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T. Susan Chang is a New England-based freelance writer and a former Kellogg Food and Society Policy Fellow. She also is The Boston Globe's regular cookbook reviewer, and her articles on cooking, gardening and nutrition appear in a variety of national and regional publications. You can find more information at her Web site, tsusanchang.com.
"Take it," said Mark. "You know you want it." He was brandishing a frozen beef heart the size of my head, and, to tell the truth, I was not at all sure I wanted it.
There were a half-dozen of us, mindful carnivores all, in Mark and Cindy's driveway that night. Shop lights illuminated the vacuum-sealed remains of three steers, portioned out in 2- and 3-pound increments on Mark's worktables.
The scene looked like a cross between a drug bust and a medieval auto-da-fe. Some of us couldn't help looking over our shoulders for the fuzz, even though what we were doing wasn't even a little illegal. And though mad cow panic was years in the past, there is no doubt what we'd done to secure this beef — grass-fed, free-range and $3.50 a pound — partook, in its own way, of madness.
Here in Eat Local country, it's not uncommon for a group of neighbors to band together at the beginning of the season and buy a "beefer" — a whole steer — from a nearby farm. Mark, the maddest of us all, had masterminded the purchase of not one but three.
Since small-scale slaughterhouse operations have tight requirements and narrow windows of opportunity, we had to wait several weeks until he got the word — and then drove rumbling off into the night in his pickup to bring back a truck full of clunking, frozen meat packages.
Some of us had quarter-shares, some had sixths. I had an eighth. Even that much, as I learned under the shop lights, is a lot of meat — and an instant lesson in carnivorous diversity.
Some of the pieces looked familiar in shape — the porterhouses and T-bones, the rib roasts and sirloins. And though it was a large amount, I could easily get my mind around the 40 pounds of ground beef, wrapped in 2-pound packages. I traded up a roast for a bunch of London broils, and grabbed the marrow bones for good measure.
Then there was the heart. Despite wanting to preserve my reputation as an open-minded cook, I hesitated. In my mind, a picky 5-year-old was playing chicken with an adventurous omnivore. It was touch-and-go for a moment or two, but in the end, the omnivore won. "OK," I said, heaving Exhibit A into my box. "I'll take it."
As a year passed, I worked my way down through the freezer, using the most flavorful, fresh-tasting ground beef I'd ever had for some memorable bolognese sauces, chilis and burgers.
I saved up the steaks for special occasions and lovingly warmed them to 110 degrees before searing them at their juicy, marbled finest. I learned a few great marinades for London broil, and revived an old favorite way to braise chuck.
We roasted the marrow bones, sucking at them delicately. Emboldened by this sortie into the fringes of beef, I even bought some tongue, which, after four hours of simmering, was dark, dense and velvety, with a rich, fatless gravy.
But I remained wary of the heart, that parallel universe of beefdom lurking at the bottom of my freezer chest . I imagined it waiting there, as reproachful as Poe's telltale heart, daring me to throw it out as it neared its first birthday.
At last, I took up the search for a recipe. It was not a simple matter. Not one of my 650 or so cookbooks had a recipe for beef heart. E-mails to Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, the British guru of offal, went unanswered. And most of the recipes for beef heart on the Internet were meant to be consumed by tropical fish or domestic dogs — not a good sign.
But at length I found a recipe for beef heart stewed Southwestern style, with mole sauce and wine. With the recipe tester's ill-founded confidence, I updated it with toasted spices, roasted garlic, edamame instead of canned limas, and a handmade mole that took me two hours all by itself.
Four hours of slow simmering later, I took a cautious bite. Every red blood cell in my body sat up and took notice as the taste of iron filled my mouth. The texture was first yielding, then ropy as I hit the pure protein fibers. I chewed some more. More iron. More rope. I declared myself ready to file it under "learning experience."
The angelfish and the bichon frise clearly knew something that I did not. As it turned out, so did my family, which went on to eat the stew with every sign of unfeigned gusto.
I missed Mark's beefer order this year, so I set up my own, splitting a steer with four other families. It was a last-minute order, but I had a waiting list of 12 additional families.
Yet on our cut sheet, where we specify chops versus roasts or ground beef versus cube steak, nobody checked off liver, tongue — or heart. Chances are, someone will turn to me again with an oddly shaped package and a glint in the eye: "You know you want it!" And chances are, after a moment or two of struggle, the madness will prevail. "OK," I'll say. "I'll take it."