February and hearts go hand in hand: conversation hearts, cardboard heart-shaped boxes filled with cloying mystery chocolates, and teddy bears cradling crushed-velvet hearts. But then my mind turns to actual hearts: the thumping, life-giving kind. Oh, dear. Is this going where I think it’s going?
This month’s recipe might be a little off-putting if you weren’t raised eating animal organs. Not that I was—no, I was raised on Hamburger Helper and broiled skinless chicken breasts. But I’m adventurous in the kitchen, eschewing bungee jumping and rock climbing for lard rendering and food preserving.
The time came to challenge myself to consider the waste involved in my omnivorous eating habits. Offal, which according the Oxford Companion to Food, literally means “off fall”—the pieces that fall from a carcass when it’s butchered—has become the dregs of the meat industry or fodder for shocking television programs. Why are roasts acceptable fare, but not hearts? Didn’t our ancestors make use of the entire animal? When did we get squeamish enough to shun edible parts of the beast that gave its life to become our food?
I ran into a roadblock not long after embarking on this culinary adventure. I procured beef heart at the OSU-OKC farmers’ market, but I wasn’t entirely sure what to do with it. I wanted to give this heart the best possible chance to be delicious, but unlike other food items, there weren’t any user-friendly cookbooks or websites offering much-needed hand-holding guidance on preparing offal. Luckily, I found a gold mine in the 1975 edition of the Doubleday Cookbook that my mom had given me. The book contained evidence of our society’s forgotten “nose to tail” eating habits.
To prepare the heart for stuffing, author Jean Anderson instructed me to rinse it, trim away fat and veins and marinate the muscle if it seems particularly tough. Trimming requires an extremely sharp knife and a fair amount of detachment. Unlike the anatomical ambiguity of flank steak or loin chops, heart resembles…well, heart. And perhaps detachment wouldn’t be as necessary with other types of offal, given that we assign emotions to hearts.
Trimming the heart took longer than I expected, which led me to the theory that perhaps offal fell out of favor not just because Americans got squeamish but because offal was a casualty of our fast-food culture. A quick rub and sear won’t do—it takes time to make offal appealing.
I had some good-spirited friends over to try the spread: stuffed heart with gravy, creamed carrots and onions, cheddar-garlic biscuits and salad. Emotions ranged from hesitation and doubt to enthusiasm. My husband joked about ordering pizza if the dish turned out to be a miserable failure. But guess what? It wasn’t a failure.
A common fear is that beef heart will be too tough, since it’s such a hard-working muscle. But a three-hour braise rendered the meat tender and flavorful, and the pan juices made a rich, deep-brown gravy. My friends and I were relieved and pleasantly surprised that the heart was decidedly edible, if not quite tasty. At a typical dinner party, surprise and relief might not be the goal, but in this case, I considered it success.
If you are interested in trying offal, you might first have a difficult time acquiring it. If you are lucky enough to have a butcher in your community, check there or at an ethnic grocery. It would also be helpful to get acquainted with a local rancher at your farmers’ market or visit the food co-op to see a wide variety of offal. Since there’s little demand for offal, it is usually an inexpensive alternative to prime cuts of meat.
Braised Stuffed Heart
Slightly adapted from The Doubleday Cookbook, Volume 1, 1975 edition.
:: 1 (4–5 lb.) beef heart
:: 1 t salt
:: 1/4 t pepper
:: 2 T butter
:: 2 cups beef broth
:: 2 T flour, blended with 2 T cold water
:: 1 cup yellow onion, minced
:: 1/3 cup carrot, minced
:: 2 T celery, minced
:: 2 T butter
:: 1 1/2 cup rice mix, cooked
:: 2 T parsley, minced
Put the fresh or thawed beef heart in the freezer for about 20 minutes. Firm meat will make the trimming process a little easier. Prepare the heart for cooking (by rinsing and trimming away the fat, veins and silver skin) and pat dry. Pat the meat dry with a paper towel, then rub it inside and out with salt and pepper. Let it stand while you prepare the stuffing.
Stir-fry onion, carrot and celery in butter in a heavy skillet over moderate heat for 8–10 minutes until golden; mix with the cooked rice and parsley. I opted to use beef-flavored rice mix for extra flavor. Spoon loosely into the heart cavity and close the opening with poultry pins and string or bind it with cooking twine.
Brown heart in 2 tablespoons of butter in a heavy kettle or dutch oven over moderate heat. Use tongs to carefully rotate the heart, to ensure all surfaces get a good sear. Add broth, cover and simmer slowly about 3 hours until tender, turning 1–2 times during cooking. Check the pot occasionally and add a little water if necessary.
Lift heart to a heated platter, remove pins or string and keep warm. Stir flour paste into kettle and heat, stirring constantly, until thickened and smooth. Add salt and pepper according to taste. To serve: slice the heart crosswise, not too thin, and pass around the gravy.
This essay and recipe also appeared in the February 2010 issue of Oklahoma Living.