As I said in my last post, our friend Claire loved her pigs, Bert and Ernie, but not too sentimentally. It was perhaps in part, subconsciously at least, an attempt to test out the limits of her sentimentality that led me to suggest that the first part of either of them that should be consumed was the heart. If so, then it’s possible that was unkind of me. If, though, it was indeed a test, then it was one she passed with flying colours.
I could, of course equally claim that there might be some ritual or symbolic significance to the eating of the heart, as representing affection, or more importantly respect, for the slain beast. That would of course be at best disingenuous, at worst spurious. Or, to put it more bluntly: a load of old bollocks. Not that the affection and respect weren’t there, because they certainly were; it was, I’m sure, purely the element of symbolism that was absent. Nevertheless, I have to admit that there was a feeling, even in my own cynical, rationalist heart, that it was in some way appropriate, even if only on the level of the essentially meaningless gesture, to begin the consumption of Bert and Ernie, with one of their own hearts. Or part of one, at least: half of it being as much as we needed for a starter salad for the three of us.
On a purely rational, pragmatic level, then of course it was appropriate: offal of any kind is best consumed as fresh as possible, and I can’t imagine there will be many opportunities in my life to consume offal as fresh as this was. The livers were enormous, and, speaking personally of course, the best way to cook kidneys is long and slow in a stew, and preferably then baked into a pie. So for a quick meal for three, that pretty much left the heart.
Heart, I think, is a much overlooked item of offal, seldom seen anywhere other than the menu at St John’s or the now many St John’s influenced nose-to-taileries, but it has great depth of flavour without being too pungently offally for even the most delicate palette, and I think a perfect balance of chewiness and tenderness. And because it’s generally overlooked, even if you don’t have a friend who just happens to have slaughtered a couple of pigs, if you have a half way decent butchers anywhere locally, they’ll happily supply hearts (pig, lamb, chicken, duck – I have yet to try cow’s which might just be getting a bit big and tough, but I’d happily give it a go) for next to nothing.
A pigs heart, obviously, is a big, powerful well exercised, muscle – particularly the heart of a pig that is both active and - without wishing to be unkind - frankly at least marginally overweight. So it’s a good idea to slice it thin. In this instance I cut half of one heart into thin strips, no more than 3 or 4 mm thick, which I then marinated in salt, pepper cider vinegar and olive oil for about half an hour (had I remembered that Claire has great deep beds of sage growing right outside her front door I’d have probably added a few leaves of that too), before searing briefly in a hot pan and tossing into a basic leaf salad of baby gem, pea shoots and herbs (parsley, basil, mint & chives) with a simple dressing that was essentially the same as the marinade. It was utterly delicious. And, damn it, whatever the risk of appearing sentimental or superstitious, it seemed highly appropriate.
For our main course I took a tenderloin and roasted it with a paprika crust, served up with sautéed potatoes and a quick butterbean and pepper stew. I’ve described the method for the tenderloin here; for the butterbean and pepper stew just cut a couple of bell peppers (I did one red, one green) into thin strips and fry these gently in olive oil with a finely sliced clove of garlic until just softening, then add a tin or a jar of butterbeans and a glass of sherry (white wine will do, or even marsala or Madeira if you have those to hand and not sherry). Cover with a lid and allow to simmer away gently for about twenty minutes until the sherry and the pepper juices have combined with the oil into a sweet, glistening sauce. Add salt and pepper to taste at the end, and a sprinkling of fresh leaf herbs. This was an entirely improvised but pretty convincingly Spanish style dish, which, like most Spanish style dishes, made an excellent accompaniment to the pork.
It was a delicious meal, and a profoundly satisfying one on several levels. Most of all, I hope, for Claire. Certainly, given the current trend for locally sourced produce, it could scarcely have been a more fashionable meal. Our pork could have been more locally sourced - if we had taken our plates down to the end of the garden to eat it. As it was, eating in the conservatory as we did, I guess it was sourced from all of about twenty yards away. I don’t know that it’s necessarily true that local is always, inherently, better; but if you were setting out to make the case that it was, you could do worse than call this meal as a witness…
Becca and I returned home the following morning with a huge shoulder joint, a great slab of belly and three big fat chops. One of which, at the best part of a couple of inches thick, was big and fat enough to cook up on its own as a mini roast for the two of us a couple of days later.
First I marinated it for an hour or so in cider vinegar, olive oil, salt, pepper and a sprinkling of small sage leaves. Then I browned it briefly on both sides, in a pan large enough to take both the chop and an apple, peeled, cored and cut into wedges, half a bulb of fennel thickly sliced and a stick of celery, chunked. Then I transferred the pan to an oven preheated to about 200, and roasted it for half an hour. This actually turned out to be marginally too long to my taste – although I’m sure it would have been spot on for many people – so perhaps 25 minutes would be perfect, although there’s no point giving exact timings in cases like this as there are simply too many variables in the size, weight and thickness of the chop, oven temperatures and personal tastes in what constitutes perfectly cooked anyway. Still, even if – for me- very slightly overcooked, the thick layer of fat protecting and lubricating it kept this chop deliciously moist and tender.
I served it up, as well as with the roasted apple, fennel and celery from its own pan, with roast potatoes, parsnips and shallots, and pickled red cabbage. This was a perfect weekday roast for two, all - apart from the marinating, and, honestly, if need be, you could reduce that to fit within the time the rest of the prep took - done in just about an hour.
All that remains to say is thank you Claire. And thank you Bert and Ernie.