Have A Heart: How This Organ Meat Is Eaten Around The World

heartAmericans are frequently credited with having a lot of heart, but when it comes to eating them, we’re not so hip on the idea. Even though offal, or “nose-to-tail” eating has been on-trend for some years now, a lot of people still flinch at the idea of dining on animal heart.

The reality is, heart is a delicious, healthy, versatile meat, devoid of the strong flavor possessed by most (improperly prepared) organ meats. My chef friend Ryan Hardy says, “The heart is a muscle, just like loin or shoulder.” A former farmer who makes his own charcuterie, Ryan’s made a name for himself with dishes like veal heart scallopine, and other rustic, meaty treats.

The rest of the world uses the hearts of all sorts of critters, from frog to horse, in a variety of ways. In honor of our own heart-centric holiday (that’s Valentine’s, y’all), I’ve provided a list of the most well known dishes, along with some modern interpretations of classic recipes, by some of the nation’s most acclaimed chefs.

Anticuchos
One of the tastiest/least frightening of heart dishes are these skewered and grilled chunks of beef heart from Peru. Although anticuchos can be made with the hearts of other species, corazon de vaca is the most popular, and sold by street food vendors across the country, and in other parts of South America.

Cobra heart
We’ve all seen it on the Travel Channel, whether it’s “No Reservations,” “Bizarre Foods,” or some other show. Or perhaps you’ve experienced it for yourself: the old, snake-heart-in-a-shot-of-firewater, or swallowing the still-beating-cobra or frog heart. It’s what men in parts of Asia use in place of Viagra, and frankly, I’d take impotence, any day. For anyone who’s ever stared into a bottle of rice whisky, cloudy with flecks of tissue, and observed a bobbing gray blob of reptile or amphibian heart, you know what I’m talking about.haggis
Haggis
The beloved national dish of Scotland consists of a sheep’s stomach stuffed with a highly-seasoned mixture of the animal’s lungs, heart and liver, mixed with oatmeal. If that doesn’t tempt you, perhaps the cooking technique will. Boiling is nothing if not sexy.

Giblets
Originally, this term referred to a stew of game birds, and dates back to the 16th century. Today, it refers to the edible organs – usually heart, liver, and gizzard – of poultry, which are used for making gravy. Tip: Caramelize these suckers before attempting to make stock and/or ragù from them; it makes all the difference in depth of flavor in the final dish. Serve atop fresh pappardelle pasta, and you have a dish that says, “I love you.”

Coer de Veau Farci
This classic French dish from centuries past consists of veal heart stuffed with forcemeat (often mushrooms) and wrapped in caul fat, before being cooked in the oven. It’s served with a reduction of the pan juices and white wine enriched with butter. According to “Larousse Gastronomique,” the French bible on all things culinary, “Pig or sheep hearts are used to make a ragout or a civet [a game stew thickened with blood].”

In the contemporary world, heart is growing more mainstream thanks to the work of chefs and food personalities. For example, last June, I attended a cooking demo by Andrew Zimmern at the FOOD & WINE Classic in Aspen. The theme was “Game On!” and Zimmern prepared a handful of dishes utilizing oft-unloved animal parts. He converted the dubious, especially with his grilled venison hearts with arugula, sauce Gribiche and shallot rings

Another acquaintance of mine, Jonathon Sawyer, chef/owner of Cleveland’s acclaimed The Greenhouse Tavern, is serving up confit beef heart paprikash (with bacon, onion, smoked paprika, steamed potatoes and spaetzel) as part of this year’s Valentine’s Day Menu. I asked Jonathon what had inspired this untraditional take on paprikash, which usually calls for chicken meat (heart-free).

He told me, “It was partly inspired by my travels in Europe. When cooking things like offal at the restaurant, we like to use familiar flavors that encourage our guests to give it a try. To me, nothing is more comforting than a big bowl of Hungarian paprikash just like Grandma Szegedi used to make.”

That, my friends, is love.

[Photo credits: heart, Flickr user Baie.; haggis, Flickr user CasadeQueso]

The Scottish Highland Games Head To Kentucky

haggis If you want to join in on the famous Scottish Highland Games but can’t afford the flight across the pond, you can head to Bardstown, Kentucky, this Saturday for their annual take on the event. While many people know of haggis, a Scottish dish containing sheep’s heart, liver and lungs that are stuffed into a sheep’s stomach, as food, Bardstown is using the delicacy for something else: hurling.

