Thursday 13 October 2016

A Mixed Bag: Cooking with Venison Offal and a Recipe for Pineapple Marinated Moose Heart

With Thanksgiving just past and apple season petering off a bit it might be tough to get excited for the next few months of cooking. However right when my mind was wandering off to Christmas recipes and a running catalogue of soups with which to occupy myself I was hit with a surprise reminder that it’s still Autumn; a bloody grocery bag full of moose offal.

              My dear cousin Julie, great huntress that she is, recently picked a critter off up North and hauled the beast down, in doing so she was kind enough to share some bits of it with me in the process. This gooey sack of moose bits was a kind reminder that Fall isn’t all harvesting apples and herbs or Thanksgiving turkeys on buckling tables, it’s also traditionally a time to hunt. Now I’m not unfamiliar with offal, I’ve cooked up veal sweetbreads and made liver pâté from a wide range of critters, last Fall I even dealt with an offal emergency as we searched for ways to cook and preserve a big fresh liver from the deer that my brother Joe shot with his bow (the solution? Pâté, pâté and more pâté…oh and some fried liver too.) 

But here we have a different situation; hunted offal is best served fresh, storing it is seen by many as a sin as offal is said to lose its flavour and texture at alarming rates. In my case I was faced with three baggies of three very different kinds of organs that were all meant to be consumed as fresh as possible…you might see why this put me in a bit of a conundrum. To make things worse, these are not easy bits of meat to cook, so in the name of stomach science I decided to experiment, with no promises that this produced anything tasty I invite you to join me in a bit of an offal adventure.

From left to right: Heart, kidney, liver

1. Heart tends to be feared for its toughness, braising it whole, long and at low temperature is often described as the best solution to cooking it. Sounds simple enough right? Well, in my case the heart was pre-sliced when it got to me…uh oh there goes the long, slow and whole approach.

My method: Considering that the meat is famously tough I decided to take something of an obvious route; marinating. I started off with the juice of a lime and a lemon, some salt and pepper but was a tad hesitant…would this do the trick? I mean heart can be really tough, what if this wasn’t enough? I couldn’t help but recall a time where I roasted some heart and chewed on it until my jaw was sore… it didn’t take long before it became dog food.

As I pondered the toughness issue a bit of musing in front of an open fridge sparked a eureka moment as I spotted some pineapple I had cut up earlier in the day. I remembered the aching tongue that I’d experienced a time or two from overindulging in the prickly fruit and how a few articles I had read described how the bromelain in pineapples breaks down proteins, essentially allowing the pineapple to bite you right back as chew on it. With this in mind and inspired by the thought of tacos al pastor, I threw a few chunks of pineapple into the blender with a dried chili and some vinegar and poured it over the bits of heart before letting it marinate.

Result: Tasty! Seared on the grill on high heat with some more pineapple and then served with a fresh salsa I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it, definitely a potential taco filling for the future!

2. Kidney Not exactly the most appetizing organ, it is rather well-known for smelling (and tasting!) mildly of pee, this is not at all coincidental as it plays a key role in the body in excreting the stuff.

Approach: Soak it in milk, pray that is sucks out the pee flavour. Backup plan? Smothering it in fresh horseradish and a cubic tonne of mustard.

Kidney and liver soaking in milk

Result: Fried up, the kidney had a consistency reminiscent of hotdog, of course hot dogs and sausages have long served as a home for offal so I guess this wasn’t terribly surprising. It was a bit strange straight up so I treated it as a hotdog by throwing it on a slice of homebaked sourdough and adding some toppings. All things considered, not bad but I think this would have been better off soaking a tad longer as some pieces tasted a tad funky. I can see why this bit tends to find its way into pies and sausages, I think I’d prefer it mixed, mind you the fresh moose kidney tasted substantially better than what I’ve had in steak and kidney pie.

See that doesn't look so bad does it?

3. Finally we’re left with liver, probably the easiest to cook and most familiar of the trio. Now I’ve never been a huge liver fan, lest it be in the pâté I won’t stop mentioning. Liver for those of you who might not have come into contact with it at its worst, can be very metallic tasting, kind of like dragging your tongue against a mixture of blood and iron shavings. However, it can be made to be quite decent with some tender loving care.

Approach: Determined not to take the easy way out (pâté) I decided to cook it traditionally. I soaked it like the kidney then patted it dry, dredged it in flour and fried it in browned butter.

Result: Did not taste terribly like iron but still was strong enough to be a tad off-putting to me, I guess it could have used more soaking. A liver loving friend enjoyed it enough that she had the leftovers with eggs for breakfast, ultimately, not quite my cup of tea but tasty enough for a connoisseur. In my case? I think I’ll stick to pâté…

Night time photography: bad lighting is not helping this chunk of liver one bit

Should you ever feel like giving heart a try, here’s a rough outline of my recipe:

Marinated Moose Heart with Pineapple Salsa


-A few slices of heart, maybe 200g or so?


