Testicle... It's What's for Dinner 

Inside the Achewood Test Kitchen with Acclaimed Cartoonist Chris Onstad

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I ARRIVE AT CHRIS ONSTAD'S Northeast Portland home holding a red cooler containing two pounds of ungulate testicles—yak and buffalo, to be exact. Our plan is to attack these balls with the culinary equivalent of a swift, unexpected kick to the groin. We're going to cook like we mean it, and "nut up," as it were—hopefully emerging with something not simply edible, but downright delicious.

When you're in Onstad's kitchen you've got to come correct, with a certain sense of bravado. After all, he's the creator of the beloved internet comic Achewood; he's been lauded in Time magazine for writing the "best graphic novel of 2007," and has won over the likes of the New Yorker and NPR. His first book from Dark Horse Comics, The Great Outdoor Fight, has achieved critical acclaim, and he's the author of the self-published The Achewood Cookbook: Recipes for a Lady or a Man, with a second cookbook coming very soon.

I shake hands with the imposing Onstad, whose eyes shine brightly behind his small spectacles—both of us likely thinking about my cargo. I have the odd feeling that I'm stepping across the threshold, straight into Onstad's surreal and unexpected Achewood universe. But there at the front door, neither of us can know that after four bottles of wine and one bottle of Thunderbird we will have taken our testicles on an unexpected gastronomic journey around the globe—with ample time to stop for fried chicken thighs.

If someone were to step into Onstad's home unaware of his profession, it's likely they'd suspect he was a cook before a cartoonist. Almost every wall of his modest kitchen is adorned with an array of copper cookware hanging like shiny baubles. There are pots of all sizes and pans for every purpose. The man's got serious gear. On his living room bookshelf there are food books—be they cookbooks or chef biographies—which appear to outnumber all other texts.

"If we were to cook one recipe from these cookbooks every day for the rest of our lives we'd never get through them," Onstad says. "I appreciate how much of cookbookery is just pornography."

One of the first things we do after a tour of his garden ("the plan is to plant all of the really expensive vegetables so that you don't have to buy them") is hit that pornography. He pulls a dog-eared copy of the Larousse Gastronomique off the shelf and searches for testicle preparation, which instructs us to parboil the balls, cool them immediately under water, and peel off the tough outer encasing. Onstad sets the water to boil.

The fact is Onstad got into cooking long before he was into cartooning, thanks to meeting his wife Liz.

"Up until that point, I'd only really made quesadillas in college," he explains. "She introduced me to risottos and pastas that weren't drowned in meat sauce. It was something we did together. We were young and the Food Network was new."

The water begins to boil as his wife and daughter return home. Onstad covers the slightly bloody Ziploc bag of testicles with a kitchen towel. "Are you okay with seeing these?" he asks.

Though his delightful family is fine with their presence, he decides to segregate the testicles from the good family cookware. Meanwhile, we notice his dog Olive, a consummate beggar, has not stepped foot in the kitchen.

Animelles en Persillade

"Ooh, the sympathy. The sympathy. It's terrible," says Onstad as he runs the sharp edge of the carbon steel blade across a parboiled testicle. The skin splits open and the meat inside purses outward through the gash. It's the color and consistency of sea urchin. It smells like...

"Smells like spunk?" Onstad offers. "Smells like a bad day?"

In 2001, Onstad posted his first Achewood strip. Meanwhile, he was cooking with his wife and expanding his palate. Before long his career as a cartoonist was taking off. While his cooking life wasn't necessarily injected into the strip, it wasn't uncommon for his menagerie of characters to be talking about or making food. It was an aspect of the strip that began earning him fans in the culinary world.

"What basically happened was that people who like cooking actually started following the strip." Onstad says. "I came to Portland in 2008 to do a signing and cooks were coming in with these strips that had obviously been hung up next to their stations because they smelled like fryolator grease and were discolored."

