Matters of the Heart: Learning to Love Overlooked Animal Parts

With hunting season just around the corner, Jennifer McLagan, author of 'Odd Bits,' walks us through a recipe for wild animal organs

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Hunting cultures, ancient and modern alike, are full of references to the heart being the first part of an animal to be consumed. To this day, many young hunters are encouraged to take a bite of the raw, bloody heart of their first kill, minutes after it goes down, as a rite of passage. This wasn't an issue my first time hunting because the bullet went straight through the heart, obliterating it.

There are symbolic implications of the heart-first approach to eating animals, but there are practical reasons as well.

There are symbolic implications of the heart-first approach to eating animals, but there's a practical reason as well. In the hours after a kill, when rigor mortis takes hold of the body's red meat, the heart is easier to chew than skeletal muscle thanks to its fine-grained tissue. This is why many hunters bring mushroom soup base to camp -- to use as heart seasoning. Others simply pan fry the heart with salt and pepper.

The heart is but one of many edible animal parts that are shunned from the typical modern table for no good reason. I've been chewing my way through a new book by Jennifer McLagan called Odd Bits that explores the often overlooked parts collectively referred to as offal.

McLagan approaches the acquisition and preparation of these odd bits from the perspective of an urban chef with access to a butcher skilled in the ways of saving blood, cutting marrow bones, and precooking a cow's udder. I approach the odd bits from the perspective of a hunter who wants to use as much of the animal as possible. I've always saved the heart and liver because they're the biggest and easiest organs to grab. I've never thought to dig out the tongue or look for the thymus gland when I shoot a young animal.

As for that eight-pound organ I keep picking out, I've never found a way to make deer or elk liver palatable, the way beef or bird liver is. So even though I can't bear to leave it behind, I can't bear to eat it either -- lucky for the dog.

"Try soaking it in milk," McLagan told me when I called her to talk about Odd Bits. She also recommended confining strong-flavored liver to a single layer in a terrine. When cooking domestic animal liver on the pan for immediate consumption, McLagan boldly advises to err on the side of rare.

She's partial to a ½-inch-thick slab of calf liver, and watches it closely as she cooks. "Look at the top of the liver. When you see beads of blood forming, turn it. You have to be ready to eat it right away."

For those who don't have skilled butchers or wild animals at their disposal, there's always that crème de la crème of odd bits: bone marrow, which is available everywhere in the form of soup bones. The long bones are best for marrow, and should be cut so the marrow is exposed at both ends. Don't hesitate to ask the meat cutter at your local market to cut them for you -- you don't need an advanced degree in charcuterie for that.

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Ari LeVaux writes Flash in the Pan, a syndicated weekly food column that has appeared in more than 50 newspapers in 21 states. Learn more at flashinthepan.net.

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