People who love to eat also love to ask themselves questions. What will I eat, and what won’t I touch? Why? What are my limits, and what would change my mind? Can I put hot sauce on that?
All of these questions took me on a humble little journey recently: finding a cow’s heart, cooking it, and telling strangers about it on the Internet. I’d been vegetarian before, and ever since going back to omnivorism after a 7-ish years of meat-free living, my relationship with eating animals includes a lot of overthinking, a little lingering guilt, and an ever-evolving set of beliefs.
Part of these beliefs is the principle of not letting food, especially parts of an animal, go to waste. If a 250-pound pig leaves you with 140 pounds of bacon, ribs, ham, and loin, how much of the 110 pounds that remain can be used to squeeze as much human nourishment as possible out of one pig’s life? Not only is it respectful to try to do so, but it’s common sense. We travel as far as we can on every gallon of gas—and we don’t even have to raise and slaughter dinosaurs to make fossil fuels.
But let’s get back to the 250-pound pig. Internal organs make up a sizeable chunk of the 110 pounds of animal that don’t make it to most meat counters. As such, that is where we can begin the lifelong project of eating animals more efficiently and more consciously. I wanted to find out for myself that offal-eating can be done, and that it can easily be incorporated into the meat eater’s lifestyle. For every Sunday ribeye and Labor Day round of burgers, perhaps a heart here, a liver there. This doesn’t have to be the new normal—but every small change makes a difference.
Of course, this is normal in many parts of the world. It’s only revolutionary and new to people like me, who grew up in a culture that doesn’t include chicken heads and tripe in the same category as chicken nuggets and pork shoulder roasts. Oddly enough (not), the monstrosity that is pink slime somehow had no trouble slithering into our diet.
Heart is unique among offal because it’s perhaps the closest you can get to what is familiar; muscle is muscle, whether it pumps blood or moves a hind leg. It didn’t take long to find a beef heart in Portland—I paid $16 for a hefty one weighing in at 4 pounds. This was after a $4 discount, because I hadn’t planned well enough to buy fresh beef heart and settled for frozen instead. (Thursdays at Halal Meat and Mediterranean Deli for fresh beef and offal, PDX folks.)
I had done a little homework beforehand and learned that either quick searing or slow cooking makes for tender heart meat, so to help me decide between the two methods, I made sure to pester the butcher with questions. He recommended frying it in oil, with onion, salt, pepper, and paprika. Even better with liver, he said. I filed that option away for another time and arrived at a final answer, the answer being what it always is: tacos. I envisioned beautiful tacos, with thin strips of generously seasoned, medium-rare heart meat. I planned on cooking them the best way I know how: Quickly seared in a cast iron skillet, with a towel designated as the smoke-detector-shutter-upper within arm’s reach.
The next day, I thawed my cold, cold heart (the one I bought, not the one my college boyfriend gave me). After a little staring and poking, the standard ritual for any animal trying to decide whether something is good to eat, I got started. I unfolded the lobes, trimmed the shiny membranes, and cut away the extra fat and veins. I studied the grain of the muscle to figure out which way to cut my soon-to-be seared taco strips—which I still got wrong, despite pretty much 50/50 odds.
As I worked, the smell rose assertively. Nothing bad, but not exactly sunshine and rainbows either: iron-rich, a little gamey, just like a butcher’s counter. I thought cooking would mellow it, but I thought wrong. In spite of a heavy hand with cumin, a pan as hot as I can get it, and a beautiful outside char, the scent did not go away. Also, the striation of the muscle was just a little different from your regular steak—different enough to be unappealing to a former vegetarian who can’t handle meat that is more bloody than juicy. The texture was tender, but I didn’t care; I ate half a taco, strategically pushing the meaty bits back for a few bites of mostly tortilla, salsa, and cheese. It’s grim when not even Tapatio can save me.
In a last-ditch effort, I put the remainder of the meat in a slow cooker with a bottle of lager, sliced tomatillos, onion, and serrano peppers, and let slow heat work its magic. Drum roll—it sort of did. A few hours later, I had green chili beef heart: nourishing, tender, lean bits of shredded beef in a spicy green sauce. If you can put an egg on it the next morning, you have something good.
I ate Beef Heart Dish Numero Dos without reservation. I bet you might, too. The prep work may be a little on the hardcore side of things, but a good butcher will slice up your offal for you (mine offered, I should note). If you’re up for this sort of thing, start slow when it comes to heart: braise and shred, make slow-simmered ragouts and chilis, or grind it into very lean burgers. Sausages, if you roll like that. And if you can handle it medium-rare, my hat is off to you.
Putting offal on the menu may not be for everyone, obviously, but it doesn’t need to be. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of little ways to eat slightly wiser and slightly more sustainably, whether meat is part of the equation or not. And if you happen to answer one of those obnoxious-but-fascinating “What kind of eater am I, and why?” questions in the process, you’ll probably start asking half a dozen more. A thinking eater’s work is never done.
Danguole Lekaviciute cooks, eats, and drinks in Portland, and also really needs to know if you’re gonna eat that pickle spear. You can check out her food blog here, or come say hi on Twitter.