The strip he saw most often came from a storyline called the "Badass Games," wherein some of Achewood's citizenry compete to discover who's the manliest. The first event? Baking a loaf of bread from scratch.

"Nothing is more old school than making your own damn staff o' life," proclaims the black thong-wearing, bespectacled cat named Ray. "A man who can walk into any kitchen in the world and make bread is COMPLETELY RAW."

"Write about what you like and the right people will find you," says Onstad. And clearly what Onstad likes is cooking. He works through a clove of garlic—the sound of his knife is like a tap dancer on cocaine. In no time it's finely minced and ready to join our first preparation: a basic French 'nad.

"One of the most awesome tricks for dressing up basic meat is a mince of garlic and parsley fried up in butter with shallots, called a persillade." Onstad says.

We lack the parsley, yet this doesn't stop us from tossing the small chunks of buffalo testicles into a pan with butter, garlic, and shallots. They're done in seconds. We slide the browned pieces onto a plate and pick them up with toothpicks.

"That's nice," says Onstad. "They need a whole lotta love. Soy sauce would not be out of place... some nice aromatics. Oh! Lemon!"

Soon he's dressing the plate with lemon and the animelles go from soft, buttery, garlicky, mineral-y morsels to something that would not be out of place in a pricey watercress salad.

"It's like any protein: salt, pepper, lemon—it's going to save the day. It's definitely not something to be afraid of. I'd eat this over liver any day." Still his wife notes hues of apprehension on his face.

"I come from really standard American tastes." Onstad admits. "I feel this need to experiment because I feel this need to watch people do it on TV. When I met Liz 12 years ago, I wasn't too big into tomatoes or mushrooms. I had a really white-bread palate."

Unhappy Family Jewels

That white-bread palate is evident in his first Achewood cookbook, meant for those cooking well beyond the borders of the local farmers markets and gourmet food emporiums.

"It isn't that ambitious of a book," Onstad explains. "It's like, 'how to make a T-bone steak.' And the people who are cooking from this book aren't the most exacting of food critics."

What makes that first book so special, however, is that all of the recipes are written in the voices of Achewood residents. From the can't-give-a-shit drunken recklessness of Ray to the continually frustrated and far too giving tone of Téodor, the Achewood cookbook comes off essentially as a really useful and entertaining read. Onstad is a barnburner of a comic writer, if quite practical in the kitchen.

The French nuts dispatched, he grates ginger, minces more garlic, and chops a jalapeño. A second testicle—yak this time—is parboiled, peeled, and chopped for the Asian treatment.

"There is nothing more likely to fail than white people cooking Chinese food," Onstad pronounces sagely. But he has a trick up his sleeve: velveting, in which cornstarch is used to thicken the texture of a stir-fry sauce.

He heats a touch of oil in a well-seasoned wok and tosses in a handful of peppers. Smoke hits him full in the face and he begins coughing, managing only to choke out the word "capsaicin." Undaunted, the ball meat, soy, ginger, and garlic are thrown into the wok. It's all violent sizzle. Then, calm as the Chinese testes are plated, glistening in thick brown sauce. We reach for the toothpicks and dig in.

"Like the bottom of a fish tank," Onstad grimaces, retiring his utensil. Though I agree, the sauce is too good—especially when we hit the dish with a squeeze of lemon. I cannot stop putting the testicles in my mouth, and for that I feel the shame of everyone's favorite prom date.

Ranch Tackle

"I'm kind of worried that before the night is done we're going to pick up Thunderbird and grapefruit juice and see what that's all about," says Onstad. It's not apropos of nothing. Earlier in the evening I'd shown him an old Thunderbird ad from the 1970s on YouTube featuring a drink called the "Shake 'Em Up," presumably meant to be consumed in small African American discos.

Sure enough, we're soon off to the local bodega where he's spotted Thunderbird before. This kind of weirdness doesn't appear uncommon for Onstad. In fact it seems more like a necessity.

"At what point do you run out of everything that you know?" he asks. "You've got to keep moving—like a shark. How can a guy who just sits at his desk have anything to say?"