All over the world, Highland Games showcase contests requiring brute strength, such as the caber toss, which requires participants to essentially throw a small telephone poll, and tossing blocks weighing 28 to 56 pounds.

“In Scotland, they used to use throwing events to determine their best warriors,” Kerry Overfelt, a three-time North American Highland Games champion and Bardstown resident who helped organize the inaugural Games three years ago, told NCB News’ Overhead Bin. “Most of the events are based on ways to kill people.”

The haggis toss, however, is based more on skill. This goes along with the theme of Bardstown’s events being a bit more lighthearted than the usual Highland Games fare. Children can compete in a mini caber toss using carpet roll cores, while men can enter the Bonniest Knees competition, where blindfolded women decide which male has the sexiest legs under their kilt.

And of course, there’s the haggis toss. It is said the event idea originated from a time when Scottish wives could bring their husbands lunch in the fields and peat bogs. Because they couldn’t easily cross the rivers, the women would toss the haggis to the men, who would catch it in their kilts. For those who think they may vomit from the thought of being covered in sheep guts, don’t worry. Bardstown uses mock haggis, either a beanbag or cornhole. Participants toss the object while standing atop a whiskey barrel.

“We miss out on some of the authenticity by not having an actual haggis,” said Overfelt, “but at the same time, we don’t have to worry about the haggis bursting open.”

[Image via Asta]

10 unusual foods from around the world

Fried Tarantula in CambodiaWho doesn’t love trying new and exotic foods when traveling? Maybe some spicy curries in India, a selection of savory tapas in Spain, or some authentic…Pig’s Blood Cake? Check out this list of 10 unusual foods from around the world and see if your perspective on trying international cuisine doesn’t change.

Fried Tarantulas, Cambodia

According to Victoria Brewood at Bootsnall, you can find this delicacy in the streets of Sukon, Cambodia, fried whole with their legs, fangs, and all. Apparently, they taste great pan-fried with a pinch of garlic and salt and have a crispy outside and a gooey inside.

Pig’s Blood Cake, Taiwan

This unique dish is prepared with sticky rice and hot pig’s blood. When the mixture becomes solid it is coated with peanut powder and cilantro then formed into a flat cake and sliced. This meal is usually dipped in various sauces such as chili sauce, hot sauce, or soy sauce.Pig's Blood Cake in TaiwanHaggis, Scotland

This Scottish dish contains the internal organs of a sheep, including the liver, heart, and lungs. Mix this with some chopped onions, raw beef or mutton’s fat, salt, and spices. Once this is ready, you stuff it into a sheep intestine as sausage and simmer inside the animal’s stomach. Dinner will be ready in 3 hours!

Drunken Shrimp, China

When hearing the name of this dish, I had kind of hoped it was a cute play on words of some kind. In reality, the name should be taken very literally, as these are shrimp that are actually stunned with strong liquor and then consumed alive. Not shockingly, there have been some problems with this meal of uncooked seafood as there is the health risk of Paragonimiasis, a food-borne parasitic infection.

Live Octopus, Korea

I can’t help but think of Fear Factor as I write this entry. Sannakji, as it is known, is an octopus that is prepared and cut while still alive. It is served while still squirming, and should be chewed well as the suction of the tentacles can stick to the inside of your mouth and throat.

Silkworms, China

This insect is cultivated and bred in factories and sold in local markets for cooking. While you can prepare them anyway you like, popular silkworm dishes include Crispy Silkworms and Silkworm Kebabs.

Bear Claw Stew, China, Hong Kong, Taiwan

Soup made from the claws of bears is a delicacy in China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, and is literally sold for hundreds of dollars. The bear meat in the stew is actually believed to be a health and sexual-performance booster. According to nerdygaga.com as well as factsanddetails.com, environmentalists are protesting the practice of making bear claw stew, as bears are being tortured in front of diners before being cooked, as it is said to make the meat taste better.

