While beef chuck looks a lot like fatty brisket and strip loin could pass for flatiron, a heart splayed open on a cutting board is unmistakably heart-like. The right and left ventricles are simple enough to identify, that meaty, maroon-coloured wall through the middle looks vaguely familiar from Grade 11 science and those stringy white bits are the chordae tendineae, designed to prevent the heart’s valves from blowing during a morning jog or abnormally rigorous sex.
“The heart,” as one meat scientist I spoke with put it, “is pure anatomy looking at you straight in the face.” Yet it’s more than that. Heart is pure, delicious anatomy.
Whether grilled hot and fast over glowing charcoal, ground up for burgers or, in the case of duck hearts, pan-fried with butter and balsamic vinegar and spooned onto toasted country bread, heart is one of the boldest, richest, most satisfying meats available, without the offal flavour that’s common in other off-cuts. Even better, butchers practically give heart away.
And it’s catching on. Though heart isn’t yet the new pork belly, it is becoming hard to miss if you get out to eat much.
At Toqué in Montreal, chef Normand Laprise poaches venison heart in duck fat, with garlic and a fir branch for added flavour.
Neil Taylor, the British-trained chef behind España in Vancouver’s West End, marinates beef heart in sherry vinegar and olive oil before grilling it, much the same way that people grill flank steak.
And David Burke, a chef in New York, has even used heart for brewing. A couple of years ago, he partnered with The Boston Beer Company, the makers of Samuel Adams, to create a beer with sliced beef heart as a key ingredient. “The beef heart expresses itself in the finish,” the company’s brew manager said when the beer was released. “It’s savoury and salty and hangs at the end.” A pair of brewers in Oregon made a similar beer earlier this year, reportedly adding Turkish bay leaves, long pepper and 60 pounds of charred heart to the boil. They named it Captain Beefheart.
Yet my favourite heart dishes are the simplest ones.
Every summer I roast a whole pig at some friends’ farm in Prince Edward County, east of Toronto. Last year, I also brought a beef heart, which I had prepared into Peruvian-style anticuchos. After trimming the heart, I cut it into cubes and marinated them overnight with oil, red-wine vinegar, red chilies and toasted cumin. (I got the recipe from Toronto cook and author Jennifer McLagan’s indispensable Odd Bits: How to Cook the Rest of the Animal.) As we sat around the fire drinking bourbon late in the afternoon, we strung the meat and hunks of glossy white epicardial fat onto wooden skewers, then grilled them, down close to the coals.
Those hunks of fat basted the heart as they rendered, while the searing heat from maple logs built a deep-brown, sizzling, profoundly satisfying crust around the cubes of meat. The pig was good. The heart is what people still rave about.
Yet heart is an afterthought in the meat business. One study at the University of Guelph a few years ago aimed to devise a test for detecting the presence of heart in commercial ground beef – a problem in the industry, apparently, as heart is still considered an adulterant.
A meat scientist at the University of Alberta told me that a lot of heart still goes to dog-food factories and rendering plants; she couldn’t name a single meat scientist who takes heart seriously as cuisine. And nobody seems entirely certain what makes heart taste so good, though I have heard a lot of theories. Some food scientists say it’s because heart is loaded with iron and myoglobin, necessities for such a hard-working muscle. Another scientist I spoke with credited the volatile flavour substances called alkylthiazoles, which become intensely savoury when exposed to dry heat. Heart’s got more of them than any other muscle.
This theory falls apart, however, in the face of raw heart tartare – not exactly a shrinking violet, flavour-wise.
To prepare heart (raw or cooked) at home, keep a few general rules in mind. According to Taylor of España, it must be “spanking fresh,” as it can go rancid more quickly than many other meats. If it’s beef heart, trim off the obvious non-meaty bits. For lamb and poultry hearts, just give them a good rinse and pat dry. And while you can cook heart either hot and fast (to medium-rare and no longer) or low and slow, don’t even think about the middle ground, which tenses the meat’s connective tissue and inevitably turns it chewy.
If you can’t stand the thought of trimming heart yourself, it’s becoming more widely available prepped and marinated. Sanagan’s Meat Locker, my butcher in Toronto’s Kensington Market, sells a ton of it that way.
For the most exquisitely, elementally beefy burger patties imaginable, have your butcher grind beef heart and heart fat half-and-half with chuck.
Better still, forgo the cooking altogether and indulge in some beef-heart tartare, pictured here. Pure anatomy never tasted so good.
For Chris Nuttall-Smith’s heart tartare recipe, download the free Globe Style Advisor iPad app at tgam.ca/styleadvisor