Eat Your Organs! Making A Case For Liver

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liver 1Photographed by Andrew B. Myers.
Let’s put aside, for a moment, how terribly traumatized you still are because your mom forced you to eat liver and onions as a kid. And, let’s also just let bygones be bygones and quit it with the “eww-gross-liver” act. We’re all adults here. And, not eating liver is for kids. We are not children. We love healthy ingredients. We're all for interesting flavors. We're not afraid of trying new things. Right?

Now that your liver-loathing slate is hopefully wiped clean, let’s look at liver for what it really is: a delicious and versatile ingredient, at least when it’s prepared correctly. It also happens to be highly nutritious. In addition to being an excellent source of protein, it’s high in vitamins A, D, E, K, and B12, as well as minerals such as copper and iron — higher even than the muscle meat we are used to eating.

But, what about all those toxins?
Let’s set one thing straight. Livers do not store toxins. They neutralize and eliminate them (chemical agents, drugs, poisons). These products get stored in muscle fat, if at all, not the liver.

Ok, fine, but what about that crazy flavor?
The number one thing to remember about eating liver is that it will always have its own unique flavor. It’s not ever going to taste like a boneless, skinless chicken breast. Liver is strong and bold and unapologetic about its place in the world of things that have tastes. Liver has worked pretty hard during its lifetime, and any organ or muscle that works that hard is going to offer a more intense flavor. Organs and muscles that don’t exert much effort during an animal’s lifetime are going to taste much more mild, which is why a pork chop is a blander option than, say, a shoulder roast.

Click through to page two for recipes!
liver 2Photographed by Andrew B. Myers.
There are, however, a few ways to minimize liver’s bold flavor, if you just can’t wrap your mouth around it. Livers are often soaked in milk to get some of the bitterness out. And, no matter what kind of liver you’re attempting to eat, any veins or gristle that run throughout will carry the strongest flavors (not to mention unpleasant textures), so carefully removing these will help.

Also, all livers are not created equal when it comes to taste. The larger and older the animal from whence it came, the stronger a liver is going to taste. Beef liver is going to taste stronger than calf liver, which is stronger than pork liver, which is stronger than chicken, duck, or rabbit liver. In addition, a liver is going to taste very different depending on what the animal or bird ate. I’ve eaten rabbit livers that tasted sweet and I’ve tasted grass-fed beef livers that were rich with a metallic tang. Generally, I’d recommend eating liver from healthy animals and birds that have spent their lives outdoors, moving around on a pasture. If they ate grains at all, preferably those grains were organic. It’s also important to buy fresh liver that’s got a bold hue (be it red or pink or rust or brown) whenever possible.

What about that horrible texture?
That's the cook’s fault, not the liver’s. We've already been over the grizzly bits you'll want to pluck out. Then, think of liver as a medium-rare steak. If lightly browned on both sides and cooked to perfection, it will be downright creamy and soft. Take it over that edge and it becomes gritty, dry, mealy, tough, or any combination of those unappetizing traits. So, skip it if it's literally been cooked to bits.

That said, frying up a liver and eating it whole isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. For an entry-level liver experience, remember that the right sauce can make anything taste good. A Russian friend once fed me seared pork liver drizzled with an oniony, beefy, sour-cream sauce that pretty much blew my mind. I’ve also seen diehard liver naysayers swoon over the chicken-fried chicken livers served with mustardy aioli at Clyde Common restaurant in Portland, Oregon.

So, here's how you do it:
One way I’ve enjoyed whole liver without any sauce is to confit it. Simply salt and pepper the livers, place in a heavy-bottomed Dutch oven, cover with rendered duck fat (or even just olive oil) and cook, uncovered, at 175 to 200 degrees for four hours. The fat keeps the liver moist and gives it a sweet, nutty flavor, and the low temp cooks it just enough.

I enjoy liver most as an accent. A tablespoon of minced liver (be sure to remove the tough veins) adds a pleasant dimension to Bolognese sauce or other ragouts. And, if you’ve never had fresh fettuccine with chicken-liver sauce, make it. Now. Simply brown a half-pound of chicken livers in a little melted butter, making sure to not overcrowd the pan. Throw in some minced shallot, garlic, and thyme, deglaze with a splash of sherry, and then pulse the mixture in a food processor with four tablespoons of semisoft butter. Season with salt and pepper and toss with pasta, chopped chives and basil, and sliced cherry tomatoes. It’s as rich and decadent as pasta gets.

