Nose-to-Tail: The Heart of the Matter
Yeah, I know. It has been a long time since I wrote my last article on this topic. I do, however, have a very good explanation. I didn’t wanna. I could wax philosophical about the carousel of life, the passage of time and shifting priorities, but that would be a load of crap. I simply didn’t feel like doing it … the philosophy of not giving a @#$%.
Let’s get right down to it. I bought a beef heart. I decided there was no better way for me to hop back on the whole animal wagon than to just get a piece of mystery meat and cook it. I assure you, however, the heart of a cow is not mysterious at all. It looks very much like an internal organ that pumps blood through the body, ventricles and all. I was feeling pretty bold on my way to the grocery store. I was having a Game of Thrones moment – some real “I will conquer nations and feed on the hearts of my enemies” stuff. But imagine what the conquering hero feels like when she gets home and has to prep an entire heart for dinner? It’s not the glorious triumph one would hope for. But that’s the rest of the story … back to the beginning.
A project manager by day, I knew the best way for me to manage this process was to just get in there, take it step-by-step and not cut corners. I wasn’t going to learn anything if I cheated. And I certainly did cheat when I cooked the cow liver; someone else had done the dirty work. It was my time to shine. I mean “shine” in the least-glamorous sense possible. It is a giant cow heart, after all.
I went to a Nashville favorite, Porter Road Butcher. They are known for their locally-sourced beef, from cows that are pasture-raised with no hormones or antibiotics. They are also committed to using only animals who are raised and slaughtered humanely. My natural convegan guilt aside, it’s a fact that a bad end to an animal’s life can make the meat taste bad. Maybe this dulls your appetite, but I feel that if you can’t eat other animals while fully acknowledging the facts of how they got onto your plate, then you shouldn’t eat other animals. By the way, I shouldn’t eat other animals. So don’t feel badly.
I boldly walked up to the counter and expertly ordered my desired item. Just kidding – I shyly stood in line, not knowing what the heck to do until one of the staff walked up and asked if she could help. I’ve never been to a real butcher shop. I told her I wanted cow heart and she asked, “Are you looking for half-a-heart or a whole one?” She could tell I didn’t know, so she took me over to the freezer and showed them to me. If you’ve seen a whole cow heart then you will understand why I chose half.
When it was time for me to pay, the gentleman behind the counter looked solemnly at me and asked if I had ever prepped a heart before. “No.” He didn’t seem surprised. I guess the fact that I was holding it like a baby tipped him off.
“I don’t want to scare you, but I want you to feel confident when you do this, so I’m going to tell you how.” He patiently and thoroughly described the process of removing the arteries and … other stuff (By then I had stopped listening and was focusing on making sure my “I ain’t scared” expression was intact. I thanked him for his tutelage, soothed my shattered senses by also selecting some very normal-looking sausage, paid for my order and went home.
Since the heart was frozen (I guess they don’t exactly fly off the shelves), I placed it in the freezer, thankful to have a few days to craft a strategy and get my mind right.
First stop, YouTube.
Video #1: A lady with moderately good video-editing skills, blue fingernails and somewhat questionable food safety practices cuts the heart up into square chunks, ventricles and all, and puts it in the oven. She notes that it’s important to roast it before stewing it, otherwise it will be “too tender.” Too tender? I don’t even know what that means. Next.
Video # 2: A gentleman slaps an already partially-prepped heart around on a cutting board and says, “It’s just like fileting a fish – anyone with basic knife skills can do it.” Knife skills? I don’t even know what that means. Next.
Having fileted exactly zero things, I don’t own a filet knife. I am a wonderful cook, but many can tell you that preparing/cooking meat is not my strong suit. If I decide to do this again (you know, never), I will purchase a filet knife (and, uh, learn how to use it). This time around, I used a well-sharpened 8” chef’s knife.
