The monthly freezer lottery has always been cause for intrigue and mystery. Yesterday, however, it made the leap from such a level to one of utter bewilderment and, ultimately, elation. For this indiscernible lump of meat that I had pilfered from home God knows when had been the subject of head scratching for quite some time. There were varying theories. (Please don't think me foolish or ignorant, though I may be both - something frozen is much harder to decipher than something fresh, that's why the yardies keep bodies in freezers). One theory was that it was a lamb's neck. Not wildly idiotic. Sure, it was a little stouter than a lamb's neck, but we were ball-parking. Perhaps it is shin of beef, we ventured. Again, possible, though unlikely. It looked somewhat offally, and yet it wasn't a kidney, and it certainly wasn't liver.
"Well it's something edible," I said to my sister as I pulled it out of the freezer on Sunday evening, "and whatever it is, we can eat it tomorrow night."
It was with a mixture of trepidation and excitement that I opened the fridge door yesterday morning to see what was in store for supper. We had friends coming, see, and while somewhat tickled by the prospect of serving a giant bollock to people who had probably eaten far worse at Notting Hill Carnival that day, I wasn't particularly enamoured by the idea of chowing down on that particular gland myself, much less so working out how to cook the bloody thing. But it wasn't a bollock. It was a heart. A sinewy, fatty, wobbly heart. A once beating heart. My own heart was suddenly beating rather faster than before. I was exhilarated.
But what to do with it? I consulted my latest cooking hero, Henry Harris, for inspiration. Henry is the chef at Racine in South Kensington, a restaurant at which I have eaten only once, but whose steak tartare will remain forever seared on my memory as the finest I have ever devoured (beating the first one I ever ate at La Coupole in Paris - a dish I had ordered erroneously as an ignorant 14-year-old, in the belief that I was going to be fed a cooked steak. I didn't regret my mistake). Henry's advice was, inevitably, sound, unpretentious, and made me salivate just reading it. He suggested: "stuff it with breadcrumbs, anchovy, garlic, rosemary, lemon zest and chilli". It was the word 'stuff' that got me. Anything that is stuffed is delicious, n'est ce pas?
So I set to work after a lunch of leftover mac and cheese, dividing the ventricles (that's right, ventricles) and working out how I was going to slip this behemoth of a ticker past some potentially fussy guests. On the one hand, I decided, it would be pretty outlandish to serve unsuspecting visitors some 'beef' before savagely revealing, like Titus Andronicus, that they had in fact just wolfed down an ox's heart (or, in T.A.'s case, their own children). But I didn't much fancy the other option. To go in all guns blazing and telling the bastards what was on the menu in advance would only make them prejudiced, and much, much less likely to enjoy their dinner. So I told them it was beef, and that they had to guess which cut it was. The freezer game began anew.
"Nope.....it's actually heart."
Natalie's face fell; her fork, now half way to her mouth, fell with it. Then something wonderful happened. For only the briefest of reflections led our collective to reason thus: it tasted good before we knew it was heart, why should this recent enlightenment change anything? I suppose you could use this reasoning for something rather less savoury, such as eating a dog, but I think in this case my logic stands. As Brits we are irrationally squeamish about food. Bollocks and brains I can kind of understand, but besides that I don't really think much should be avoided. I guess that's all I've got to say on the subject. Anyhoo, here's what I did. Ta Henry.
Braised Ox Heart with Polenta and Salsa Verde
1 Ox Heart, about 1.5kg
A handful of parsley
2 sprigs of rosemary
Zest of a lemon
1 red chilli
6 anchovy fillets
12 rashers of streaky bacon
1 large onion
4 cloves of garlic
Half a bottle of red wine
500ml beef stock
For the salsa verde
A big handful of flatleaf parsley
1 sprig rosemary
A small handful of tarragon
2 plump cloves garlic
1 tablespoon dijon mustard
4 anchovy fillets
1 tablespoon capers
5 tablespoons olive oil
Juice of a lemon
For the polenta
1.5 litres water
100g grated Parmesan
Salt and pepper and all that jazz.
Preheat the oven to 170C.
Finely chop the herbs (first removing the stalk from the rosemary), the chilli (first removing the seeds) and the anchovies, and mix with the lemon zest and breadcrumbs, seasoning with salt and pepper. Gingerly open up the heart between and press in the stuffing. Wrap securely with the bacon.
Peel and slice the onion and squish the garlic (leave the peel on). In a large saucepan heat some olive oil and soften the onion with the garlic, until lightly caramelised (seasoning first, of course). Add the heart to the pan before sloshing over the wine and stock. Bring to the boil, pop a lid on top and slip into the oven. Cook for 4-5 hours.
Meanwhile crack on with the salsa verde, finely chopping the herbs, shallot, anchovies and capers, and crushing the garlic. Mix together with the mustard, lemon juice and olive oil. Season with pepper (no salt, due to the saltiness of the anchovies and the capers), cover and refrigerate until needed.
45 minutes before you're ready to serve, bring the water to the boil with 2 teaspoons salt. In a steady stream, pour in the polenta, whisking continuously. Stir for 10 minutes, then cook for a further 30, stirring regularly and topping up with water as and when needed. Remove the heart from yon oven and rest.
Stir the butter and Parmesan into the polenta and taste for seasoning. Serve with slices of heart, a dollop of salsa verde, and a watercress salad. I'd show you the snaps, but I've only gone and lost the friggin laptop lead.
So would you try this recipe? Honestly? I'm curious to know. I know that I wouldn't have necessarily searched out a heart for my tea, but I'm thrilled I did. A lesson, I hope, that I - that we - should all be more adventurous in the kitchen.