Casu Marzu, Italy

This decomposing cheese made from sheep’s milk is, according to Alka Sharma of Environmental Graffiti, full of squirming white worms. Casu Marzu is made when the cheese fly lays its eggs, which is usually about 500 at one time, and the maggots that hatch eat their way through the cheese. Because the digestive system of the maggots breaks down the fat of the cheese, it gives it a very soft texture. The key to eating this unusual food is that it must be eaten while the maggots are still alive and wriggling, unless you want a bowl full of dead maggots (this, apparently, is considered unfit for consumption).

Ying Yang Fish, China

This fish is unlike most seafood delicacies, as it is half dead, half alive. While the top half of the fish is uncooked and moving, the bottom half is deep fried and covered in sweet and sour sauce.

Corn Fungus, Latin America

Also known as Corn Smut, this food, which looks very similar to grey brain matter, is a “pathogenic plant fungus that causes plant disease on maize (corn)” and is often used as filling for quesadillas. According to Martha Mendoza on MSNBC.com, Corn Smut is actually good for you, as it contains protein, minerals, and other nutritional values.

Scotland asks U.S. to lift haggis ban

haggis, Haggis, Scotland, scotlandThe Scottish government has invited a delegation from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to Scotland in a bid to lift the ban on haggis imports.

In an interview with the BBC, Scotland’s Rural Affairs Secretary Richard Lochhead said he wants to show the officials that haggis is made in a safe and sanitary manner.

Earlier this year we reported that the ban on haggis was being lifted. This ban was put in place on UK meat products in 1989 thanks to the outbreak of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, a.k.a. mad cow disease. The ban on UK meat was indeed lifted, but our report on haggis turned out to be premature, because in ensuing years the U.S. government had added a ban on imports of food containing sheep lungs, a key ingredient in traditional haggis.

Now the Scots are trying to get that last hurdle out of the way. Mr. Lochhead says the U.S. market for haggis could be huge. Think how many expat Scots, Scottish-Americans, and wannabe Scots there are in the good old U S of A. Just the number of people trying it once out of curiosity could add up to millions of dollars in sales.

He believes that if U.S. agriculture officials saw the high standards of food processing in Scotland, they’d give sheep lungs a break and allow them for human consumption.

Personally, I don’t like haggis, but that’s just me. I think that the more ethnic foods are available to the consumer, the better.

[Photo courtesy user Kaishu via Wikimedia Commons]

The East Highland Way day two: hiking into the hills


Haggis is not breakfast food. Yes, Highlander is a cool movie, and haggis is Scotland’s national dish, Robert Burns even composed an Address to a Haggis, but don’t have it for breakfast. In fact, I’d suggest not having it at all.

OK, you have to try it at least once, like you have to try sheep’s head when you’re in the Middle East, just don’t expect to like it. On my first morning in the Scottish countryside I’m served a “full Scottish breakfast” of eggs, toast, bacon, baked beans, sausage, and haggis. Basically a “full English breakfast” with haggis added.

Haggis is sheep lungs, heart, and liver cooked with onion, salt, oatmeal, suet, spices, and stock. The traditional recipe calls for this witch’s brew to be simmered in a sheep’s stomach. Coming as two thick patties on my plate it looks like mealy, low-grade sausage, and somehow manages to taste both spicy and bland. I expect to be revolted, having never eaten lungs before, but instead I’m simply underwhelmed.

You don’t have to come to Scotland to try haggis now that the U.S. government has lifted its ban on haggis, but you’d be missing some amazing countryside. After the first day on the East Highland Way I’m in Spean Bridge, an old village of tidy stone cottages, friendly pubs, and a small museum about the WWII commandos who trained in the area. It’s not far from my clan homeland around Loch Fyne. In fact the local history pamphlet is written by a schoolteacher named MacLachlan, who gleaned some interesting anecdotes from elderly residents, such as the fact that kids in the 1920s looked forward to springtime because they could take their shoes off and not wear them until autumn. All the boys were keen shinty players back then. Shinty is a bit like full contact field hockey and is not well known outside Scotland. In fact, until I got here the only meaning I knew for “shinty” was that it’s the Amharic word for “piss”.