Since my YouTube research skills were clearly sub-par, I read several articles online and found a few that suited both my inclinations and my skill level. Typically when I prepare an unfamiliar food, I read a few recipes and then mix-and-match to make my own. I ended up with what we’ll call “beef heart two ways.” My boyfriend, Nat, was on-hand to heckle and select appropriate background music. If I recall correctly, he chose Heart’s greatest hits, for obvious reasons, followed by Biggie’s Ready to Die, once he realized that I was going to have to get my mean mug on if I was going to make it through the process without crying. The other thing he did was come up with a stellar beef heart tartare recipe (Thug life – he ain’t scared), which is recipe number two of our “two ways.”
Since I had only half a heart (There’s a joke in there somewhere), it was easier to see where I needed to cut. If you decide to do this yourself, and if this cut of meat is unfamiliar to you, know that you will have to decide between A) more meat to work with, allowing for some slightly-odd-though-not-unpleasant textures or B) more familiar textures but less meat to work with. Part of this process for me was learning how to prepare the heart, so I went with option A. There are lots of arteries, vales and connective tissue which are fairly easy to differentiate from the meat.
- Get your game face on.
- Make sure you have a large (like, huge) non-porous cutting board. Consider covering an area on your counter wider than the size of the cutting board with a towel, then placing the cutting board over it to keep your counter clean. (If you buy the heart partially prepped, then this part is less important. You can move straight to step 6.)
- Remove the fat. Some people save it to render, but I felt I had enough to deal with at the time. Remove the silver skin. You’ll know what it is because it really does have a slightly silver color, and it’s a bit shiny.
- De-tendon. De-artery. De-connective-tissue. I recommend wearing gloves. I wore the gloves not for reasons related to food safety, but because I was totally creeped out and I thought a protective layer of latex might help. (There’s a joke in there somewhere.)
- At this point, you’ll probably have a bloody mess on your hands. Revel in it. Or freak out, whichever suits your personality.
- Rinse the heart, and then soak it in a bowl of salted water to help complete the cleaning process. I soaked mine for half an hour.
- I read that at this point, some people like to soak the heart in milk or a vinegar/water mixture to remove some of the gamey flavor. I declined. Give it to us raw and wriggling. Just kidding. Please cook it. But let it taste as it should.
- At this point, the heart is ready to cook. I cut the heart into 2” chunks. I say “chunks” and not “cubes” because once I finished removing all the funny bits, the slabs of meat weren’t exactly uniform.
This next part – the cooking part – is completely free-form. Once you’ve done all the detailed slicing and dicing, you’ll be happy to have the opportunity to be creative. There are no measurements listed below. Have fun. The good thing is that cooking the heart is very easy.
- Beef heart
- Safflower oil (any heat-tolerant oil will do)
- Parsnips, peeled
- Thyme sprigs
- I may have used some garlic. I don’t remember. Do what you feel.
- Beef broth
- Red wine (I used what I had on hand at the time; I think it was pinot noir.)
- Salt and pepper
Brown some butter. Don’t be shy – use a ton of it.
Empty the browned butter into a glass bowl.
Add oil to the pan and heat to medium-high, very close to high.
Give the meat a quick sear. I went a little too long with mine. Give it just long enough to begin to brown.
Transfer the meat to a dish that has a little red wine in the bottom. Why? I dunno. I said I was being creative. In my mind, I wanted the meat to begin absorbing the wine without having to sit on the stove.
Throw in the veggies to lightly sear them for just a minute. Toss in the thyme. Add salt and pepper to taste.
Deglaze the pan with a big splash of wine, enough that your veggies get a buzz. Reward yourself with a bigger splash of wine.
Add beef broth. I’d say two parts broth to one part wine.
Allow the sauce to reduce by half on medium heat. Then, turn the heat to low and add the seared beef.
Slow-cook for 45 minutes to an hour. Adjust the seasoning as needed. Finish with browned butter. You can eat this right away, or you can let it cool, refrigerate it, and serve it the next day – even better. It’s so good.
Oh – here’s version #2, the tartare, which Nat made with one of the slabs that I cut. The delicious flavor is striking and straighforward – gets right to the point.
- 4oz. raw beef heart diced into tiny squares
- 1 tbsp. olive oil
- 1 jalapeño, finely diced
- 1 tbsp. red onion
- 1 clove garlic
- Cilantro, finely chopped
- Salt and pepper
- Red wine vinegar
- Mix all ingredients; serve
See? Thug life.