I almost cannot believe it has been four weeks since I last wrote something for this blog. May – that’s M-a-y, the entire month – has passed and I haven’t gotten around to sitting down and thinking about what I cooked or ate in writing and sharing it with you once. Actually, I haven’t gotten around to cooking a lot to begin with. May was incredibly busy for me, so I mostly ‘prepared something to eat’ rather than ‘cooking’ – really spending time in the kitchen, coming up with recipes, letting my mood and intuition guide me, and enjoying the process of pottering around amidst my spices, pots and pans. I missed it. A lot. So I was very happy to find myself back in the kitchen this last weekend, for a crazy marathon of concept cooking and getting back in touch with the heart of my home.
My husband Alex and I had a party of seven wonderful people over at our place for dinner on Saturday. They were dear friends of ours who, under their collective nickname ‘combat kitchen’ (Kampfküche) cooked the buffet for our wedding last summer. All of them are amateur cooks and really good at what they do, and they share our food philosophy and taste. Alex and I were thrilled for them to cook for our loved ones on the day, since for both of us, food is an affair of the heart, and we didn’t want some anonymous catering service provide this essential component of such an important day in our lives. Since their food left so many good memories with our guests and us, we really wanted to say Thank You in a special way to show our appreciation. Don’t get me wrong – a bottle of wine or some nice chocolate is always a nice present – but I remember quite vividly the afternoon before the dinner party when I saw everyone chopping, stirring, preparing the food for the evening, and it hit me that these people actually took days off from work and invested so much time just to make Alex and me happy and give us the wedding food of our dreams. It was clear to me that I didn’t just want to hand them some present. We decided to throw them a dinner party.
Alex and his friends are all dedicated LARPers – Live Action Role Players – which means they love everything creative and are always in for an adventure. We asked each of them to give us (1) a meal or occasion for eating, (2) an era or style, and (3) an adjective which we would turn into a dish. That was pretty risky business on our part, of course – since there were practically no limits and, from experience, a LARPers imagination knows no limits either, and it was our task to develop something edible from their concepts. When the first ideas came in during the following weeks, Alex and I had a ball thinking of ways to translate the imaginative and sometimes really wacky word combinations in working flavor combinations and a menu that would work conceptually as well as gastronomically. Coming up: a quick review, before I tell you more about the beef heart you’ve seen in the title picture.
We turned a ‘19th century Caribbean pirate’s feast‘ into a pirate’s treasure of crunchy and golden pasteis de bacalhau, Portuguese slash Caribbean fritters made from salted cod and potatoes that looked like gold nuggets, served with saffron-rum aioli and a bellpepper cream spiced with adobo, a Caribbean spice mix containing lemon, oregano and cumin. A ‘hopeful naturalistic funeral feast‘ saw two chickens being carried in by two pallbearers in top hats (Alex and me) to Chopin’s funeral march, their wings (the chickens’ that is) peacefully holding thyme bouquets. As a sign of hope, we served eggs with the chickens, symbolizing the hope for and promise of new life. To be exact, they were naturalistic impressions of eggs – as the shells were filled with a ginger-spiced carrot puree (as the yolk) surrounded by a creamy coconut and lime-leaf sauce (the egg whites).
Instead of becoming the expected dessert, a ‘summery Baltic coffee klatsch‘ went savory, as we served a concentrated beef consommé in coffee cups and passed around brown and white sugar cubes (diced cooked beef and mushroom and bacon filled Pelmeni, dumplings common in Russia and the Baltic countries) and cream (sour cream) to some Latvian folk music. We took the ‘cosmopolitan‘ in ‘cosmopolitanized domestic food from outer space‘ literally by integrating the main components of the Cosmopolitan cocktail (cranberry, lime zest, orange zest) in an alienesque looking savory vegetable jelly of beetroot, turnip and celery.