-2 cloves garlic
-1 tbsp white vinegar
-3-4 pieces pineapple
-1 chilli pepper
-A pinch of roasted ground cumin would probably also be good

-1 small tomato
-A few mint leaves, finely chopped, I would have preferred coriander or a combination of the two but alas there was none around.
-About ¼ of a red onion, shaved
-A few pieces of grilled pineapple
-A touch of olive oil
-Chili pepper to taste

1.       Combine marinade ingredients in a blender until liquefied.
2.       Pour marinade onto heart pieces, refrigerate overnight.
I swear, things will get better from this point on

3.       The next day grill heart and the chunks of pineapple over high heat on the bbq, cook quickly until grill marks appear, flip and grill again, maybe 3 minutes total.  
4.       As the heart rests dice salsa ingredients and combine. Serve thinly sliced; in tortillas with chipotle mayo, on a salad or alone as an appetizer as pictured below. 

Friday 20 May 2016

Fragrant Soup and Dusty Streets, a Snapshot of Phnom Penh

Fans spin lazily from the ceiling of the secondhand bookstore, successfully maintaining the illusion that it is possible to fend off the mid-afternoon heat. Our dysfunctional air conditioner back home at the apartment is a testament to the impossibility of this endeavour, its poor coils intermittently giving out as it fizzes and clanks. Back in the bookstore sweat pearls on the foreheads of the owner’s face, much as it does on my own.

The recycled wood shelves groan under the weight of foreign expectations, bearing countless copies of "Eat, Pray, Love" in English, providing insight into the soul-searching motives of Phnom Penh's average tourist. Did the original owners of the books ever succeed in finding themselves? We'll likely never know, but the stack of copies sits in interesting company alongside a hefty stack of "Fifty Shades of Grey" and books purporting to demistify the "secrets" of Thai ladyboys.

To this day Cambodia remains one of the poorer countries in Southeast Asia, particularly outside of Siem Reap where the national historical site of Angkor Wat is located. Though rapidly developing, it does have something of Wild West feel to it; the streets of Phnom Penh are dusty, personal gun ownership remains high despite government attempts to curtail it, and few people walk, preferring to ride. To the cowboys of Phnom Penh, motorcycles and mopeds are their steads, their carriages are tuktuks, carts with couches pulled by motorcycles.

As we walk the streets sound loudly with the voices of the tuktuk drivers which seem to summarize the last half century of Cambodia's history. Calls of "Tuktuk sir?" are endless in a city where few walk and tourism is eagerly encouraged. They're interspersed with queries such as "killing fields, want to go to the killing fields?" and every now and then a call of "Hey fellow, want to fire a rocket today? Or AK47?" the striking legacies of the Khmer Rouge and the government's attempts to boost tourism make strange bedfellows indeed.
Khmer cuisine is delicious, jasmine rice and fish amok abound. The latter is a rich coconut curry bound in a banana leaf which holds pride of place on the menus of many restaurants. Of these venues, the more upscale ones greet you with air conditioning and endless youtube playlists headlined by 90's boybands. Their inexpensive counterparts can simply be a short lunch counter with a single burner next to a spatter of brightly coloured plastic chairs across a crowded sidewalk or street corner in a flash of colour reminiscent of a Pollock painting. One of our finest meals was a delicious and addictive beef soup served for breakfast across from the Phnom Penh post office. The soup was defined by rich gristly beef submerged in a thick red sweet and sour broth with crisp counterpoints of fresh lime, bean sprouts and herbs. Redolent with the licorice scent of anise and Thai basil it was exceptionally good when washed down with the syrupy iced coffee famous in the region, a combination of condensed milk, instant coffee and an iceberg's worth of ice shavings.

Much like the post office we dined in front of, the vestiges of French colonialism are everywhere, from structures built in the early 20th century to art deco facades accompanied by French signs on government buildings and baguettes sold out of street carts.

This is why I'm here. As a food historian, the fusion of Khmer and French cuisine is intriguing. Unlike neighbouring Vietnam, Cambodia parted ways with French imperialism on relatively peaceful terms and France persists as an important trade partner. French food remains prevalent both in the form of ritzy haute-cuisine restaurants and in the day to day street food of the city. Baguette sandwiches stuffed with pork cooked in Khmer seasonings are offered on the street for 4,000 Cambodian riel or 1 US dollar (Cambodia use both currencies in tandem) while excellent pure butter croissants and viennoiserie cost just a touch more.

The Cambodian archives remain in their original home, a colonial structure dating from the 1920’s, which the archivist tells me with a wry grin served briefly as a pig sty under the Khmer Rouge. The archivists themselves are endlessly kind, tirelessly providing us with a constant stream of documents and rearranging the standing fans around us in the endless crusade against the heat because this building, like many others, is not air conditioned. The rustling of century old papers is accompanied by the murmurs of conversation among the archivists, the staccato of pages falling into the tray of the photocopier and the crowing of the rooster who resides in the parking lot. The holdings reveal much about the dining habits of the colonial period with many documents providing evidence that the regional love for condensed milk is far spanning.
Before we know it we find ourselves heading on to Siem Reap to visit the majestic temples of the area, carrying a sliver of Cambodian history in the hundreds of photocopies provided by the archive, new adventures as ever await.