C’mon, have a heart!
In early December of last year, Mike and I filled up the trunk of our car with coolers, dropped Harlowe off at her grandparents’ house for a play date, plugged in the GPS and headed north for 3 hours to a small town called Coe Hill…to see about a cow; an organically and ethically raised grass fed heritage breed cow. And only half of it, to be precise.
A couple years ago I started to pay a lot more attention to the food that we were consuming, nutritionally as well as ethically. It has become more important to me to know where our food comes from, how it was grown and harvested/butchered and what impact our consumption will have on the greater juggernaut of food production. Although I’m not by any means a frothing and unyielding locavore, I do feel like we have a responsibility to ourselves and our community (locally and globally) to make the best choices possible, within the boundaries of our individual circumstances and personal values.
After a fair bit of conversation, we decided that we were ready to take the next step and get a little bit closer to the farm by purchasing the meat directly from the farmer. During the course of my research to find the right farm and animal, I came across Janet and Henry Ellenberger and their organic farm. I was instantly smitten. Maybe it was the pictures of their beautiful highland horses, or maybe it was their unfaltering commitment to the land and forgotten produce like seed potatoes, but I knew that this was the farm from which we would order our cow.
Half a cow, even a “skinny” grass fed cow like ours, yields quite a bit of meat. We split our half with another couple and we will still have plenty of beef to carry us through until the fall. The most fun we had during this experience, however, was ordering the butchery to specification. Choosing how many pounds of stew beef to ground beef, how thick would the steaks be, how heavy the roasts, oh, it was glorious! And, as you could expect, under the “additional comments” section I specified that I wanted the bones and organs as well. There was no way that we were ordering up a half a cow without getting the offal!
If you have never tasted beef heart before, well, you’re in for a treat! Unlike liver or kidney, the heart doesn’t have that ferrous, forceful “organ” taste that some people find to be off-putting. This is a hard working muscle so it tends to be quite lean but it’s a wonderfully concentrated source of nutrients. It is full of Vitamin A and B12, folic acid, iron (obvs, right?), but also selenium, phosphorous, zinc and copper. Did we mention Coenzyme Q10 and collagen? I don’t have a lot of in-depth knowledge on the science of nutrition, but I know that those are both key inclusions in my favourite face creams, so I’m just going to go ahead and tell myself that eating heart will make you pretty. Yes. This completely unscientific and oversimplified theory, brought to you by the Choosy Beggars!
Cooking beef heart doesn’t need to be daunting. Because it is so lean, you can use the same rule of thumb that you would for any other tight muscle; grill/sear it lightly and quickly, or give it a long, slow braise to tenderize it. This may be late March, but in Ontario the air is still well below freezing and there are snow flurries happening outside right now as I’m typing this, so a braise just made sense.
Grass fed beef likes a slightly lower temperature and longer cooking time than conventional beef, but if you treat it like the tough beef or lamb stew meat that would normally be used for this type of tagine, you will be rewarded with fabulous flavour.
Beef Heart Tagine
serves 4-6 over your choice of starch
- 1 grass fed beef heart (~ 1.5 kg/5-6 lb) *
- 2 tbsp spice blend (recipe follows) **
- 2 tbsp olive oil
- 2 medium onions
- 5 plump cloves garlic
- chubby 2″ chunk ginger
- 3 tbsp tomato paste
- 10 dates
- 2 tbsp honey
- 1.5 cups water
- salt, to taste
- 2 tbsp chopped cilantro, optional
- 2 pods black cardamom
- 2 cinnamon sticks
- 1 tsp black peppercorn
- 1/2 tsp coriander seeds
- 2 bay leaves
- 3/4 tsp allspice berries
- 1/2 tsp anise seed
- 1/2 tsp cloves
* You could substitute stewing beef or lamb for the heart.
* If you don’t have the spices on hand to make the spice blend, and you don’t feel like buying 8 little baggies for one dish, you can instead use 2 tablespoons of the Moroccan spice blend Ras el Hanout. Any additional spice blend (or Ras el Hanout) is great rubbed into chicken, beef or lamb before it hits the grill, stirred into curries or sprinkled in to give an extra curry-like kick to sweet potatoes, butternut squash or fried chickpeas.
