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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