Monday, 16 March 2009

Nose to Tail Tuesday (N3T) - Lambs' Hearts

Not only are we moving away from the magnificent pig this week, having stuck resolutely to the extremities for the last fortnight (with cheek and tail), we’re heading towards the centre of the beast.

Right to the very heart, in fact.

Despite enjoying exactly the same biological construction as muscle tissue, the heart is firmly within the bracket loosely titled ‘offal’. Why? Because it does something. It performs a function, a function with which we are conspicuously familiar.

Whilst I’ve cooked the occasional pate, offal is not something I’m familiar with. Part of the philosophy behind this feature is to attempt to rectify this glaring omission in my culinary experience.

I’ll admit now that I am squeamish about certain things but I’m also rapidly learning to put aside my fears and prejudices. Partly because I think it important, partly because I hope it makes for good reading.

The same could also be said for my increasingly courageous and accommodating girlfriend. It’s one thing to cook ‘the nasty bits’ for yourself, quite another to foist them upon your loved ones.

‘I knew you were going to walk out of there with something odd,’ she said to me last Saturday as we exited the deceptively cavernous Middle Eastern supermarket on Cambridge’s Mill Road.

I tried to defend my actions, admittedly hard to do when clutching a small plastic bag containing two lambs’ hearts. ‘But they were only fifty pence each,’ I offered hopefully and somewhat ineffectively.

I failed to convince myself, despite my outward confidence.

‘It’s just like a steak,’ I added.

‘It’s not though, is it? It’s a heart. I know what it does and I’ve got one. I don’t have any steaks or fillets but I do have a heart. They are quite important.’

It was a good point. There is a linguistic difference when talking about meat: pigs become pork. Cows become beef and the names of the cuts are often comfortingly vague: rack of lamb, sirloin, brisket, fillet.

With offal it is a different story.

Offal speaks to you in plain language. Sure, there is the occasional softener (sweetbreads, for example) but mostly it is unadorned: liver, kidney, brain and heart. We can relate to these. We know what they do. We have them, as had been adroitly pointed out.

‘I really don’t think I can eat heart.’

This was going to be a challenge. But one I was looking forward to.

There are, it seems, three ways to cook heart. They can be stuffed and roasted, sliced and fried like a steak (no more than medium rare, unless you wish to be chewing on it for a month), or slow cooked in a braise.

Being a fan of the magical alchemy of slow cooking, I chose the latter, sure that if I could convince my most honest critic, I could convince almost anyone.

Braised Lambs’ Hearts with onion and black olive pie, spinach, nettle and mint puree, fondant potato and glazed carrots

Once the sinew and fat has been trimmed away and the heart meat cut into manageable pieces, it takes on a more familiar appearance. It looks, to all intents and purposes, like meat.

Knowing what works, all that was needed was to coat the pieces in seasoned flour, brown them in a hot pan then add them to the Le Creuset along with some onion, garlic, carrot and rosemary. Topped up with red wine and lamb stock, the whole lot goes into a cool oven to cook away for at least two hours.

This is, generally, a good approach to take with any number of cheap cuts which need the low temperatures and lengthy cooking times to break down the connective tissue and collagen that holds the meat together. The benefit is a deliciously rich and unctuous stew with meat as tender as any prime cut.

While spoonfuls of this could easily be served alongside a baked potato or underneath a golden pie crust, the Thomas Keller school of cookery (and if anyone knows a thing or two about food, it is that man) advocates discarding the vegetables (which have already imparted its flavours into the pot), removing meat and reducing the sauce down to a thick, sticky jus.

So that’s what I did.

100ml of cassis liqueur was added to a pan along with the same amount of gravy from the stew and a few cubes of frozen beef stock. A couple of sprigs of rosemary and a split clove of garlic were also dropped in before the whole lot was reduced down. After passing through a fine sieve, the meat was returned back to the jus to warm through.

Although refined, this dish screamed ‘hearty’ (excuse the pun). And what could be heartier than a pie?

I remembered reading somewhere that in parts of France, lamb is often served with black olives. It seemed like a flavour combination that would work so I fried off some onions in olive oil, added some finely chopped black olives and then made a basic vegetable suet pastry to house the faintly sweet mix. Brushed with eggwash, they took barely ten minutes in a hot oven.

Mint is also a classic accompaniment with lamb but instead of a sweet and vinegary mint sauce of the type that graces dinner tables across the land every Sunday, I plumped for a more delicate side of spinach, nettle and mint puree (cook the leaves – one part fresh mint, one part nettle, two parts baby leaf spinach – in a little water, blitz, drain and season).

For the rest of the vegetables, sweet glazed carrots and fondant potatoes, cooked in a little chicken stock, completed the dish.

So, to get to the heart of the matter (sorry), how was it?

It wasn’t just surprisingly good, it was deliciously good. It was the sort of food that somehow has the ability to make you very happy indeed. It was rich, tasty, satisfying and all those other things that go into making a successful braised dish.

