Friday, 24 February 2012

The heart of the matter

As the end of February rises into view, it seems to be the end of a funny old period; busy and distracting.

There’s been little of inspiration on the food front to report – things that I’m working on, but you’ll have to wait until I’ve got a couple of things actually sorted out before they're worth writing about.

However, last weekend I did take the opportunity afforded by The Other Half’s trip to Perpignan for the Rugby League to try a foodstuff that, to the best of my knowledge, I’d never eaten before – let alone cooked.

The item in question was heart – in this case, lamb’s heart. A single one was enough for me.

Surprised first of all to find that Jane Grisgon’s highly-regarded English Food didn’t even mention heart, I turned my attention to the wonders of the internet.

Various suggestions came up for stuffing heart, but I decided against that.

The recipe that struck me as the perfect way to start was a Canterbury casserole.

The first task was prepping the meat. I’d read that you have to ensure that any white tubes are removed. Well, this didn’t prove difficult – primarily as there seemed very little to remove.

The heart was then opened out and cut into strips about the width of a finger, which were then cut in half lengthways.

These pieces were dredged in seasoned flour and browned carefully in melted lard, before a peeled and chopped carrot, a peeled and sliced onion and two chopped sticks of celery were added and stirred around a bit.

A little more flour, a little more stirring, and then some stock was added. I used beef stock, which I’d defrosted overnight. And because I’d been able to get a tiny bit, I also added a piece of marrowbone.

It’s then brought gently to the boil, lidded and, with the heat turned right back down, cooked for an hour and a half, when parsley dumplings are placed on top, the lid is replaced and it's left for a further half an hour.

This was pretty good. But there are things that I’d do differently.

First, I’d get a bit Frenchified and add a little red wine after cooking the flour through – it’s the best way to deglaze anyway, but it does add layer of flavour to the liquid.

In his book Eating for England, Nigel Slater comments pithily on the nature of the generic English stew, and one of the things he notes is an absence of booze.

Now given that England has no history of wine production, it's hardly surprising that there's little wine in our classic, one-pot dishes, but there are alternatives in terms of beer and cider.

Yet I’ve noticed over the course of recent years, as I've started exploring such dishes, that most recipes that suggest using beer – particularly stout – don’t give enough cooking time for the liquid to become rich and sweet: it usually leaves a slightly bitter taste that, in the context of a meat dish, isn’t what you want.

The reason, I'm beginning to understand, is simple: we have lost the art – or at least the understanding – of slow cooking. Recipes now for anything more than an hour and a half are regarded as a long cook. It’s as though writers are convinced that, if they suggest something of double that (never mind longer), the modern English cook will be horrified and simply refuse to countenance such wanton times.

The Canterbury casserole benefits from the sweetening quality of the heart. Like kidneys in a Lancashire hotpot or a turbigo, they impart a richness to the dish. The marrowbone that I added also helped, while the stock was a proper one. But wine would have added something worthwhile, methinks.

The dumplings give a lovely soft, soothing and deeply comforting touch to the finished dish.

But the second thing I’d change from the recipe would be to reduce the initial cooking time from 90 minutes to a straight hour.

Now I’d possibly parboil the carrots briefly beforehand, but the meat really didn't need two full hours cooking.

But heart is something that I’d happily eat again – even if my first experience of holding and preparing this organ were far more tinged with the knowledge of exactly what it was and the job that it had done until a short while before, than I ever feel when coring kidneys.

Such squeamish inclinations are daft though: as a happy omnivore, a nose-to-tail approach is an importantly ethical one.

And even leaving such philosophical considerations aside, there is so much variety – and so many more culinary pleasures to meat than just a prime cut.

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