It has been a while since I’ve written up a recipe, and, after such a long hiatus, I was feeling the need for something a little more complicated than a new sort of biscuit. If you know me in person, you’ll probably be aware that I don’t shy away from eating offal, or indeed from feeding it to others: if you come for dinner at our house, you are fairly likely to be eating tongue, sweetbreads, or another member of the euphemistically titled family of “variety meats”.* There are several reasons why I’m very happy to tuck into offal, even though I know the idea of it makes a lot of people boak. Firstly, I like the taste: I’m not particularly squeamish about this sort of thing, and, let’s face it, there are few things more delicious than a tender piece of liver or a delicate, creamy sweetbread. Secondly, offal is often cheap, and it enables us to eat more meat than we would usually do on our budget, thus keeping my husband, the unrepentant carnivore, happy. Lastly, I see it as part and parcel of being a responsible meat-eater: if you’re going to eat animals for food, you don’t just pick and choose the “pretty” bits. You stew the ox-tail with stout and vegetables, you fry the chicken livers with mushrooms and garlic to make a pâté, you simmer the lamb breast with white wine and lemons, you stuff and braise the hearts: sticking to chicken breast and steak to the exclusion of all else is really just the first step towards a future of ChickieNobs and other gastronomic horrors.
When I first found hearts in my local butcher’s shop, I knew I wanted to cook them, but I wasn’t entirely sure how to do it. I trawled the internet, scoured my cookery books, and eventually came up with this method, which seems to go down rather well. I borrowed the vague times and temperatures from Delia Smith’s heart recipe in Frugal Food, which is a surprisingly useful book given that I’m not usually a Delia fan, and a throwaway reference in Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s magisterial tome, Meat, led me to the prune part of the stuffing. Thinking about prunes, I naturally added bacon to the mix, and from there was irresistibly drawn to flavours in the traditional Lancashire dish, Hindle Wakes, to complete the stuffing. Hindle Wakes, presumably named after Wakes Week, is a poached chicken, stuffed with a mixture of pig’s blood and prunes, and served in a lemon butter sauce with plenty of herbs. I find the combination of flavours fascinating, giving the lie as they do to the notion of English cookery as something bland and unadventurous, and was sure they would work just as well with lamb. The pistachios and the sherry were both serendipitous additions: indeed, I only added the latter the first time because my parents, who like an Amontillado before dinner, had been visiting, and there was the dog-end of a bottle which needed to be finished.
This is a surprisingly easy dish to prepare, and a comforting and affordable luxury at this time of year. Be warned, though, it isn’t easy to make a heart look pretty in a photograph. I’ve done my best, but, at the end of the day, an organ is an organ, no matter how tasty.
Braised lambs’ hearts with Hindle Wakes-inspired stuffing
Note: I have made this recipe with three lambs’ hearts, because my butcher only sells them in packs of three. It would be easy to scale the stuffing up or down as necessary, though: if in doubt, err on the side of making too much stuffing, and freeze the leftovers to use next time. The cooked hearts keep well in the fridge overnight: I usually eat the third one for lunch the day after I’ve cooked this.
You will need:
- Three fresh lambs’ hearts
For the stuffing:
- One slice of bread, preferably slightly stale sourdough
- Two rashers of streaky bacon
- One small onion
- Five or six dried prunes, as large and moist as you can get
- A handful of chopped parsley
- Juice and zest of one lemon
- A handful of chopped pistachios (about 25g)
- A large knob of butter (about 50g)
To braise the hearts:
- One large onion
- 400ml lamb stock
- 100ml sherry (I used Amontillado, but if you are substituting, I would go for something towards the sweeter end rather than a Fino)
Pre-heat your oven to 180C/Gas Mark 4
First, make your stuffing. Tear the bread into pieces and blitz to crumbs in the food processor. Tip the crumbs into a mixing bowl, then roughly chop the bacon, onion and prunes, add them to the food processor with the parsley, pistachios and lemon zest and blitz until everything is finely chopped. Add the processor contents to the breadcrumbs in the mixing bowl, squeeze over the lemon juice and add the butter. Mix the stuffing with your hands, squeezing the butter through the rest of the ingredients until it forms a reasonably smooth mixture. Once you’ve completed the stuffing, you can cover it and set it aside in the fridge, while you get on with cleaning the hearts.
I’ve never found trimming hearts to be too traumatic, but you do need a good pair of sharp kitchen scissors and plenty of clean, cold water if you’re going to make the job easy on yourself. First, fill the sink with water, and give the hearts a good soaking. There will probably be some blood lingering inside the chambers, so you need to get your fingers right inside to wash them out. After the first soak, I usually pour the water away, give the individual hearts a further clean under the tap, and then a second soak. The general rule is to keep rinsing until all the blood is gone and the water runs clear.
Here’s a “before and after” view showing how I trimmed the hearts after cleaning. As you can see, the first thing to do is to remove the tubes from the top of the heart and cut away any excess fat and sinew. I have found this is much easier with sharp scissors than with a knife, as it’s easier to control where you’re cutting. Don’t worry too much about trimming the fat from the sides of the heart, though: you’ll only make a mess, and, besides, you need to retain some fat to render down into the sauce and make it thick and unctuous. I tend to snip through the central membrane between the chambers of the heart, too, but I don’t cut it away entirely: it’s meaty and tasty, and you can still stuff the heart easily with it in place. By this point, the hearts should be looking more like something you’d like to eat, and less like the Facehuggers from Alien. This can only be a good thing: much as I like the film, I don’t want to feel as if I’m eating a Xenomorph.
Now it’s time to stuff the hearts: take small handfuls of the prepared stuffing and gently push them down inside the heart cavity. You may find that it leaps back out at you again in an unruly manner, but keep going, a little stuffing at a time: soon you’ll have three plump, neatly-filled hearts, ready to cook. You will need to secure the openings at the top to ensure the stuffing doesn’t escape during the cooking process: if you have some long metal skewers, these would probably be ideal for the purpose. Sadly, we are currently a skewer-less household, which means I have to staple my hearts haphazardly together with a battery of wooden toothpicks. As you can see from the picture, this leaves them looking a little like extras from Hellraiser, but I can reassure you that their spiky appearance doesn’t affect the flavour in any way.
Heat some oil (or dripping, if you prefer) in a large, oven-proof casserole pot on top of the stove. Moving gingerly so as not to dislodge the toothpicks, brown the hearts on all sides in the hot fat, then remove them to a dish while you cook your chopped onion in the same pot. Once the onion has softened, return the hearts to the pot, and pour over the stock and the sherry: the liquid should come about half-way up the hearts themselves, so you may need less if you are using a smaller pot than I was. Let the pot come up to the boil, then cover it and place it in your pre-heated oven. The hearts should cook quite happily without any further attention, and should be ready to eat in about two and a half hours. Remember to remove the toothpicks/skewers before serving, obvs. But you knew that, didn’t you?
I served these with bulgur wheat cooked with dried wild mushrooms: the meatiness of the mushrooms complemented the hearts nicely, and the wheat provided a satisfactorily nubbly, non-stodgy sort of carbohydrate. You could, of course, substitute mashed potato: the basic idea is to soak up the rather delicious cooking juices, so choose your preferred carb-sponge. We had a very simple green salad afterwards, but I think some sort of steamed greens alongside the heart might also be a good accompaniment.
Have I convinced you to give hearts a try, I wonder? If you do, please do let me know if you enjoy them!
*And, no, they aren’t testicles. Honestly. I’m not sure why this myth persists: they’re actually the thymus and pancreas of the animal. What’s more, they’re delicious.