Puzzling over this linguistic curiosity, I head east towards Tulloch, eleven miles deeper into the Scottish Highlands. Within moments the village is left behind and I’m all on my own in a wooded area following a dirt road. I’m using Ordnance Survey maps, incredibly detailed maps showing not only the topography and landmarks, but also individual buildings, ancient sites, and fences. My compass rarely leaves my pack.

%Gallery-99965%Hiking a new trail has pluses and minuses. At times the route follows dirt logging roads or even paved roads. This is not ideal and hopefully proper trails will appear in these parts. A big plus, however, is that when I’m not on the few stretches of paved road I don’t see anyone for hours. That, and stunning scenery, is why I hike.

The trail follows the contours of a chain of steep hills. To the north is the River Spean and beyond it more hills. The woods open up, giving me a clear view of the rugged hills and the river gleaming dully under a cloudy sky. While I see nobody, this is not an abandoned land. Sheep graze on short grass amid fields of blooming purple heather. An occasional fence shows this is private property. Much of the countryside is open access, meaning I can legally pass through. Not all farmers are happy with this, especially when they discover their once-remote property is on the route of a new trail.

I come to a gate that’s been tied shut. A ladder has been lashed across it with heavy rope to make the point doubly clear. A farmhouse stands nearby, dilapidated but obviously inhabited judging from the trash scattered all around. I can see that the gate on the other side of the property is also tied shut. I check my map. Yes, this is the right place. I have the right to cross here but obviously the landowner doesn’t want me to.

What to do? If I assert my rights I risk getting shot by a Scottish redneck. Shot in Scotland? Yes, farmers and hunters can own guns here, and while Scots aren’t as hyperprotective of their land as Americans, I am not happy about this situation. With the river on one side and almost sheer hillsides on the other, a detour isn’t an option. After a cautious look I scramble over the fence, run across the yard, and scale the other fence. I walk down the farmer’s driveway, legs pumping, hoping he didn’t see me. I don’t feel comfortable for another mile.

Soon all is serene. I’m crossing an isolated field with a sweeping view of the Highlands. A cluster of ruined farmhouses provides a good rest stop. My first impression is that these date from the Highland Clearances. After the Scots lost the rebellion of 1745, the English evicted thousands of families and burned their homes. Many got shipped off to the colonies. It wasn’t the first time. After the failed Argyll Rebellion of 1685, some of my ancestors were sent as bonded labor to the West Indies. Slaves, in other words. But why hold a grudge? In later years Scotland was the industrial powerhouse of the British Empire, as responsible for all its glories and sins as England herself. If I held a grudge against England for past misdeeds, I’d have to accept grudges from everyone whose ancestors were ever hurt by the British Empire. Not a pleasant prospect.

There’s not much left of these old farms. The walls only come up to my waist, except for one house where the chimney and hearth stand to their original height. I sit eating my sandwich where a family once ate porridge and haggis. It’s an eerie feeling. I wonder what happened to them and feel better when I notice the stone walls have mortar in them. That means this house dates to the nineteenth century. These people left to find their fortune in the city or another country. They may have left because of poverty, but at least they weren’t forced out by soldiers.

Bidding the ghosts goodbye I tromp into some woods and up a steep slope before descending again, crossing a bridge, and entering the “village” of Tulloch. It’s actually only a train station and two houses. The bunkhouse is part of the train station. A few other hikers are staying here, using it as a base for daytrips into the hills. As we sit in the lounge drinking beer the Flying Scotsman, a luxury train, stops at the station for some reason. I and a fellow hiker hurry out onto the platform and peer through the windows at couples in formal evening wear dining under crystal chandeliers. A woman wearing diamond earrings looks out at me and smiles. I smile back and toast her with my beer can. She laughs and toasts me back with her champagne glass. Her considerably older husband is too busy with his steak to notice.

It’s a bit surreal, these two worlds of grungy hiker and bejeweled heiress meeting briefly at a lonely rural station on a Highland evening. The train chugs to life and starts to pull off. She waves at me, husband still devouring his steak and what the hell, I blow her a kiss. She laughs and blows me one back.

It’s the closest I’ll ever get to marrying a millionaire.

Coming up next: Exploring Scotland’s lochs!

Check out the rest of my journey hiking the East Highland Way.