“You’re a strange one,” my father said to me at the dinner table when I was a child.  “How many kids in this world even like kidney stew?”

 

He was right on both counts:  I was a strange kid.  I loved kidney stew.

 

In fact, except for rare exceptions — such as brussels sprouts, lima beans, and beets — I loved all of my mother’s cooking.  I especially loved what she could do with meat.  The fragrance of her Sunday dinner lamb roasts wafting through our house made my heart melt.  This is the aroma of Home, I thought at the time.  This is the fragrance of Love, I swooned, hugging my own skinny rib cage.  I knew even then that I could never be a vegetarian.

 

My mother’s whole roast chickens were golden, moist, and tender.  Her beef braises and stews were richly flavored and melted in the mouth.  I especially loved her kidney stew, with its softly rounded chunks of meat that tasted actually sweet to me.  I used to ask for seconds on kidneys in lieu of dessert.  My father looked at me and shook his head: “Strange.”

 

These decades-old memories flooded back to me one day in August 1997, when an African friend arrived at my door in Lastoursville, Gabon, at noon bearing a surprise gift of fresh beef kidneys from the town’s only butcher.  “Rognons!” he announced with a big grin, “pour un ragoût!” 

 

 Kidney stew?  I hadn’t had kidney stew, I realized, since I was a child.

 

Together, he and I prepared the kidney stew, the way I vaguely remembered watching my mother prepare it.  He and I then ate the stew over a bed rice at my dining room table – the first of many meals we would make and share there together.

 

Inspired by these kidney stew stories in my new memoir, How to Cook a Crocodile, my friend Cherie Burns here in Taos recently decided to throw a dinner party for all of her kidney-loving friends.  It was a decidedly small and highly select group who met at her house last Wednesday to revel in one of our favorite dishes.  There were six of us in all.

 

Cherie’s take on the subject was up-scale, French, and beyond delicious.  Her Rognons en Casserole included all of the goodies that make French sauces sing, such as shallots, white wine, butter, and Dijon.  (And did I detect a splash of cream?)  She also used a combination of veal and lamb kidneys, which were a far cry from my mother’s low-budget, down-home beef kidneys circa 1950s.

 

Outside onlookers surely would have found it strange to watch Cherie’s guests clutch their hearts and share their own kidney stew stories over dinner.  It seemed just about everyone there had at least one, dredged up from another time (when every town had a butcher shop) and another place (perhaps Paris, where rognons are a bistro staple). 

 

I couldn’t help but marvel:  Love is normally drawn in a heart shape.  But the shape of kidneys?  Strange, indeed.

 

(Here is a recipe for kidney stew the way my mother used to make it, from page 193 of How to Cook a Crocodile.)

     

Kidney Stew

 

1 pound beef kidneys

1 teaspoon salt

1 medium onion, chopped

1 large clove garlic, minced

4 tablespoons unsalted butter

flour (for dredging)

1/3 cup dry red wine

2 tablespoon tomato paste

2 cups (1 can) beef broth, or 1 beef bouillon cube,

     plus 2 cups water

Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

 

Wash kidneys, trim away any fat, membrane, or connective tissue, and place in a bowl.  Add 1 teaspoon salt, and water to cover; allow to soak for at least 30 minutes.  Drain, rinse, and pat kidneys dry; cut into bite-size chunks.

 

Sauté chopped onion and minced garlic in butter over medium heat until softened.  Dredge kidney pieces in flour and cook with onions and garlic until slightly browned.

 

Add wine, tomato paste, and beef broth (or bouillon plus water) and bring to a boil.

Lower heat, cover pan, and cook gently for about 10 minutes.  Season to taste with salt and freshly ground black pepper.  Serve over steamed white rice.  Makes 4 servings.