredients, per person: one kidney, a couple of mushrooms, a couple of teaspoons of finely chopped shallots, a little Cognac, about a quarter-cup of cream, butter.
What is indispensable is that you have the freshest of kidneys. Craig’s recipe, like nearly all others, specifies a whole kidney per serving, which is about half a pound. (An American veal calf is like the kid in the back row repeating sixth grade for the third time who can’t fit into his desk anymore and whose secondary sexual characteristics belie his claim to “childhood." A French or Italian calf tends to die younger.) But I’m sorry, having looked a whole American veal kidney in the eye, I say a whole one is too much for one serving for any but the biggest of eaters; and half a kidney is probably too little. You almost certainly are going to have to order kidneys in advance, so there will be waste, including quite a lot of fat. (It’s the best-tasting fat on the whole critter, however. A devil-may-care gourmand might fry potatoes in it, but for a gift of that fat and the organ trimmings your cat or dog will deem you a god.)
Craig Claiborne and Pierre Franey’s recipe was first published in their very-non-best-seller Veal Cookery, of 1978, and Craig republished it word for word in his memoir, A Feast Made for Laughter, which included his one hundred favorite recipes. Like many of his recipes, there’s a great deal it doesn’t tell you.
First of all Craig tells you to cut the kidneys into cubes “of one inch or slightly smaller.” That happens to be geometrically impossible. In any case Julia Child, in volume one of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, insists that unless you cook your veal kidneys whole, “the juices pour out and the kidneys boil and toughen.”
But in chunks is how I’ve always had them in French restaurants, and in chunks, says Jean-Pierre Moullé, the distinguished chef of Chez Panisse, is the classic way. “But you’ve got to pay attention when you cook them,” Jean-Pierre told me. “High heat, so you’ve got to be quick. Butter and oil, or just oil. Hot, quick, keeping them moving. But too rare and it’s disgusting, and overdone and it’s rubber.”
Then you absolutely must get rid of the cooking fat altogether, because—Julia’s right about this—they will have oozed out some very unpleasant gray juice. Dump the cooked kidneys into a sieve over the sink, wipe out the pan, melt a little fresh butter, and hold the kidneys barely warm.
In another pan sauté some sliced mushrooms in butter—regular button mushrooms—adding shallots halfway along, and then a splash of Cognac (which may burst into flame for a second, which is fun), and then a generous pour of cream, or a nice whack of crème fraîche. Craig assigns to each of these phases a certain number of minutes along with the instruction to “keep stirring.” He gives you no idea whatever of how much heat to use, or what the result is supposed to be like. I will tell you. You want to cook the mushrooms over lively heat so that they give up their liquid and start to brown—without burning the butter. Then you add the shallots and cook them over a gentler heat till they’re translucent but not browning. When you add the cream you want to turn the flame back up and boil it softly till it looks like a sauce and tastes good. You stop a little short of the right thickness because it will continue to thicken somewhat.
I’m not specifying quantities, because you might like more or fewer mushrooms than I would; same with the cream. Brandy too, but do go easy on it.
At the end you need to move quickly and have everything else already on the—warmed, please!—plates. Potatoes sautéed in butter are perfect. Elizabeth says young escarole would be good, and we’ve tried pea greens too, which weren’t so great. Spinach maybe? Peas would be perfect if you could ever find perfect peas (shoot me, but I think Green Giant frozen ones are the best). I don’t know, maybe the whole American insistence on something green with everything is out of place here.
Anyway, hot up the sauce to boiling, fold in the kidneys quickety-quick along with a good dollop of Dijon mustard—taste it at this point and make sure it’s all in balance. Have I said anything yet about tasting the food? Taste your food. Don’t worry about trichinosis or whatever it is your mother may have scared you about. Taste the food, keep tasting it, and never serve the dish unless you’ve tasted it in its final form, in a right-size forkful and at the proper temperature.
Then salt and pepper, and taste it again, and swirl in some butter to smooth the liaison. That’s it.
No, wait, Craig says to serve it on toast, and he’s right, it’s a great idea—good texture, and a great soaker-upper of the sauce.
A young red Burgundy is the ideal accompaniment.