Put all of the spices into a spice grinder and then whizz them up until you have a fine powder.You could crumble the bay leaves and pound the rest of the ingredients in a mortar and pestle if you had no other alternative, but if you can save your ward off the carpal tunnel syndrome
The real work when you are handling a heart is all about breaking it down. You want to remove all of the sinew, silverskin, fat and…grossness. It sounds daunting, and if you’re like me you may wonder how you’ll know what to remove and what to save, but a good rule of thumb is that if it doesn’t look appetizing, get rid of it. The heart is a powerful muscle, and at the end of the day, all that you want is that super lean muscle tissue.
I am a terrible butcher, so please be patient with me. If you want an expert tutorial on how to break down a heart, see this video from the Emperor of Entrails, Chef Chris Cosentino.
If you want to stumble along with me, well, here goes. Start by opening the heart. If you’re wondering about the colour, this particular heart was thawed from frozen and then waited in my fridge for almost 48 hours, so there was a bit of oxidation to the outside.
Break the heart down into 3-4 manageable pieces to make it easier to trim. Try to follow the natural lines of the meat.
Using your sharpest knife, remove any visible fat and silverskin from the exterior of the heart. As you’re slicing it away, try not to lose too much of the muscle matter.
Flip the piece over and witness the horrors within. It looks tubey, tangled, slightly gelatinous and not at all appealing. Slice that all off to expose the muscle.
When you are all finished, you should have several pieces of pure muscle, ready to be cut into cubes. Even with my clumsy butchering, the 1.5 kg heart yielded just over 1 kg of cleaned meat.
Chop the meat into bite sized cubes that are roughly uniform, or as close as possible. Season the meat generously with salt and one (1) tablespoon of the spice mix. Set this aside at room temperature for half an hour so that the flavours can begin to permeate the meat.
In the mean time, peel the onion and cut it in half, lengthwise, and then slice across into 1/4″ crescents. Spread the onion along the bottom of a dry medium/large tagine or a medium Dutch oven that has been lightly misted with oil.
Peel the other onion and finely dice it. Peel the garlic and ginger and mince both. Set these aside for a moment.
In a large, heavy bottomed pan, heat up the two (2) tablespoons of oil over high heat. When the oil is shimmering but has not yet started to smoke, brown the meat in batches. Let it really sear and get some nice caramelization before turning the pieces. After all of the meat is browned on the outside (but not cooked through), set it aside.
Turn the heat down to medium low. If the pan looks too dry, add an extra tablespoon of oil.
Add the onions, garlic and ginger and saute until the onions are translucent and the pan is quite fragrant.
Sprinkle on the remaining one (1) tablespoon of spice blend.
You want to cook off the raw flavour of the spices, so let this go for at least 2-3 minutes. The mixture will look really dry. Stir in the tomato paste and let this cook for another minute or two to get rid of the raw tomato taste.
Slowly pour in the water, stirring vigorously and scraping up all the browned bits of fond that were stuck to the bottom of the pan.
Stir in the honey and season the mixture lightly with salt. Let this simmer until it thickens slightly, like a brown gravy.
Lay the meat on top of the onion in the tagine.
Pit the dates and quarter each one. Sprinkle the date chunks in with the beef and the smother the lot with the aromatic gravy.
Put a lid on the tagine and set the dish into the centre of a 300ºF oven for 3-4 hours, checking the tagine after 2 hours to give it a stir, and then around every 45 – 60 minutes after that to stir and check for tenderness.
Note: depending on the size of your tagine dish, if it looks to be so full that you might risk it bubbling over, put a sheet pan underneath to catch any drips as it bakes.
Give the tagine one last stir, taste it and adjust the seasoning if need be. This dish does need salt for the spices to really pop, so don’t be too shy with the shaker.
Garnish the tagine with freshly chopped cilantro immediately before serving.
Serve the heady, sweet and fragrant tagine over couscous to sop up all those juices, with some nice bright vegetable salads on the side.
If you have eaten braised heart before, you will know how tender and succulent this dish is just from looking at it. But if this is your first time venturing into the world of organ meat, please, don’t be afraid. Heart is the perfect place to start.