Cooking with Heart(s)

My friends seemed wholeheartedly enthused about a heart-themed dinner party – until I clarified what I meant. The conversation went something like this:

Me: “I’m working on a story about cooking with heart.”
Them: “Like cooking with passion? How sweet.”
Me: “No, heart. Like literal hearts. Beef, chicken, lamb, artichokes … ”
Them: “Oh.” And then a strained smile would creep across their faces as they leaned back in polite revulsion. “Why?”

I get it. When I started batting around the idea of preparing a dinner with hearts, I wasn’t picturing the prettiest of dishes. Thanks to horror movies, Halloween props and Daenerys Targaryen from Game of Thrones, hearts aren’t exactly at the top of everyone’s “eat this” list. But these ultra-lean muscles, which historically were consumed only because they were cheap, are actually packed with flavor. And they just so happen to be a favorite among area chefs.

“I really like the taste of beef heart – the texture of it, too. I think it could be off-putting, though, to some people,” said John Perkins, chef-owner of Juniper. “[It’s] unlike any other cut of beef where you might get marbling or any other kind of loose musculature. With the heart, it’s compact, but that denseness actually gives it a robust beefiness.”

Before diners can experience that robust flavor, though, they must be convinced to take the first bite. This apprehension is why chefs turn to familiar preparations as an entry to hearts. Bob Colosimo, general manager of Eleven Eleven Mississippi, explained how the muscle can be used for anything from carpaccio to pasta sauce. Colosimo, also a trained chef, hosts weekly Bob’s Butcher Block specials at the restaurant, where he showcases offal in appetizer-sized portions. Unlike kidney and liver, Colosimo finds hearts mild and not overpowering. He thinks beef hearts, in particular, are great for their rich flavor and economical price tag. “Heart definitely can be made approachable,” he said.

Likewise, Farmhaus’ chef de cuisine Andrew Jennrich has turned pig heart into pastrami. While its taste and appearance was familiar – deliciously salty and smoky with a peppercorn crust – the paper-thin slices were so tender, they practically melted in my mouth. “Any time you can bridge things for people in their brain, you improve chances of getting them to eat it,” said Farmhaus’ chef-owner Kevin Willmann.

Despite nose-to-tail chefs’ love for all the odds and ends, hearts don’t often make an appearance on restaurant menus due, in part, to their lack of availability. Jennrich said that to put his salad of smoked chicken hearts on a weekend menu, he needs 210 hearts to sell just 30 orders. This translates to Farmhaus’ staff slowly collecting hearts as the restaurant works through hundreds of chickens. The same philosophy employed by Five Bistro’s chef-owner Anthony Devoti means he utilizes every bit of one cow in about three months before he gets another.

While these elusive cuts aren’t impossible to find, be warned: it’s an insider’s game. The pros recommended calling local butchers and processors to see what’s slated to arrive in the coming days – or ask what they have stashed away. They also advised befriending farmers market vendors and asking for a heart or two – if you manage to beat chefs to them. “The hunt for the product is part of the adventure and the fun,” Willmann said.

Once you’ve nabbed a few of these muscular organs, there is an infinite number of preparations (and puns) available for a heart menu. As with most lean proteins, there are two schools of thought: low and slow or hot and quick. Willmann recommended that the not-so-lionhearted start with chicken hearts, whose small size and pleasant chew make them the ideal first step toward cooking animal heart. While your guests will recognize that they’re eating chicken, they’ll be pleasantly surprised by the more nuanced smoky, dark meat flavors.

“Once a chicken heart is brined, you can throw it in a saute pan. It doesn’t really matter what you do after you get that flavor throughout,” Willmann said. To do so, simply heavily salt the hearts for 15 minutes, then experiment with different cooking techniques: sear, saute, braise. A starter of smoked chicken heart skewers establishes the theme – it doesn’t get much clearer than hearts pierced by a stick.

With big hearts like beef, a little butchering is required to ensure that the connective tissues don’t interfere. For those who may have forgotten middle school biology, a refresher: The heart is divided into four chambers – two atria and two ventricles. While smaller hearts like chicken need minor prep work, to get to the steaks inside a beef heart, a cook must break through a tangle of connective tissue and blood pathways.

A typical beef heart should yield six 2- to 4-ounce steaks when trimmed and can be used much the same as any other lean cut of meat. For Five Bistro’s “Valentine’s Day: It’s Just Offal” dinner last year, Devoti served beef heart bourguignon. “[Beef heart] is thick, it’s fibrous, it’s going to take four hours to braise or more,” he cautioned. “That’s a big commitment for something you’re going to scarf in 15 minutes.” But, he added, the dense, layered flavor is so very worth it.

Still feeling squeamish? Animal parts don’t have to be the only hearts on this menu. Even unyielding plants like prickly artichokes and palms hold delicious hearts at their cores – provided you’re patient enough to ferret them out. Cleveland-Heath’s chef-owner Ed Heath said artichoke hearts are versatile enough to withstand all sorts of preparations, and they provide real heft to a meal. His oven-roasted artichokes hold up to sharp anchovy and balsamic flavors. “They absorb anything,” Heath said. “They really do have that beefy, meaty texture to them.”

Hearts of palm, on the other hand, provide gentle, softer flavors perfect for a delicate dessert like panna cotta – and one piece of heart goes a long way. After flavoring the silky custard, Heath candies that same piece to use as a garnish and provide some crunch.

A heart-themed dinner certainly won’t be the easiest meal I pull off. These little guys – whether locked in a palm tree or tucked away in the butcher’s freezer – are tough to find, are strange to look at, and require patience to cook. Still, those initial, less-than-enthusiastic exchanges with my friends have evolved to more inquisitive, heartfelt conversations, and my own curiosity has led to discussions with chefs and butchers about the merits of these hidden gems. As Devoti said, meals like these are meant to get people talking – and that’s why we do them. “It’s getting you engaged with other humans ... That’s a good thing about cooking in general,” he said. “But something like this is a definite conversation piece.”