They were supposed to be illuminated by lightsticks under the jelly – which didn’t work out, sadly. But it was surprisingly delicious anyway. So much so, that I have a fear I will delve into savory jellies more in the near future. The fulminant finale our our feast was an amazing display of fruit sorbets that Alex prepared during the week, each ‘reconciling’ a fruit and a spice or herb, to meet the concept of a ‘colorful superhero reconciliation dinner‘. To get the superhero feel across, we sprinkled some of my beloved mint-meringue shards and pop rocks all over the plate to bring the zoooosh! pooooow! and slaaaaam! feel of the classic graphic novels to our guests’ mouths. And we served it wearing capes. No kidding.
But now let me tell you about our beef heart stew, a.k.a ‘comic Klingon wedding feast‘. Since we are both childhood Star Strek aficionados, we liked the idea of keeping it real(istic) with the Klingon thing. Well – as realistic as you can get with something that has never been real to begin with – but anyway. So we did some research on the web, and turns out: there is a whole lot you can read about Klingon food and eating habits (for some impressions see here and here). We were inspired by the ‘Scarg-leg‘ which is traditionally braised with 10 spices and the Klingons’ appetite for legumes and offal. And there seemed nothing better than a heart to draw reference to the wedding feast part. We braised it with 10 spices (counting garlic), which made for a really dark, peppery and concentrated sauce which goes very well with the slightly gamey flavor of the heart meat. We integrated the Klingon tradition of closing the meal with a cup of tea by adding some smoky Lapsang Souchong tea to the spice mix. As a side, we did the inevitable Qagh, a dish of purple worms, in our interpretation a pickle of red cabbage and red onions. If youhave never given beef heart a try or are overall sceptic towards offal, I urge you to try it. Heart is – as you know – a muscle, so it does not have the softer and sometimes grainy texture of other offal. Since it is a constantly working muscle, the meat is dark and aromatic and very lean. You can enjoy it raw as tartare (with some cornichons, capers and shallots), panfried or grilled, and you can – as we did – braise it. The textural result is not what you expect when you are used to braising cuts that have a higher fat and tendon content, such as lamb shank, for example. Heart meat doesn’t break down into strands, but gets a firm bite, without (!) being dry or tough whatsoever.
Beef Heart Stew
Active time: 45 minutes, cooking: 135 minutes
Ingredients (serves 4)
1.3 kg beef heart
5 medium sized onions
2 cloves garlic
2 scant tbsp wheat flour
350 ml red wine
canola oil for cooking
1/2 tsp red kampot pepper (you can also go for grains of paradise)
1/2 tsp black pepper
2 catkins long pepper
1 pinch Lapsang Souchong tea
1 segment of a star anise
1 tiny piece of cinnamon
1.5 tsp coriander seed
1/2 tsp allspice
1 First, clean the heart by removing all fat and sinew and removing the silver skins that enclose the muscle on the inside and outside of the heart. The latter part is optional, since the silver skins become tender during the braise, but you should remove all the ventricles, since they get really tough through cooking. Here is a (rather graphic) video tutorial. Make sure you use a very sharp knife. Of course, you can also ask your butcher to do all the prep work for you. Cut the cleaned meat into cubes of approximately 4 cm edge length.
2 In a dry pan, toast all the spices together until they are fragrant and start crackling. Then pulverize them coarsely using a mortar and pestle or an electric blender. Mix with the flour and set aside. Peel and roughly chop the onions and the garlic.
3 Put on a heavy-bottomed pan (you can and should use one of those fancy le Creuset-style braising pans with a lid, if you have – I don’t) and heat about 3 tbsp of canola oil. Meanwhile put the meat and the spice & flour mixture into a plastic freezer bag, blow it up, close it thoroughly and shake the contents around in the plastic bubble, so the meat gets evenly coated with the mixture. Fry crunchy in batches and salt afterwards. When all the meat is browned, remove all the meat from the pan and add the onions and garlic, also add a generous pinch of salt immediately and stir-fry. Be careful not to burn the flour and spices now covering the bottom of the pan. Add a bit of the red wine when it looks like that is going to happen. When everything is slightly browned, add the rest of the red wine at once and let the mixture reduce to 2/3. Preheat the oven to 170 °C top and bottom heat. Put the meat and its juices back in with the stewed onions and cover. If you don’t have a braising pan with a lid, you can transfer everything to a gratin dish and cover it with aluminum foil. Put in the oven on middle shelf and braise for about 2 hours.