Courtesy of Chef John McGannon, wildeats.com
Before I’ve heard many hunters talk about how they cook up the tenderloins for a celebratory meal on the day they shoot their elk. We are all tempted to pull out those prized chunks of meat right after a kill, but as we have covered in this column before, even those tender cuts will benefit greatly from a period of dry aging. If you wish to indulge on your spoils right away back at camp, the heart makes an excellent choice.
Because the heart is a powerful muscle, it should be treated much like the tenderloins, meaning it should be cooked very quickly and rare—although the Plains Indians would argue that eating it raw is the traditional “post hunt” dining method.
The secret to dealing with the heart is to properly clean and prepare it. The heart contains four compartments and an outer membrane that needs to be trimmed to reveal the delicate tender muscles. On a properly killed animal there will also be coagulated blood that can look somewhat unappealing. Run clean, cold water into the internal compartments of the heart to remove the blood.
You will need to break the heart into sections. Pop off the top of the heart with a sharp knife (see photo 1). Run the knife down the side top to bottom and open it up, much like opening up a bell pepper (photo 2). And just like a bell pepper where you have to trim off the seeds and pith you have to do the same to the heart and clean out the blood and fat (photo 3). Trim off all the veins and fat. I like to cut the outer shell into a couple of sections. This makes it easier to slice off the outer membrane as well as helps give consistent cooking results. What’s left should be a clean pile of healthy red meat (photo 4).
1 elk heart, cleaned, trimmed and cut into strips
1 small onion, cut into thin strips
1-2 jalapeno peppers (seeds removed and cut into very thin strips)
½ tsp fresh garlic
¼ tsp ground cumin
salt and pepper to taste
cilantro and lime wedges
corn or flour tortillas
your favorite salsa
olive oil for sautéing
Clean the heart as described above and season with garlic, ground cumin, salt and pepper. Heat the oil in a sauté pan and place the heart meat into the hot oil, spread it out and let it sear there for a minute. Then add the sliced onions and jalapenos and stir for a couple of minutes. Remove from the fire and season with salt and pepper to taste. Heat the tortillas and fill with a little heart and onions. Splash on some salsa, sprinkle with cilantro and a squeeze of lime.
A note on searing
Cooking in a cold pan causes the meat to purge its internal fluids. You’re now cooking that meat in its own juices and are no longer sautéing. The end results are a dry and tough cut because it is boiled not caramelized.
The type of pan also plays a big role in the searing capabilities. When you add cold meat to a hot pan the temperature of that pan is reduced significantly. If you don’t allow the temperature to recover, or use a heavy-gauged pan, you lose all your searing capabilities. The old-fashioned black iron skillets are the best for searing because they are so dense. That dense metal holds the heat much better than the lightweight aluminum pans many people like to cook with today.
John McGannon is chef/founder of Wildeats Enterprises, a life member of the RMEF, host of popular wild game cooking seminars at the foundation’s Elk Camp and a passionate hunter.