My first experience with heart was something called “Love in Disguise.” Many years ago when my stepdaughter turned 16, my late husband, Evan, wanted to make a special birthday dinner for her. Bronwyn bore a Welsh name and shared with her father a love of their Celtic heritage, so what could be more fitting than to celebrate with the Welsh dish “Love in Disguise”? We didn’t tell her that the “love” in this case was veal heart somewhat disguised by a savory stuffing and a winey braise.
I thought of this recently as I was sorting out the various cuts of grass-fed beef I’d raised with my cousin, a seasoned farmer in northern Vermont. I’d wanted to be certain that all the innards weren’t discarded, not only because I believe in honoring the whole animal by not wasting a morsel, but I wanted to experiment with some of the less familiar parts. My only experience with the heart was “Love in Disguise,” but that recipe called for younger, more delicate, veal heart. So I decided to Google “beef heart.” Two quite contradictory recipes came up. One called for roasting it in a moderate oven for three hours; the other for only one hour. Instead I improvised by adapting the Disguise method, filling the interstices with a bread stuffing and braising the meat slowly in aromatic vegetables. After an hour I poked it and, although it was not meltingly tender, I felt longer cooking would only leach out the juices and toughen the meat. The dish was not for the faint-hearted but I liked it.
Since Evan died, I have discovered the pleasures of cooking for myself. One of the great virtues is that you have only yourself to please. If a dish isn’t quite right, you’ll eat it anyway and improve on it next time.
A few months ago I added a new member to my household, a Havanese puppy I called Mabon, a Welsh name Evan would have approved of. When I got him, he was a small ball of fluff with a skinny body and only tiny pricks for teeth and he did not like having to chew the hard, desiccated lumps of puppy chow I offered. So I asked our local vet in Danville, Vermont, what she thought about my cooking for Mabon, and she answered, with a big smile, “It’s the best thing you could do for him.”
I was elated. That evening as I prepared a supper of our grass-fed beef, roasted sweet potato, and carrots from the garden, I felt like a young girl again cooking for my first dog, Sally MacGregor. I’d loved sizzling up chopped meat or calves’ liver or leftover stew for her—in those days, the grocery store shelves weren’t full of the canned and dried stuff—and MacGregor was always appreciative. I’m sure that is where my love of cooking was born—even my taste for offal.
I’ve learned a lot about the do’s and don’ts of feeding your pet since Mabon and I began this experiment. Last year Knopf published a book I wrote on The Pleasures of Cooking for One. In it, I tried to share the strategies, the fun, and the rewards of cooking for one. Now I think I’ll have to add another chapter (or write another little book?) on The Pleasures of Cooking for Mabon.
Recently, I was fortunate to meet a woman who, after hearing me describe my frustration in finding a good recipe for beef heart, told me that my method was all wrong: that the heart should not be slow-cooked but rather cut into relatively thin slices and stir-fried over high heat. I did a trial run, adding some shallots, slivers of garlic, and a splash of wine at the end, and she was right. It was delicious.
Maybe Mabon can enjoy a little love in disguise this Valentine’s Day.