Back at his house with his child asleep and the Thunderbird in the freezer, Onstad sets a pot of oil to heat on the stove. Soon he's dredging lemon wedges and onions in flour, getting ready to deep-fry. It's one of his favorite things to do in the kitchen, though he admits that he has a tendency to be lax in cleaning up the mess, making the fry party something of a special occasion. That is, when he's not frying for recipe development. Lately he's been at the stove perfecting his fried chicken technique.

"I've done a ton of fried chicken this year," he says. "I found what makes fried chicken taste like you want it to taste like is Lawry's seasoned salt." He just happens to have a packet of chicken thighs in the fridge so he can prove it.

What I've got is more yak testicles, this time soaked in buttermilk and spices. We drain them before tossing them in flour and dropping them into the hot oil. We watch them bob up and down, bubbling in the hot liquid. The wine has made us gregarious, and our cooking has become fearless. That's standard operating procedure in the Achewood Test Kitchen.

"I make each recipe at least five times in various states of inebriation, so I've had at least one sober cooking experience," says Onstad. His fried chicken recipe will be a part of his new cookbook (the Achewood Cookbook II), which he characterizes as a step up in skill level from his first book.

"The next book is for those who've graduated. So you know what the Maillard reaction is, or you have a knife so you're not doing prep with a steak knife." The goal is to give as much information as possible, Onstad says. "When I write these Achewood cookbooks I try to be, you know, meticulous. Making sure you have as much help as possible, because if you look at any recipe, there's a lot of gray area." Not for his fried chicken. You know the size of the pot, how much oil to use and how long to fry on each side. [click here to see Onstad's fried chicken recipe in an exclusive Achewood Cookbook II preview - ed]

Unfortunately that's not the case for our "oysters." Once out of the oil and cooled, I find very little to recommend them. Onstad, on the other hand, seems pleased with the result. But of all the testicle preparations, they are the only ones that have leftovers. The experience does provide revelation: The grassy, swampy yak testicles are for the truly hardcore, while buffalo testicles are much more approachable and subtle in flavor.

They are nothing compared to Onstad's fried chicken, which is nearly perfect: tender and moist on the inside and super crisp on the outside, with a coating that doesn't pull away from the meat on the first bite. Our lesson is learned: Where the balls fail, oil and thighs will prevail.

Tacos de Cojones

By the time we reach our last preparation, we've drained four bottles of wine and I've turned off the tape recorder. The Thunderbird is mixed with ruby red grapefruit juice, shaken up and downed posthaste. I make a small batch of masa tortillas, and we fry up the testes that I'd rubbed with a spice mixture of cumin, garlic powder, sea salt, and a variety of dried chilies. Liz bakes a batch of tiny cookies she calls Lavender Savoys for dessert.

The tacos come off without a hitch and are actually quite tasty. Even the dog has ventured into the kitchen to see if she can catch a small nibble. The warm drunkenness and sheer absurdity of the situation makes me feel for a moment that I'm actually in Achewood, with Onstad playing all the principal characters at once.

It's almost like getting a chance to take a spin around Pooh Corner in Christopher Robin's upturned umbrella. Except in this case, we'd be floating around a Southern California dreamland, in a souped-up muscle car, on an ever-expanding inland sea of Thunderbird and grapefruit juice.

Soon enough, having finished nearly two pounds of testicles, it's time for us to part. We venture into our separate nighttimes burping up the last vestiges of organ funk. But while I sleep off a wine hangover, Onstad continues to scheme. A few days later I receive an email:

"I am seriously considering a dessert based on Thunderbird. Think cheap plum wine and a syrupy consistency. It would probably make for a nice bread pudding or possibly an ice cream."

Something to look forward to in the third Achewood cookbook, I hope.

