Montana Headwall » Grub

Heart of the matter

Off-cuts still deserve to get on the grill

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During hunting season, a friend of mine uses the euphemism “cooking balls” to announce that a male deer or elk has been taken. This is in keeping with his policy, in such instances, of eating the testicles first. When the words “cooking balls” leave my lips, they mean something else entirely. I’m not celebrating an elk down. I’m acknowledging that my freezer is bare.

I make a sincere attempt to harvest all the edible parts of any animal I shoot, both as a show of respect to the creature that died to feed my family and as a matter of good old-fashioned thriftiness. These edible parts include internal organs. But I’m more inclined to cook them last than first.

Organ meat has greater nutritional value than muscle meat, and many organs are considered delicacies. But unlocking their edibility takes a lot more finesse than just slapping a steak on the grill. Thus organs tend to remain untouched in my freezer until all other options have already graced the table.

Montana Headwall. Outdoor adventure under the Big Sky.
  • Cathrine L. Walters

When I do finally get around to cooking my organ meats, I’m usually pleased with the results. So for all you would-be organ harvesters, here’s a rundown of how I handle these under-appreciated parts. In honor of my hunter friend, let’s start with the balls.

Like many organs, testicles come wrapped in a membrane. Be glad they do, because membranes protect organs from dirt, freezer burn and other culinary insults.

In the case of the testicles, there is both an inner membrane and an outer membrane. Remove the outer membrane by carefully piercing it, then ripping it open and pulling it off. The outer membrane comes off easily, clinging only to the area where the testicle connects to the conduits that attach it to the rest of the body. With a knife, carefully remove this point of attachment along with the punctured membrane.

Rather than try to remove the inner membrane, simply pierce it. While cooking—in a preheated oven at 350 for 15 minutes—the inner membrane will shrivel as the flesh inside slowly inflates. Soon, all that’s left of the inner membrane will be a tight mass that can easily be pulled off of the cooked ball. Dress that ball with soy sauce and black pepper, and serve with lots (and lots) of beer.

In many hunting traditions, the heart—not the testicles—is the first thing eaten. One reason the heart is a good organ to eat first is that, unlike other muscles, it doesn’t stiffen with rigor mortis in the hours following the animal’s death. This makes the heart a viable dinner at camp on the same day an animal is taken.

To prepare the heart, remove the outer membrane and flush the interior with water until the exiting water runs clear. Now cut away the valves and artery ends, which are clustered at the top of the heart, and slice the muscle into half-inch steaks. Fry the slices in oil over low heat. When the steaks are done on one side, flip them and add butter, sliced mushrooms, sliced onions and wine to the pan. Continue cooking until the meat is done—there’s no shame in cutting into it to make sure. By the time the meat is done, the mushrooms and onions will be too. (Mushrooms, I should point out, have a special affinity with organ meats. They just go well together.)

Kidneys, well prepared, might be my favorite organ meat. They may not have the tradition of heart, or the mystique of balls, but they have the most pleasing texture of any organ meat I know. Alas, they also have an extremely foul taste that must be dealt with by soaking them in milk.

Remove the kidneys’ membranes and carefully cut away the hard mass on the kidneys’ concave side. Slice each kidney in half longitudinally to yield two thin filets. Rinse the resulting four pieces thoroughly and soak them in milk for three days, changing the milk and rinsing the kidneys in water daily. Cook as you would cook the heart, frying in oil with mushrooms and onions. Add garlic alongside the onions, then stir in a tablespoon of Dijon mustard for each pair of kidneys in the pan. Deglaze with a healthy shot of sherry and season with salt and pepper.

Liver from livestock animals like beef and chicken is the most commonly consumed organ meat, but I’m sorry to say I don’t even take the liver from wild animals home. It’s too gamey, and I haven’t found a way to make it taste good. That’s a shame, because it’s a huge organ.

I guess it just goes to show that it’s not the size of the organ that matters. If it was, nobody would bother with the balls.

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