Heart is much like I always imagined steak: flavorful, firm, tender, and not prone to disintegrating after hours in the crockpot. I grew up an eater of vegetables, with the occasional fish and fowl mixed in, but never red meat. Family legend has it that my uncle appalled my parents by feeding the maybe-4-year-old-me a bite of his hamburger. It wasn't until after I moved to Alaska that red meat became a conscious, and beloved, part of my diet. As a result, I had a fully imagined notion of what steak was; a notion created out of novels mostly. As my favored reading was medieval-fantasy and historical coming of age novels for the majority of my youth, I developed a decidedly hearty-tavern-stew and frontier meat-and-potatoes image of what exactly red meat is. And while I've had many a fine steak and roast in the past half decade or so, no beef soup or stew or bourgignon has ever quite lived up to my image of it as an ultimately warm, filling, nourishing, thick, delicious, restorative, so-good-with-a-mug-of-ale beef stew. Hearty, one might say (pun most certainly intended). I am sure that the word got much of its sense from the idea of heartening, of giving heart or courage to a person. The word courage is, after all, derived from the French "coeur" for "heart." But I imagine centuries of cooks, farm-wives, and inkeeps using a stew to stretch the meat as far as possible, to tenderize the sometimes tough vital muscle, or even to hide the frugal use inner organs behind an idea of steak.
In the past few weeks, two of my dear friends of the lovely blog Maple and Me went
Caribou hunting. The eponymous Maple, known on this blog as the
Woodsman, got one on New Years, and the following weekend he took my
dear friend and fellow writer on her first hunt. She shot a beautiful
caribou with much gratitude in her heart for all that it means to take a
life to feed one's own; and last night I ate that caribou's heart.
When Maple shot their first caribou, he brought home the carcass to butcher and a bag with the heart and the lungs in it to use as bait for lynx and marten traps. But when my breda heard he'd brought back the heart, she told him I would probably want it. She knows me well! The next weekend, after she went out after the same herd and brought home a second caribou, my Darlin'Man, my father and I went over to the Garagehome and made quick work of the butchering. So it was that I came home with not only wrapped caribou steaks and ground meat and even dog scraps* for the freezer, but also one fresh heart in need of rinsing, and one frozen heart with set of lungs. I have no idea what to do with the lungs. But, I firmly believe in using all parts of an animal that you've killed to eat, and am fascinated by traditional food ways' use of the innards of an animal. I also lust after my own copy of the River Cottage Meat Book.
(*Please note that caribou carry parasites in their muscles that will give dogs a really wretched case of the worms. PLEASE COOK your dog's wild game scraps!)
So, I arrived home with a fresh, never frozen, caribou heart in a Ziploc bag. I knew I needed to brine it, having read the MooseHunting string of posts over at the wonderful WellPreserved. Rereading his post, I was relieved that 2-5 days brine was the suggestion. It bought me some time to actually figure out what to do with the heart. In Kristin Kimball's "The Dirty Life," she tells of her man pan frying, pan searing really, a freshly shot venison heart, I had initially thought of doing just that, but the raw heart with ventricles still sticking out and its unappetizing fascia still wrapping it, made me question such a notion. So I consulted the internet, and while pan-searing came in second, the overwhelming first choice for heart preparation (whether beef or venison) was long slow stewing. I found a few recipes for venison bourgignon that I thought I might use as my starting point. Cutting into the brined heart a few days later, I was impressed by the quality of the muscle, superior in color and texture to the tenderloin I had cut from along the spine a few days beforehand.
The resulting stew I made was precisely as I've always imagined such a stew should be.
Heart is both chewy and tender. Caribou heart has the pleasant spiceyness of game meat, the kind that reminds me of a mixture between allspice and spruce tips. Heart stewed in a slow cooker for 11 hours, imbues 5 times its volume in vegetables with an incomparable richness, and a house with a warm and oh-so-welcoming smell. There are few things better than coming home after a long day in town, long after dark, having driven down icy roads, to the full aroma of a warm and delicious dinner.
I have read that heart tastes like a pleasant cross between steak and liver, the richness due in large part to the high amount of blood unsurprisingly within the tissue. I imagine it is this same quanitity of blood that causes the richness of such a stew. The blood mixes with the broth and, in this case, the wine to add depth of flavor and the thick richness I have always imagined. Eating the vegetables and the broth is such a pleasure, I am almost surprised by the bites that actually have meat in them.
Take one heart. Brine in salt and sugar water with allspice berries and rosemary for 2-5 days.
Peel off fascia (it should come off easily at this point), and cut out the cartilage of the ventricles, and any fat. Chop this up into pieces, boil with kibble and bask in the love of your husky.
Slice the heart into quarters, and clean out any clotted blood inside the chambers (this can be added to the husky pot). Remove the heartstings. Chop the heart meat into pieces. Set aside.
Get out your large crockpot. Chop up a bunch of garlic (and onions if you wish: I was prepping this late at night for the next day and had a bag of frozen pearl onions hanging out in the freeze. Being tired and prone to onion-tears, I just used those.) Add plenty of parsley, thyme, basil, and oregano. Pour in half an inch of red wine.
Chop up half a dozen large carrots, and about the same of potatoes. Add a few handfuls of chopped celery. Dump in plenty of frozen peas and corn (or canned, or fresh). Notice you have scallions in the fridge and add these.
Add chopped heart.
Open a large can of pureed tomatoes, and add this. Fill can with water to simultaneously rinse and measure water for the meal.
Stir. Notice you need more liquid. Pour rest of unfinished wine bottle into the pot. Then add a little more water until the liquid is not quite covering the top layer. (If you have stock on hand, use this instead, I was just out of stock and the local meats shop had no soup bones the last time I checked.)
The next morning, plug in the crockpot and set to low. Go to work.
Come home and eat.
I recommend serving with Stone Brewery Arrogant Bastard. It would also be good with bread for sopping.