Long before Fergus Henderson and the like made “Nose to Tail” dining fashionable for this generation of foodies, thrifty folks were eating liver and other organ meats like kidneys and lamb sweetbreads, the latter being the somewhat euphemistic name given to the thymus and pancreas. Liver in particular has a hold on our culinary imagination, as beef or calf’s liver appears on diner menus throughout North America, and most households that participate in an omnivorous diet will have liver every now and then, whether or not it is particularly esteemed.
Chefs, cooks and home economists have touted the health benefits of liver for eons; a three-ounce serving of liver has over 30% of the RDA of iron for women and 70% of the RDA for men, and has 50% of the RDA of vitamins B-6 and B-12, and a whopping 700% of the RDA of Vitamin A. The down side is it is high in cholesterol, so it’s not something you want to have every day. And liver does have a taste that is, well it could be described as an acquired taste, so you probably wouldn’t want to have it more than once a week anyway.
With beef or calf’s liver, a famously inexpensive meat, a little goes a long way. Its unique taste is quite strong, with calf liver being a little milder than beef liver, a little like wild game, a combination of bitter and sweet, so when preparing it, it’s a good idea to remove any membranes surrounding it before slicing it quite thin. Some people recommend soaking the liver in milk for half an hour to remove any impurities or some of the slightly metallic “iron” taste. I’ve tried this and have not noticed any difference. When slicing, a centimeter thick is good, and this will cook quite quickly too; overcooking is the death of liver. Many cooks disguise the flavour of liver by cooking it with other strong tasting foods like onions, which when caramelized become quite sweet and “mask” the liver flavour, or bacon, because, well, bacon. This is kind of a shame; most acquired tastes- a good cigar, port, wine or stinky cheese are worth it. But liver, if prepared correctly, can still be a favourite with the less sophisticated palate, can still wow the kiddies.
Some time ago I worked at a Toronto restaurant that served calf’s liver fried quickly and served with a quick balsamic reduction; the liver was removed and the pan deglazed with balsamic vinegar, then a little butter mixed in. This sauce was then poured over the liver. This will make a liver lover out of everyone; beef liver is very lean, just over 4 g of fat per 100g serving, so the butter added to the sauce gives it a nice smooth feel and the balsamic is both sweet and acidic, a nice compliment to the somewhat bitter astringency of the meat.
The biggest mistakes a cook can make is to overlook removing any membrane, which will tighten and toughen up things as it cooks, or to overcook the liver; it will become tough and unpleasant. But sliced thin, dredged in a little flour and quickly pan-fried to a medium rare, still pink in the middle, it has a sophisticated, delicious “grown-up” flavour profile and is soft in the mouth, tender and succulent.
Anthony Bourdain’s new cookbook, Appetites features a recipe for Fegato Alla Veneziana, a dish from Venice that features liver prepared as above but served with caramelized onions and a lemon juice and butter sauce. Here’s our take on his recipe wherein we replaced the onions with sausage!
Fried Calf’s Liver with Lemon
1 lb calf or beef liver
½ cup flour
½ teaspoon each salt and pepper
4 tablespoons olive oil
juice of 1 lemon
2 tablespoons butter
Remove any membrane from the liver and slice into pieces approximately 1 cm thick. Season the flour with salt and pepper and dredge the liver pieces in the flour. Heat a little olive oil in a frying pan to medium high and gently place some of the liver in the pan, cooking for 1-2 minutes per side. Remove from heat and set aside. Repeat with the rest of the liver. Lower heat to medium and deglaze the pan with the lemon juice. Stir in butter. Pour sauce over liver and serve.