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The World's Greatest Testicle Recipes

courtesy of Chris Onstad and Patrick Alan Coleman

Preparing Your Testicles for Action

Once you've chosen the size and type of testicle you'd like to prepare, take a moment to look them over and think about what you're about to do. While you ponder, set a pot of water to boil. Once boiling, drop the testicles in the pot and parboil for five minutes. Remove from the pot and cool under cold running water, until you can comfortably fondle them without being burned.

Using a sharp kitchen knife, make a shallow slice along the tough outer skin. Carefully remove this layer from the delicate inner testicle meat. It takes some practice. It may help to run your knife between the skin and the meat, which once begun can help the skin peel away more easily. Now with your testicles naked on the cutting board, you are ready to proceed.

Animelles en Persillade

1 large prepared testicle, cut into small chunks (you can use any large animal testicle)

2 tablespoons butter

1 clove of minced garlic

1 chopped scallion

1 tablespoon chopped parsley

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon fresh ground pepper

1 lemon wedge

In a small sauté pan, heat butter on medium high until foam subsides. Add all ingredients and sauté until testicles turn a dark brown throughout, about 3 to 5 minutes. Transfer with pan drippings to a serving plate and dress with a squeeze of fresh lemon.

Animelles en Persillade can also be added to a fresh watercress salad for an exciting mix of protein. Shhh. We can keep a secret. Can you?

Unhappy Family Jewels

1 large prepared testicle, cut into thin strips

1 tablespoon soy sauce

1/2 teaspoon cornstarch

1/2 teaspoon ginger

1 chopped scallion

1/2 teaspoon garlic

1/2 teaspoon peanut oil

1 tablespoon jalapeño

1 lemon wedge

In a small mixing bowl, add testicles, soy sauce, cornstarch, ginger, scallion, and garlic. Preheat a well-seasoned wok on the stove with peanut oil. When oil begins to shimmer, add jalapeños and fry until just tender. Add testicle and soy mix to wok and fry. Testicles will take very little time to cook. While cooking a rich sauce should develop. Serve cooked testicles over rice and dress with fresh lemon juice and soy sauce.

Ranch Tackle

1 large prepared testicle, cut into thin strips

1 1/2 cups buttermilk

1/2 tablespoon paprika

1/2 tablespoon sea salt

1/2 tablespoon ground pepper

1/2 tablespoon garlic powder

2 cups vegetable oil

1 cup flour

In a small bowl, add buttermilk, paprika, sea salt, pepper, and garlic powder. Stir until combined. Add testicles and soak in the refrigerator overnight. Drain. In a small saucepan, heat oil over medium high until oil is shimmering. Put flour in a shallow dish. Add testicles one by one until thoroughly coated. Add coated testicles to hot oil and fry until they are golden brown and floating. Remove from oil and drain on a wire rack. Serve with french-fried potatoes, ranch dressing, and dill pickles.

Tacos de Cojones

For the taco meat:

1 large prepared testicle, cut into thin strips

1/2 tablespoon sea salt

1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes

1/2 teaspoon fresh ground pepper

1 pinch of cumin

1 clove of minced garlic

1 teaspoon olive oil

Combine dry ingredients until mixed thoroughly. Add minced garlic to mixture. Gently rub testicles with the mixture, wrap in plastic wrap and let rest in refrigerator overnight. When ready to prepare, heat oil in a small sauté pan and add testicles. Fry until meat is brown throughout. Add to fresh tortillas with your favorite salsa, fresh cilantro, and lime.

For the tortillas:

1 cup of masa corn flour

1/2 teaspoon sea salt

1/2 to 3/4 cup of hot water

Add sea salt to masa and mix thoroughly. Slowly add hot water to masa, mixing with your hands. Add only enough water so that the dough is not sticky. It should be springy to the touch. Let dough rest covered for one hour. Once ready to cook, heat a griddle or any large flat pan. Pinch off enough dough to make a one-inch ball. Flatten with hands or tortilla press to desired thickness. Cook each tortilla on the stove until top looks dry, flip and cook for a few seconds more. Repeat until all dough is used. Should yield four small tortillas.

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