Why Heart Is a Chef’s Favorite Muscle

Ricardo Zarate loves to cook ‘corazon.’ He doesn’t love to tell diners what it is.

Los Angeles-based Peruvian chef Ricardo Zarate is best known for marinating, skewering and grilling beef hearts. In 2011, Food and Wine named Zarate its “Best New Chef,” and he has been nominated three times for the prestigious James Beard award. His original LA restaurants, Mo-Chica and Picca, are still thrilling customers with great selections of well-spiced, Peruvian-style proteins while new ventures like Paiche and Santa Barbara’s Blue Tavern have been met with rave reviews.

To be clear, hearts are unlike other cuts. A heart is all lean muscle and no fat. Its muscle fibers, unlike those found elsewhere in the body, are striated and made of cells that branch and intersect so intricately that they don’t even need nerves to function. That’s why humans are able to get heart transplants.  

Chef Zarate let us in on some tricks for tempting juice-obsessed Angelinos into wolfing down charbroiled cow hearts.

You serve heart-on-a-skewer.

It is my favorite. Not only that, it is also one of the most popular dishes in Peru. This is one of the first dishes I brought over. It’s better than loin. People get scared of the heart, but when I do it, marinated and grilled, it has such a nice texture. It’s really fantastic.

Is the flavor gamey? Or clean?

No, it’s good and mild. It goes well with different marinades. And I’m sure, if you didn’t tell anyone it was heart, they wouldn’t know. They would eat it and love it.

When choosing marinades, what flavors go well with heart?

We use a Caribbean marinade with California chilies, rice-wine vinegar, garlic, cumin, oregano, and a little bit of beer and soy sauce. After, we grill it, then slice it in small pieces. You cannot cook a big chunk of heart. Hearts need to be sliced.

I also do a tartare.

Heart Tartare?

Yeah, I think it’s amazing. It’s a good name. And the flavor is great.

Are there other animals whose hearts you use?

Chicken heart, lamb heart, for sure.

Did you have trouble convincing people in LA, or Americans generally, to eat heart?

I have a little trick. I take advantage of the fact that many people don’t speak Spanish by writing my menus in Spanish. I call heart “corazone” and people go, ‘Ooh, corazone, sounds good.’ They order it, they don’t realize it’s beef heart. That’s what I did in the beginning when I was promoting not just hearts, but other gizzards. Otherwise, it would have been hard. Now, people are more adventurous. In 2011, it was a harder sell.

Did anyone ever react badly to being told they had just swallowed a heart?

In 2011, I was nominated as one of the best new chefs by Food and Wine. They fly 10 chefs from all over America to Aspen to each cook one dish. Each chef is talented, and trying to cook their best dish ever. Lots of molecular gastronomy, chemistry. Me, I wanted to stay closer to my roots. So, I brought beef hearts to the party. I brought them in a cart. People thought I was crazy, but it was very successful. It was a good experience.

So, in your opinion, why should we be eating heart?

We should be eating heart because it’s really nice. It’s a lean muscle, no fat, but still very tasty. And so soft! Also, the second reason is that we have to diversify what we eat. We have to learn to eat more parts of the animal. And it’s fun. It’s more fun to eat heart than a filet mignon.

Photos by Flickr.com