The heart had a deep flavour though not over-powering. It was ever so slightly ferric, like very mild liver but also deeply meaty. Texturally it had bite but wasn’t chewy or tough. The small morsels offered a little resistance but more than compensated in flavour. This is everything that is good about food.

‘Can I quote you?’ I said to my girlfriend after she had proclaimed it ‘completely delicious, so good. It’s possibly the best thing you’ve ever cooked. I can’t believe you got me to eat heart and enjoy it this much! Mmmmm, so, so good!’

‘Of course you can quote me,’ she replied. So I just did.

Verdict: N3T – Lambs’ hearts: a complete and utter success. Do again? With absolute certainty. And at fifty pence a go, it is almost sacrilegious not to buy these when they are available.

Any changes? Serve with buttery mash and wilted spinach. Simple, hearty and, in the words of my girlfriend ‘so, so good.’

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Hopie said...

I see you've avoided emasculating photos of squeamishness this time, and gone for the more romantic "heart in your hand" look, nice! I'm impressed you tried heart and liked it so much. Now I'm curious...

Just Cook It said...

Ha! So true. Yes, once a month is more than enough to look like a big wuss.

Joanna said...

Hi Alex .... just exploring your blog, love this heart recipe, and the nettle puree sounds terrific

Good to meet yesterday

Alex English said...

Fantabulous photos, very inspiring! Hope you've digested all of yesterday's Irish goodies...

Anonymous said...

Congratulations on your photo with the heart!
Really, amazing!
Keep up the good work!

Just Cook It said...

Joanna - thank you, I noticed that you were cooking with nettles too. They are wonderful. Lovely to meet you too.

Alex - Thank you very much. I think I've just about managed to get my appetite back!

Thanks Kisara, I'll do my best

Andrew said...

Wow, looks fantastic, I'll have to see if one of the local middle estern grocery shops round here carries lamb hearts.

Sam said...

I have eaten heart but it was a long time ago, I can't really remember what it tastes like.

I love the photos...

Anonymous said...

I love hearts and have cooked them a few times . Never managed to get them photogenic though so this is inspirational.

Anonymous said...

Brilliant! Well done for taking on those hearts. I must have a go myself. I had a fantastic salad at a local restaurant and I've been thinking about cooking them ever since. 50p each too - bargain! I'm thinking about the mark up they made on that salad...

Alicia Foodycat said...

The only times I have had heart it has been rubbery and horrible. I don't care to keep trying it!

Laura in Paris said...

Your post reminds me of a time just after I had arrived in France when I was invited over at French friends in Brittany. What was up for dinner? Oh, kekabs made with beef heart and kidney cubes ... I have NEVER had that again! But here in France it is very common to see at the butcher's kideny, brains, heart, liver, lamb testicules (called "white kidneys") sweet breads and more .. I never buy those cuts.

Laura said...

My mom used to cook heart steaks often when I was little and I still remember the texture, and the delicious taste. Next organs you cook must be kidneys, if you haven't already. Maybe you can use hop shoots instead of nettles, if you can find them.

Just Cook It said...

Andrew - Thank you very much. Middle eastern places are probably your best bet for picking up things like this and more unusual items.

Sam - You should really give it a go again. Well worth the effort.

Thank you so much Becky.

Helen - And that's before a restaurant's bulk buy discount! Def worth trying though.

Foodycat - You should give it a final go because if it can convince the GF then it can convince anyone.

World in a PAN - I remember that from Paris. The French are much less squeamish about buying such cuts. They can be delicious but equally they can be cooked badly and nasty enough to put you off for life!

Laura - Consider your request counted - Kidney's are on the menu! Thanks for your input

Kirk said...

Inspired by your introduction to nose-to-tail eating, I popped 'round the corner to my local butcher - who specializes in wild game and other neglected animals - to pick up a bison heart.

I slow-roasted it also, braising it in a delicious Scottish beer called Innis & Gunn with yams to pick out the sweetness, and served it with a Bordelaise sauce and caramelized carrots. I was admonished thoroughly by my girlfriend for forgetting to make black truffle Yorkshire pudding to mop up the sauce; a mistake I shall not make again!

A single bison heart is about as big as my head and cost me nine dollars. One third of it was enough to feed three people. I used to not eat meat because it was so expensive. Thank you for showing me it could be otherwise!

Anonymous said...

In all honesty, I am fascinated with the heart, and would love to try it at least once. Such an incredible organ, I was never squeamish about eating it (as opposed to things like liver or stomach. I know what goes on there, don't want it in my mouth)... Now that I have such positive feedback, I plan actually trying it sooner rather than later.

Brian Pentrell said...

Just on a note of pedantry, people have steaks as much as cows, lambs, fish etc. - it's a term for a cut of meat (muscle), and a fillet is just meat sans bones - and, properly prepared, she has those too...

Roasting some hearts tonight ~ keep up the good work!

Anonymous said...

a long time ago I used to know an Italian guy who was getting on in years who had me try i think he called it caro sicilliana or something like that but it was lambs heart in garlic, onions and beans butter beans I think and it was awesome, it was like a rich stew and funilly not a tomato in site.