You gotta have heart

by Diane Duane
Heart in red wine on mashed potatoes

“Lots and lots and lots of heart.” …Well, one anyway.

Our local craft butcher is sufficiently old-fashioned and down-country that the less commonly seen meats still make a strong showing — remarkable (in the older sense of the word) in this time when Ireland is prosperous, and many people are turning their backs on memories of an economically difficult past. So we’re still able to get a lot of things that characteristically get lumped together in that vaguely uncomplimentary category, “variety meats”: among others, oxtail, whole tongue, sweetbreads, and my favorite of the whole lot, heart. (It’s beef heart I’ll be discussing here, though our butcher normally has lamb and pork heart as well.)

Too many people have this image of heart as an organ meat, vaguely icky and wobbly. This is just silly. Heart is a muscle meat, like steak: just a whole lot harder-working. Or else people think of it as something incredibly tough. Often this is the result of having eaten heart cooked by someone who didn’t know how to treat it. Like oxtail and shin, it comes from a hard-working part of the cow, and like them, it needs long slow cooking to bring out its best. But when handled properly its flavor compares favorably with theirs, or surpasses them.

Now then: recipes. There are some heart recipes out there on the Web, but there’s a lot of duplication, and in my opinion most of the originals aren’t worth much. Heart just doesn’t have the cachet of other types of beef (and there would also probably be people who think of it as “poor person’s food” and want nothing to do with it). However, I’ve got a heart recipe that’s worth passing on.

Some years ago the Irish phone company introduced Minitel here to see if it would become as popular as it had in France. This was just before the Web started to become readily accessible, and when that happened, the Irish version of Minitel promptly went under. But for a while we had a Minitel terminal, and over a year or so of using it I started investigating what culinary resources might be found on the network. And at some point or another I stumbled onto something fascinating: the Minitel site of a regional tripe butchers’ association. The site of Les Societé Anonyme des Tripiers de wherever had a recipe section: and there I found one of the best treatments for heart I’ve ever seen. It being France, much red wine is involved. (Surprise, surprise.)

When I saw a nice-looking beef heart at the butcher’s a week or so ago, I nabbed it and brought it home, and then started hunting through the computer for my disk version of Peter’s translation of the original recipe. I can’t find it. It may have been destroyed in a disk crash, or gotten itself shoved into an ancient .arc or .arj file that’s become corrupt. But I remember the generalities well enough, and the basic method is worth passing on.

“False friends! O, I could eat their hearts with garlic.” (Queen Prezmyra, The Worm Ourobouros)

(She’s a gourmet if nothing else, that lady.)

First go buy a beef heart, and then find your boning or filleting knife.

Trim off any exterior fat from the heart: you won’t want that in the final product. Slice through to whichever interior chamber you hit first — auricle or ventricle — and lay the heart out open. Slice away any vascular-looking material and the interior stringy bits (ligaments). (And if you’re already making faces, cut it out. This will be no worse than your average episode of CSI.)

Push the outside of the heart flat down against the cutting board and use the boning knife on it the same way you’d use it to remove the skin from the outside of a fish filet. (Depending on your knife and your skill, you may find it easier to cut the heart into two or three pieces, the long way — top to bottom — and operate on each of them separately.) Thinly slice away the outer membrany “skin”. There is also some membrane on the inside of the auricles / ventricles that looks less “beeflike”, which you may want to remove for the look of the thing.

Once the membranes have been removed, slice each chunk of heart muscle into cubes or cubish bits, half an inch wide or so. You should wind up with at least a pound and a half or two pounds of perfectly lean, dark red meat.

Put them in a glass or other nonreactive bowl. Add:

Most of a bottle of a rough red wine. Don’t get fancy about the wine. Chianti is a good choice. (I used a Rioja this time out because I couldn’t find a Chianti that looked cheap and tough enough: all the Chiantis hereabouts seem to have gone upmarket — you can’t find one of those straw-wrapped fiasci any more.)

Garlic. Peel and chop or smash up the cloves of an entire head of garlic.

Herbs. I had fresh ones available, and put in sage, rosemary, thyme and curly parsley. (Not visible in the picture: the ladybug / ladybird who hitched a ride in on the sage and nearly wound up in the marinade. He/she was quickly repatriated to the herb patch.)

Stir the whole business together, cover with plastic wrap, and put in the fridge to marinate for at least 24 hours, and 48 would be better.

Then:

Find at least half a pound of the smokiest bacon you can lay your hands on. (We use speck that we import a few times a year from a specialty butcher in Zurich.) Chop or cube it. In the heaviest large, tight-lidded casserole you have, sauté it in a little oil (olive oil works fine for this). Peel and chop two big onions (red, golden or white, it doesn’t seem to matter). Sauté the onions with the bacon until they start to go brown.

Add the heart and its marinade. Season with some salt and pepper. Add some more red wine if you feel the need: enough to cover the meat, anyway. Cover and put into a fairly slow oven (250°F / 120°C) and leave it there for at least three hours. Four might be more like it. At three hours, check for tenderness. If the meat seems tender enough (there won’t be any question about how it tastes: this is one of the great stews of the world), start considering what you want to do with the gravy — make a roux to thicken it, or else just reduce it, or just serve it as it is.

To serve on the side? This is always an issue. Mashed potatoes would be my choice. But Peter may start demanding eggnoodles, or his Mum’s herb dumplings, or spaetzle. It happens. Sometimes I even agree with him.

…Might as well surprise him. Time to go dig out the spaezlihöbel…

 

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