If the way to our hearts is through our stomachs, then it seems to me the easiest way to get there is through a restaurant door. If your St Valentine's celebration is to be romantic, I reckon the last thing you want is to be angst-ing over twiddly heart-shaped fripperies in the kitchen.
But if the home scene has to be the setting, then I would suggest time and money are most effectively spent on shopping for the best delicacies that need the least culinary effort. I cannot think of anything much better than smoked salmon or oysters, brown bread and a bottle of champagne, or something of that ilk.
Still, I am not one to ignore the obvious. If this weekend is to be chock-a- block-full of hearts and roses, so be it: I will go for the hearts - in the most literal sense.
Lambs', calves' and pigs' hearts are not the food of romance, I agree. In fact, my butcher says they are not the food of anything much at all these days, apart from cats and dogs. Younger human generations tend to pass them by - real hearts are distinctly lacking in gastronomic chic. They are cheap, but you will not win many Brownie points for that on a celebratory day.
I used to be pretty non-committal on the subject. I ate braided stuffed hearts a few times and thought them pleasant, though they did not set the pulse racing. The squeamish yuck-factor has never bothered me, though I suspect it is what puts many people off. If you are happy to eat other internal organs such as kidneys or liver, then I do not really see why hearts should be any more of a problem.
A year or so ago, for the first time, I ate hearts cooked in a way that was truly delicious. I had always thought the only way to handle hearts was to stew them for hours until the rubberiness gave way. Not so. We were in Morocco and Abdu, a friend of my husband's, was cooking us supper. I watched dubiously as he grilled kebabs of calves' heart over glowing charcoal for a matter of minutes, and braced myself for a bout of polite chewing over a cultural dietary abyss.
I should not have worried. Those kebabs were tender and juicy and blissfully scented with cumin and coriander.
None of my local butchers stocks calves' hearts as a matter of course, though they will order in Dutch ones on request. However, I am always suspicious of imported veal which may have been raised in barbarically cramped crates, so since my return from Morocco I have limited my experiments to lambs' and pigs' hearts. Pigs' hearts are tender enough for brief grilling or frying, but do not be tempted to try it - pork should always be thoroughly cooked. Traditional slow braising for a good 2 to 2 1/2 hours is really the only way to deal with them, though if you add wine and herbs and garlic you can still turn them into an extremely creditable dish.
Lambs' hearts, unlike most cheap cuts of meat (I paid pounds 1.20 per lb), are tender enough to be cooked speedily and there is very little waste. A single heart weighs in at about 110g (4oz) and is just enough for one person (add one extra if you are cooking for keen meat eaters). If you have a good butcher, he or she will trim and clean them for you, but in fact preparation is straightforward and surprisingly unmessy.
Preparing lambs' hearts: First trim off the layer of fat around each heart. Use a sharp knife or small pair of kitchen scissors, and take off as much fat as you can without cutting them to shreds. Then remove any tubes, arteries and other unpleasant-looking bits and bobs. Rinse thoroughly, inside and out, under the cold tap, and then drop into a bowl of lightly salted water until needed.
Preparing pigs' hearts: They are less fatty than lambs' hearts, but trim off what fat there is, all the same; remove tubing and gristle. Rinse them really thoroughly under the cold tap to get rid of blood clots and other nasties, then soak in lightly salted cold water for at least 20 minutes.
Abdu's Moroccan Brochettes
Ingredients: 2 lambs' hearts, trimmed
1lb/450g calf's or lamb's liver, trimmed
3tbs chopped parsley
3 cloves garlic, crushed
2tsp ground cumin
1 1/2 tsp freshly ground pepper
2 1/2 tbs coriander, finely chopped
2tbs olive oil
lemon wedges to serve
Preparation: Cut hearts and liver into 2.5-3cm (1-1 1/2 in) cubes. Put into a bowl and mix with all the remaining ingredients except salt, turning well with your hands so that all the meat is evenly coated. Cover and leave to marinate for at least four hours.
Thread up skewers of liver and heart, keeping the two meats separate, as the liver cooks a little more quickly. Grill over charcoal, or under a fiercely hot grill, turning until the meats are just done.
With the liver it is a matter of a few minutes, so that the outside is browned but the inside is still slightly pink. The heart will take a little longer, 5-8 minutes maximum, depending on the heat of the grill. Season with salt and serve immediately, with the lemon wedges.
Hearts Braised with Red Wine
This is a more traditional approach - a rich stew of hearts and carrots in red wine. Use either pigs' or lambs' hearts - the latter have a slightly more refined flavour, but there is not a massive difference between them.
Ingredients: 4 pigs' hearts or 5 lambs' hearts
2-3tbs olive oil
2 onions, thinly sliced
3 cloves of garlic, chopped
1lb/450g carrots, thickly sliced
3/4 pint/450ml red wine
1/2 pint/300ml water, or light stock
2 sprigs of rosemary
2 sprigs of parsley
finely grated zest of 1 lemon
1tbs chopped parsley
salt and pepper
Preparation: Trim the hearts, but leave whole. Heat 2tbs oil in a frying pan and brown the hearts. Place in a casserole. Fry the onion in the same oil, adding a little more if needed until lightly browned.
Add garlic and cook gently for another couple of minutes. Spoon into the casserole, and tuck in the carrots together with the herbs, tied in a bundle with string.
Pour the wine into the frying pan and bring up to the boil, scraping in brown gloop on the bottom of the pan. Pour over the hearts, and add the hot water or stock. Season well.
Cover the casserole and transfer to the oven, pre-heated to 180C/350F/gas 4. Cook for 2-2 1/2 hours, or until the hearts are tender. Mix the lemon zest and parsley. To serve, lift out and slice the hearts. Arrange in a dish with carrots and onion, and pour over the sauce. Sprinkle with lemon and parsley.
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