Growing up in a hyper-traditional family in Wisconsin, we never once spent Christmas the traditional way. We never woke up on Christmas morning and opened gifts. We spent ours in a car traveling between my father’s extended family and my mother’s. To us, we did not know the difference. Similarly, until we were teens, we did not know that pickled tongue and pickled heart were not what everybody ate on Christmas Eve. Coming up on twenty years from becoming that teenager, I have come full circle after acquiring a few venison hearts from my father.
My Great-grandmother lived down the street from my grandparents, still on the farm where she raised my grandmother and her siblings. This is the same Great-grandmother who made the bacon fat chocolate chip cookies that were so far ahead of their time. With the same thrift, she stored shelf stable jars of pickled beef offal in her cool basement corner. There was the tongue and the heart of beef pickled in plain, white vinegar and tons of onions. We ate them on saltines at the table with beets like a good German kid would because that is what my dad did and likely what his mom did and what her parents did, we didn’t ask questions. When we became aware of what it was, we stopped immediately – only resuming after reaching family drinking age and eating some on a drunken dare. Not just me and my sisters, but every great-grandchild raised on shrink wrapped food made to look nothing like the actual animal from which it came quit the stuff. I think that the looks on our faces when we were told that it was cow heart or tongue got a rise from from my Great-grandmother, like a rite of passage.
While my Great-grandmother is no longer with us, her daughter, my grandmother, still is and we plan on seeing her on Christmas Eve. I plan on surprising her with my version of pickled heart. I looked up the basic recipe of making pickled beef heart in several of both kinds of spiral bound Midwestern cookbooks (Lutheran and Catholic) and adapted it for the size of the venison heart and to add some flavors that I think would improve it a little – primarily juniper and chilis, flavors that I like exceedingly well with venison and in pickles.
The first thing that I noticed with the hearts was that they were not trimmed and clean. Having your own butcher spoils you, but once you get past much of the fear of the first cut, the rest is easy. I pulled the aortal region from the heart and rinsed the remaining heart to remove most of the excess blood and blood clots. I then made a vertical incision and opened up the heart. I removed anything overly firm or vascular. Then I turned the heart over and removed the pericardium. Lucky I have watched my fair share of medical pathology shows and studied pre-med for a bit. The piece that I was left with was clean, lean, and deep red.
Going against every instinct that I had, I took the beautiful piece of flesh and boiled it in salted water until it was cooked through. I love heart tartare. I love rare pieces of heart, but that was not to be. This was farmer’s style, bauern-style if you will, not new school. The heart was cooled and added with onions, chilis, black pepper, juniper berries, and bay leaves into a jar. Finally, I added salt and vinegar. The heart rested for a week to pickle.
The texture was still challenging, which I should have expected since I boiled a venison heart. Last Valentine’s day, I gently confited a heart for my bride and seared it on the grill leaving a luxurious texture, but again, this was heartier (only time, I promise). The flavor is a little more appealing than I remember and is not dissimilar to a more minerally and meaty ceviche. It is not something that would be at the top of my list had the sentimental quality not been there, but I am happy to have tried to replicate such a dish. My hopes are that my family uses the dish to look back fondly on a Christmas in the past.
Pickled Venison Heart
- 1 venison heart, trimmed of any non-edibles
- 1/4 red onion
- 1/2 fresno chili
- 1 teaspoon juniper berries
- 1 teaspoon black peppercorns
- 2 bay leaves
- 1/2 teaspoon salt plus some to season boiling water
- Cider vinegar
Step one: Salt water, bring it to a boil and boil the heart for around 40 minutes until the heart is cooked through. Cool heart immediately and slices into 3/4″ cubes.
Step two: Combine remaining ingredients in a jar with heart and store for up to a week to get desired pickling. Consume with vigor.