You’ll forgive me for not posting this recipe sooner, but I’ve only just recovered from Valentine’s Day. Ruthie is a heck of a woman, I’ll tell you that much.
For anyone who enjoys organ meats, it’s pretty much a no-brainer to serve heart on February 14. Forget Hallmark, this is the real deal.
Though you can find other types of heart, such as beef, pig, or sheep, veal heart is often regarded as the best, as it’s the most tender and packs the most flavor. And, of course, only the best will do for my girl. Despite the fact that it’s from a baby (a cow baby, but a baby nonetheless), veal heart is almost surprisingly big, sometimes nearly three or four pounds. Smaller ones will obviously be more tender, so it’s worth asking for them.
The flavor of veal heart is indeed beefy, but with decidedly gamey note. This is not an unpleasant quality; if you’re fond of lamb, as I am, you’ll probably enjoy it. As heart is a muscle, the texture is very much like any other beef muscle, though the muscle fibers are finer than other standard cuts. Not to sound like a broken record, but overall, it’s extremely tender and hugely flavorful.
Inside the heart are chambers, which practically scream out to be stuffed with something. Here, mushrooms, onions, bacon, and breadcrumbs are lightened with parsley, nutmeg, and a splash of Madeira. The mixture, packed inside the hearts, makes for a pretty presentation when the hearts are sliced and fanned across a plate.
Because the heart muscle works so hard, it can be very tough if prepared incorrectly, like other much-used muscles. Braising, then, is one key to softening the meat and rendering the best result. (Unintuitively, though, a quick turn on a hot grill is also a good way to prepare veal heart; not so with beef heart, which must be slow-cooked.) Madeira and red wine give a fantastic depth of flavor to the liquid, and match the robust tone of the meat. To help retain moisture, bacon is wrapped around the hearts, which helps naturally baste the meat as it cooks. The bacon was removed before serving, mostly for looks, but it’s perfectly fine to serve it as well.
Cubes of carrots, celery, and onion, braised with the stuffed hearts, not only help flavor the dish, but become a bold statement on their own. The onions and celery largely melt away, but the carrots remain mostly intact, coaxed to a meaty richness in the pot. They are a vibrant addition to the finished plate, don’t dare leave them out.
Note: perhaps any eagle-eyed and offal-loving readers will notice that I’ve skipped over the second course from my epic Valentine’s Day menu, the Tripe Soup. Because I didn’t substantially change the recipe when I made it, I’m not going to post it, but I will tell you where to find the recipe. It’s in the Zuni Café Cookbook; and if you don’t have that book, I bet you know someone who does. (Or, you know, try the library.) The only change I made to the recipe was to omit the pancetta and the greens. Now you know.
Stuffed Braised Veal Heart
Loosely adapted from Gourmet Magazine
Serves 4 to 6
For the stuffing, the onion and celery will cook best and most evenly if minced by hand, as that will provide a more consistent cut. The mushrooms, however, may be chopped in a food processor if you like. Leftover heart makes excellent sandwiches, especially with a little horseradish or coarse mustard.
2 veal hearts
Cold milk, as needed
3 slices (2 to 3 ounces) bacon, diced
4 ounces finely minced yellow onion (a generous 1/2 cup)
4 ounces finely minced button mushrooms (about 9 or 10, to measure nearly 1 1/2 cups)
2 ounces finely minced celery (about 1 large stalk)
1 large clove garlic, minced finely
2 ounces panko or fresh breadcrumbs (about 1 cup)
1/4 cup finely minced fresh parsley (stems reserved)
1/2 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves
1/4 teaspoon freshly-grated nutmeg, plus extra
Salt and black pepper to taste
2 tablespoons Madeira, or as needed, plus 1/2 cup
6 to 8 slices bacon (not thick-cut)
2 medium carrots, cut into 1/2 inch cubes
2 stalks celery, diced into 1/2 inch pieces
1 medium yellow onion, diced into 1/2 inch pieces
Bouquet garni (made of 2 bay leaves, two bushy sprigs of fresh thyme, 1/2 teaspoon black peppercorns, 1/2 teaspoon juniper berries, and the reserved parsley stems, all tied in a double or triple layer of cheesecloth)
3/4 cup red wine (such as Cabernet Sauvignon, or Shiraz)
Water or stock, as needed
1. Clean the veal hearts by rinsing well with cold water. Pat dry, and make a cut lengthwise from top to bottom, to open the heart like a book (do not cut all the way through). Remove any hard external fat, stringy veins or arteries, valves, and blood clots. If you like, or if the chambers seem too small to stuff, you can cut away the internal walls to make a large pocket inside the heart, reserving the meat. Place the hearts in a gallon-size plastic zip-top bag, and cover with cold milk. Squeeze as much air as possible out of the bag, and let stand at room temperature for 1 hour. Meanwhile, prepare the remaining ingredients.
2. To make the stuffing, heat a large sauté pan over medium heat. Add the diced bacon, and fry until just browned. Remove from the pan with a slotted spoon, and set aside to drain on paper towels. (If you have reserved heart meat, dice it and cook it in the pan now. Remove with a slotted spoon, and set aside to drain on paper towels.) Either drain bacon fat from pan, or add additional oil or butter to the pan, to measure a total of 3 tablespoons of fat in the pan.
3. Add the minced onion, mushrooms, celery, and garlic to the pan. Toss or stir to coat with the fat, and cook over medium heat until translucent, about 3 minutes. Add the panko and reserved bacon (and heart meat, if using), and toss until warmed through, about 1 minute. Remove from heat, and add the parsley, thyme, and nutmeg. Taste, and correct the seasoning with salt and black pepper to taste. Add the Madeira 1 tablespoon at a time, until just moistened. Keep stuffing warm. Preheat oven to 325º F.
4. Drain the hearts from the milk, and pat dry. Sprinkle inside and out with salt, pepper, and a light dusting of freshly grated nutmeg. Stuff loosely with the hot stuffing (you may have extra). Wrap each heart with 3 to 4 slices of bacon, and secure with toothpicks.
5. Meanwhile, heat a large Dutch oven over medium-high heat until hot. Add hearts, and sear until golden brown on all sides. Remove from the pan, set aside. Some of the bacon fat should have rendered out into the pan; if not, add about 1 tablespoon oil or butter to the pan.
6. Add the diced carrots, celery, and onion to the pan. Cook, stirring, for 5 to 10 minutes, or until just softened. Add 1/2 cup Madeira, and scrape the bottom of the pan to dissolve any browned bits that may have formed. Add the hearts back in, along with the bouquet garni and the red wine. Pour in enough water (or stock) to come about halfway up the hearts. Bring the liquid back to a simmer. Cover and transfer the pot to the oven.
7. Braise the hearts for 1 hour, turning them over halfway through the time. Uncover the pot, turn the hearts over again, and cook 30 more minutes, or until the internal temperature of the hearts reaches 135º F. Remove from the oven, and let cool, uncovered, for about 3o minutes. If the braising liquid looks thin, remove the hearts to a plate, and reduce over medium-high heat until thickened.
8. To serve, slice hearts crossways. Discard the bacon if you like, or serve it if you like. Serve slices with some of the flavorful braising liquid napped over the top, with some of the vegetables from the pot alongside.