Which brings me to my final campaign message: Liver + Butter = Divinity. Especially when it’s in the form of duck, chicken, or rabbit liver mousse spread on a slice of crusty baguette. If nothing else will convince you to eat liver, this recipe will. The sweetness of caramelized onion and apple combined with the creaminess of butter, the subtle sourness of mascarpone, the smoke and salt of bacon, the complex kick of nutmeg, cinnamon and paprika, and liver’s abstract, bold dimensions all add up to a beautiful transformation. And, by "transformation" I mean a liver mousse that will lift the staunchest of skeptics and even the most open of culinary adventurers to higher levels of consciousness. You can do it. You’re ready for it. It’s time.
liver3Photographed by Andrew B. Myers.
Duck Liver Mousse

No charcuterie plate (or dinner party) is complete without a jar or two of liver mousse. I have tested and culled many liver mousse recipes from many talented chefs over the years. This is what I consider to be the best of all of their approaches, in one definitive recipe. I am partial to duck and rabbit liver for this recipe, but chicken livers will work just fine. There is no need to devein the livers as you will be passing them through a fine-mesh sieve.

Ingredients
1 lb butter, plus 2 tbsp, set out on counter for 30-40 minutes (not fully to room temp, still a little firm/cold)
3 oz diced bacon
1 cup diced onion
1/2 cup diced apple
1/4 tsp white pepper
1/4 tsp thyme
1/4 tsp nutmeg
1/4 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp coriander
1/4 tsp sweet paprika
1 to 2 lbs duck livers depending on the intensity of liver flavor you are going for (chicken or rabbit livers will work, too)
1 shot bourbon (or brandy or whatever brown liquor you have on hand)
1/2 lb mascarpone
Salt to taste

Directions
1. Over medium-high heat, in a sauté pan, cook bacon until just cooked through. Remove to a plate lined with paper towels.

2. In the bacon fat, cook the onion, and apple over medium heat. When the onions turn clear, add the spices. Stir to mix. Remove from heat and let cool to room temperature.

3. Heat a separate pan (cast iron, preferably) to medium-high just until the pan starts to smoke. Add two tablespoons butter and let melt, then cook livers in small enough batches that you don’t overcrowd the pan (the livers should not be touching). The livers should be caramelized on the outside and cooked to a light pink on the inside. Press lightly on the livers with your finger or a pair of tongs to check doneness. (A good comparison: Flex your hand so that all your fingers are stretched out. Press a finger into part of your palm that your thumb runs into. That’s about medium and that’s what you are going for. Let your fingers relax, and press in the same place. That’s rare. Cook the livers a little more if they feel like that). About 15 seconds before they are ready, pour in a drizzle of bourbon or brandy to deglaze the pan and further flavor the livers. Once alcohol has cooked off, place livers on paper towels and let cool to room temperature. Make sure your ingredients are warm but not too hot. If your liver mixture is too hot the mousse won’t emulsify properly.

4. Puree the livers, onions and apple in a food processer with remaining butter and the mascarpone. Don’t overcrowd the processor. You may need to do it in batches. Puree mousse until smooth. Add salt and more spices to taste. Remember that this will be served cold, so the flavor of salt won’t register as much as if it were served warm. It’s best to put a little more salt into the warm mixture than you think you need, but do so a pinch at a time.

5. Strain mousse through a fine-mesh sieve or chinois to get any smaller chunks out. Taste for seasoning one more time. Pour in a crock, jar, or terrine pan. Refrigerate. Serve at room temperature. Serve with slices of baguette and a sweet jelly, jam, or moutarde. Under refrigeration, mousse should last about a week.

Camas Davis, a food writer turned butcher, is interested in one thing: bringing the lost art of home butchery back to American kitchens. Now, as the founder and owner of Portland Meat Collective and the Meat Collective Alliance, she's spearheading a dynamic, local, sustainable approach to buying and eating meat straight to the people. Pretty bad-ass, if you ask us.


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