The sky was low and grey, yet the commotion around the South American food stall at Melbourne University was anything but dull.
On a chilly Melbourne day this year, the team from South American restaurant Piqueos were drumming up business by handing out free Peruvian and Argentine snacks, and their anticuchos de corazón were moving three times faster than grilled chicken wings or beef ribs. “It was amazing! Corazón is Spanish for heart. The students were going mad for heart,” owner Shaun Bourke says. “We told them what they were eating, but they had no problems wolfing down this traditional Peruvian street food.”
Heart is making a comeback. For a good part of the 20th century the lean lump of nutritious muscle had been relegated to the dog bowl. Until the boom years that followed World War II, heart dishes were part of every thrifty cook’s repertoire.
A dish of lamb heart stuffed with breadcrumbs and mince served wrapped in bacon was a sought after meal in the Edwardian era. With the rise of industrial agriculture and the resulting mass of cheap meat, however, home cooks turned to easier-to-cook prime cuts such as steak, chops and chicken. But heart, whether it be beef, lamb, chicken or duck, is now back on menus at some of the best restaurants in the country.
When former New York Times restaurant reviewer Ruth Reichl visited Melbourne in August she made special mention of Pei Modern. In this sleek, chic and modern Melbourne diner they serve a twist on the classic casarecce, a short, thin almost tubular pasta. Although from the south of Italy, at Pei Modern casarecce is cooked like risotto in stock and served with little northern Italian style chicken dumplings made from minced chicken, minced chicken liver and minced chicken heart. The dumplings are seasoned with freshly grated nutmeg, salt and pepper, and bound with a little cream. The pasta is enriched with grated Parmigiano-Reggiano and, just before serving, sautéd pieces of chicken heart. “The heart gives an intense ‘chicken’ flavour,” head chef Matt Germanchis says. “It really is a delicious dish.”
If you think this dish sounds a bit rich, it would be good to remember that heart is muscle. Lean muscle. Leaner than lean beef with about as much fat as chicken breast. A 100g serve of heart delivers around 400kJ and about a third of the recommended daily intake of protein. It is high in iron and B group vitamins except folate. The down side to heart is the relatively high levels of cholesterol; it’s double that of chicken and lean beef.
“When you think heart, don’t think offal. Think muscle,” says Piqueos’ Shaun Bourke. “It is not bloody or livery. It is more like rump steak.” At his restaurant in the inner Melbourne suburb of Carlton North, the anticuchos de corazón are prepared in true Peruvian style. Beef hearts are cleaned, trimmed of blood vessels, sliced into nuggety chunks, marinated in smoked chilli, cumin and white wine vinegar, and then grilled over glowing charcoal.
“In Peru anticuchos are served on the skewer with a potato impaled on the end,”Bourke says. “There, they are street food and eaten off the skewer and washed down with a beer.” At Piqueos, anticuchos are plated up with grilled red onion and mayonnaise made with a fiery chilli called aji rocoto.
“Heart is very lean and needs to be treated with a little love,” says Paul Cooper, chef and co-owner of inner-Sydney restaurant Bishop Sessa. Cooper is known for his nose-to-tail philosophy, buying whole carcasses and using every part of the animal. He finds throwing away any part of an animal an abhorrent and disrespectful form of waste. “We figure out a good way to serve all the different cuts that you don’t normally see on restaurant menus, which is what I find fun and challenging at the same time,” Cooper says.
One of his famous dishes is wagyu heart tartar, which makes use of perhaps the leanest muscle from the Japanese breed of beef renowned for its flesh marbled with fat. He hand-cuts the heart into very fine pieces and serves this with an ‘ice cream’ made with cooked egg yolk, cornichons, capers, parsley and tarragon. “We put it on the menu when we have heart,” Cooper says. “It’s very popular.”
Eating the lesser-loved parts of the beast, however, is not everyone’s cup of tea. In the Victorian regional city of Geelong is the award-winning restaurant Tulip. One of the headline dishes on the bar menu, when the restaurant opened late last year, was a plate of chicken hearts slow-cooked, Portuguese style, in a red wine, bay leaf, onion, garlic and tomato sauce. Despite the dish being a favourite with a handful of customers, it has been taken off the new menu. “People either loved them or they didn’t,” chef and co-owner Graham Jefferies says. “I couldn’t win everyone over.”