What's known among foodies as "nose to tail" cooking (using as much of every animal as possible) is something that our great-grandparents would have just called "cooking." We live in a day and age of luxury, with our meat wrapped anonymously in cellophane and arranged just so on supermarket shelves. This is convenient to the shopper, but it separates us from the reality of what it takes to raise, harvest, and process animals for use in the kitchen.
For some restaurants, those anonymous boxes of industrial-processed meat are good enough, and they're content to unload the Sysco or Ben E. Keith truck, thaw out the contents, and serve them up to you at vastly inflated prices. But we have a growing group of chefs in Little Rock who are part of a new movement in food: understanding what it means to harvest an animal, and utilizing the best local growers whenever possible so that the food coming out of those kitchens is part of the land around us. This locavore, slow-food trend has become Little Rock's signature cuisine, with restaurants like Natchez, South on Main, the Root Cafe, and Hillcrest Artisan Meats striving to sell meat that was raised with care and skill.
One of the most exciting chefs who has made this "nose to tail" concept his own is Travis McConnell, a man for whom butchering meat and turning every part of an animal into something delicious is more than just a way of cooking, it's a way of life. McConnell says he's worked at those restaurants that get the same anonymous meat over and over again adding, "at first I was excited about cleaning a filet, until I saw my first whole pig on a table. This inspired me to dig deeper into what it meant to cook, eat and source meat." McConnell is entering the last week of his Kickstarter campaign, a fundraising attempt that will allow him to outfit his kitchen with some top-of-the-line equipment for making sausage and charcuterie. In addition to his Kickstarter, McConnell is also teaming up with the Arkansas Times for a Farm to Table dinner party on October 16 that will feature some nose-to-tail cooking at its best. McConnell is also hosting a cooking class at Eggshells on Kavanaugh this coming Wednesday, but we're going to jump the gun and give you all a recipe straight from the chef himself right here on Eat Arkansas. Take a look below the jump for Travis McConnell's Head and Heart Braise for Pasta, a fine example of what it means to use every part of the animal.
Head and Heart Braise for Pasta (Feeds 4 people)
(from Travis McConnell, Butcher and Public)
*1 Lamb or Goats head
*1 Beef Heart
*1 Large Red Onion
*2 Stalks Celery
*4 cloves Garlic
*2 Fresh Bay Leaves
*1 Small Sprig Rosemary
*About five twigs of fresh Thyme
*1 T Whole Black Peppercorns
*1 Qt Pork or Chicken Stock
*1.5 C Red Wine
*8qt Braising pot
*Boning Knife, for cleaning heart
*Your usual kitchen knife for the veggies
*Fine strainer to strain of the liquid for reducing after braise is finished.
So there is a little prep to do with the heart and head before getting started. The head is simple just a light rinse and season liberally. If your pot isn’t big enough you can split the head with a heavy cleaver. But I wouldn’t recommend this without the skills, as the head isn’t the most steady.
And for the heart you will need to first section it out into the obvious sections. If you ever have one in front of you its pretty straight forward where the different muscles lie. These will be long, thick strips that you will need to clean off of any valves still in there. You will need to clean off a top layer of fat and squishy tissue. Then cut it into large chunks. About three to four per strip.
Pre-heat your pot stove top for searing the heart (the head is too awkward to sear in a small pot). Now clean all the veggies, rinse celery, peel carrot and onion. Cut them all into large pieces like you're making a stock. Now the pot should be ready to sear the hearts. Season the heart pieces with salt and black pepper. Sear until golden brown on all sides. Once well browned add the red wine to deglaze any delicious fond you have in the pot. The fond is the nice bits of caramelized meat stuck to the bottom of the pot. Once you have this all loosened up add everything else.
Make sure it’s covered and cover to bring to simmer. Don’t let it boil as this is a big no no in making stocks and braises. Bring it to a steady simmer and either leave it stove top or pop in an oven at 300 degrees for about two hours. The heart will be done in an hour so you can pull them out to rest in some of the liquid until the head is done. But it’s a strong piece and can handle going the full route with the head meat. Once the cheeks are falling of the head it is ready. So if you have the time its best to let this meat set in the liquid for a few hours to let it reabsorb the juices that it was braised in. Then pull the meat and strain the liquid. Return liquid to the pot and reduce down until it reaches a thicker sauce consistency. Shred the meat off the head and pull the tongue and either dice or shred. At this point it will all be able to shred (like pulled pork). Do the same with the heart. Fold back into your sauce and toss in a small handful of rough chopped flat leaf parsley. Taste for seasoning. Now the braise is ready to mix with some fresh pasta and maybe a delicious pecorino cheese.
This dish may seem a bit "out there" to some folks, but that's exactly what McConnell wants to do — take people out of their comfort zones and into new (and very delicious) place. He believes in a butcher being and educator, asking that the public that they let their butchers "teach you more about cooking and using the whole animal."