The Matter of the Heart

  
One man’s (or woman’s, or culture’s) offal is another man’s premium cut; these things are as much about demand as about supply. A beef fillet may be prized partly because there is only one of it, but its status, still, as an expensive piece of meat comes as much from its giving tenderness – a texture which, coming as it does at the expense of flavour, many (yes, myself included) find if not unpleasantly then at least indifferently soft – at least when raw or extremely rare. Overcook it, of course, and it will be as dry and grainy as a minute steak.

 

Premium cuts often follow a French ideal of quality, and as such are rated by their edibility when sanguine; the cheaper ends of animals, either fatty or sinewy, tend to need much longer cooking – This is one of the things which defines their cheapness, despite the fact that a slow-cooked piece of belly pork is infinitely more delicious than a tenderloin cooked any way at all – unless you’re talking really cheap, in which case, things having come full circle, a quick sear in a very hot pan is often the best course of action. These cuts – skirt, flatiron, whatever – have long been enjoyed as steaks by the French (at a bistro level, perhaps, rather than haute cuisine) but are only now making their way out of our mincers and diced mixed stewing steak and onto waiting coals. Not premium, perhaps, but no longer as cheap as they were.

 

Heart, though, and despite its uniqueness in the animal, is still very cheap – in fact, our butcher gave us one for free, along with the tongue, kidneys, and some scraps of skirt, when we bought some excellent veal chops from him. He had the whole bullock, you see, and they were only going in the pet mix. Well, when life gives you offal, make a Fergus Henderson recipe, that’s what I say; and it turns out quickly cooked calf heart is a wonderful thing. I’d only ever braised hearts before, which takes bloody hours. I had a willing commis to do the wibbly bits for me, but even if you don’t, preparing hearts is pretty straightforward, should a jolly butcher ever give you his.

 

Essentially, you want to remove from this strange, muscular organ anything which is not in fact muscle; the top is surrounded by hard, suety fat, which you trim off; inside there are tubes, which you cut out; slicing the heart lengthways and opening it like a book, you will find the heartstrings, which it turns out are both real and extremely strong. Cut them off at each end. When you have a more-or-less homogenous pound of flesh, cut it into steaks. There’ll be a couple of triangular flaps which can be sliced off as is; as for the rest, it depends on your needs and appetite. You’ll want, though, to cut the thicker sections lengthways, so that everything is roughly of a muchness.

 

Now, following Fergus, toss the steaks with a splash of vinegar, a good pinch each of salt and pepper, some oil, some rosemary or whatever seems appropriate. The vinegar, I think, performs vital tenderisation, but the herbs, I suppose, are fairly optional. Leave in the fridge til tomorrow.

 

Now, get an appropriately sized pan screaming hot, lightly oil it, and add your steaks, pushing down on them to discourage curling; season a bit more if you feel it necessary. Cook until you get a good brown crust, (say 2-3 minutes) then flip and cook a minute or so more. Remove to rest.

 

While it rests, shave some fennel and sweet white onion as thinly as your mandolin will allow you, then dress heavily in a lemon vinaigrette and finely chopped parsley. Slice the heart, which should be pink and gently weeping, and serve with a little fennel and onion. This is true love.

Great Chieftain o the Puddin’-Race!

I’m preparing for Burns Night, the real foodie winter festival. It’s not that I don’t love Christmas (I’m deeply suspicious of anyone that doesn’t), it’s just there’re so many distractions – presents, decorations, family, carols – that it’s hard, sometimes, to just get stuck in. For Burns Night, on the other hand, there is just enough ceremony to provide an excuse for the meal, and no more – which is as it should be. Furthermore, as we’re not subjected to haggis sandwiches and three-courses-for-£25-office-Burns-Night-meals for a month and a half beforehand and are therefore not bored sick of the whole affair, no one has yet seen fit to mess around with the meal. Instead, we are bound by iron, delicious, tradition – and the fact that it involves offal and whisky makes it all the better.

Of course, such a limited menu gives you little scope for showing off – so what do you do? You make your own haggis. I should warn you in advance that it is quite an undertaking, at least in terms of sourcing the ingredients; Fergus Henderson, whose recipe I adapted, seems to assume you won’t even try to make it, as he neglects to mention how hard it is to get a sheep’s pluck. I asked a couple of butchers, and scoured the internet, with no luck, but reasoning that the lungs probably don’t taste of much, I went with what I could get. Accordingly, this recipe assumes you will use sausage skins rather than one whole stomach; a less impressive spectacle, perhaps, but still very satisfying to make.

HAGGIS SAUSAGES

Enough for 8.
Large branches of Tesco are good for lamb offal if your butcher can’t oblige; places like Lakeland normally stock sausage skins. The oatmeal might be hardest to track down – you don’t want rolled, porridge or jumbo oats, which are steamed. Try health food shops.

3 lamb hearts
400g lamb liver
Bay leaves
Peppercorns
1 carrot, roughly chopped
Half an onion
A leek, roughly chopped
2 large onions, finely chopped
A little lard or butter
100g coarse oatmeal, toasted in a dry pan
100g dried breadcrumbs (buy panko or pangrattato, or make your own)
200g beef suet
4 tsp coarse ground pepper
2 tsp ground allspice
A pack of sausage skins or similar

Rinse the offal, then place in a large pan with the whole spices and stock veg. Cover with cold water and a big pinch of salt, bring to the boil, then simmer for two hours, skimming off the scum (there will be a lot) and fishing out the liver half way through. Meanwhile, sweat the chopped onion in lard or butter until very soft and sweet.

When the lights are cooked and cooled (save 500ml of the stock), dice roughly then coarsely blitz in a food processor, using the pulse button – you don’t want a smooth paste. Tip the result into a large bowl, then add the cooked onions, the reserved stock, and the rest of the ingredients (apart from the sausage skins, obviously). Mix thoroughly with your hands, and salt to your liking.

When happy, stuff or pipe into your skins or whatever; I used a sausage gun designed for the purpose, but a piping bag, bought or improvised, would do. If you can’t be bothered with any of that, just bake it in a flat tray like Paxo stuffing; it won’t be as fun, but will still be delicious. Leave your sausages in the fridge overnight to firm up.

When you’re ready to eat, heat the oven to gas mark 5/190C/375F. Put the haggises in a deep, oven-proof frying pan, and just cover with water. Bring to a boil on the hob, let them bubble until the water’s half gone, then stick in the oven to brown up and finish cooking – another 15 minutes or so.
Serve with neeps and tatties , a wee dram (mandatory) and perhaps some greens and mustard. Get someone to recite ‘Address to a Haggis’ in their silliest Scots, and plunge your knives in at the third stanza. Enjoy!