Matters of the Heart: Learning to Love Overlooked Animal Parts

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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.

Marrow fat, McLagan points out, is mostly unsaturated -- the good kind of fat -- and marrow contains a litany of important nutrients. Aboriginal societies prized bone marrow for its life-sustaining properties, and the flavor can reach such decadent heights that Anthony Bourdain chose roasted bone marrow for his hypothetical last meal before the electric chair. As with heart, there is symbolism in marrow. It's the hardest part to reach, and offers the richest reward. Sucking the marrow out of a bone is a metaphor for living life to the fullest.

McLagan's bone marrow and mushroom custard, which I made with morels that I picked myself, reminded me of a good pate. Her breaded and pan-fried bone marrow disks -- she calls them "extreme croutons" -- are next on my list. And I know all too well the pleasures of roasted bone marrow that so impressed Bourdain.

But with hunting season just around the corner, heart cookery is a more immediate concern; marrow can wait until winter, when we crave it the most. On matters of the heart, McLagan's book gives plenty of advice, from raw heart tartar to its polar opposite: braised heart.

With McLagan's permission I'll share her recipe for Peruvian heart kebabs. In Peru, this recipe is called anticuchos, a word of Quechua derivation that refers to skewers of meat, usually heart.

If you're using a wild game heart, make sure that the pericardium, the sturdy sack that encloses the heart, has been removed. Then trim away any tubes or fat from the heart that don't look like the good old-fashioned red meat that you're used to.

McLagan's recipe calls for 13 ounces of trimmed beef heart. After I trimmed a deer heart from the freezer, that's about how much meat I ended up with. Per her instructions, I cut the heart into ¾-inch cubes and placed them in a bowl.

I then toasted a teaspoon of cumin seed in a dry frying pan until they were fragrant -- about two minutes. I put the toasted seeds in a spice grinder with a teaspoon of salt and ½ a teaspoon of peppercorns, and ground the mixture. Then I added a tablespoon of chile powder and a big clove of garlic, and ground again. I transferred the mixture to a small bowl and whisked in three tablespoons of red wine vinegar and one tablespoon of olive oil. Then I poured the mixture over the heart chunks and let it marinate for 24 hours.

Deviating from McLagan's instructions, I added some veggies to my skewers, along with the heart chunks, and cooked them under the broiler instead of on the grill.

My family and I devoured those skewers like ravens on a gut pile, and you can bet I'll be packing some of that marinade, pre-mixed, to hunting camp this year. And I'll probably pack the ingredients for McLagan's tartar recipe, too, just in case I get the urge to eat my heart raw.

Image: Heart kabobs/Ari LeVaux.

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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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