Liver. Old skewl, as my daughter Roxanne would say, wrinkling her nose and shaking her head, very old skewl. Strange old people food.
Writing about liver’s a challenge. No other common food pairs exquisite flavor with such
dreadful PR. (I said common, so kidneys and brains don’t count.) Do you try to drag chicken liver’s image over to the side of the angels or just plunge right in, acting as though there were no image problem at all? Here’s my compromise: I’ll spare you the riff about Calvin and Hobbes, Hannibal Lector, my childhood trauma with overcooked beef liver and any attempt to declare Liver – the other offal. In return, if your sole experience with chicken livers has been an exhausted, half-eaten paté mold at your New Jersey cousin Phyllis’s wedding or something incinerated with onions at your dotty uncle’s house, you may want to consider that’s not the complete story.
What makes chicken livers so uncommonly tasty are their richness. Beef liver tastes strong, without any compensating richness. Calves liver is tastier, but you have to mess with it a bit – slicing, pounding, maybe coating with egg and hazelnuts. In contrast, chicken livers are fast – and rich. Richness makes it possible for them to dance where other foods can’t lest they get overwhelmed. Chiliheads love chicken livers because even in the painful ecstasy of Scoville unit overload the sane reassurance of the chicken livers flavor is never lost. When people talk about chicken’s ability to go with anything, what they’re often saying is that it’s bland. Chicken livers aren’t bland. No matter what you do to them, you’ll always taste that base note of earthy richness. They balance both acidic and sweet ingredients like balsamic vinegar and fruit compotes. Bacon is an excellent foil for chicken livers, as is just about anything caramelized–onions, shallots, whole garlic cloves.
This week’s recipe covers a spectrum of flavor–sweet, rich, earthy, bitter. Good umami bang for the buck. And here’s the kicker, because they’re rich, you don’t have to eat many of them before you feel satisfied. Old skewl. Before the world was super-sized.
We hate many things as kids (scotch, girls, boys) that we love as adults. Maybe even chicken livers.
Sautéed chicken livers with bacon, pine nuts, currants and chicory salad
Serves 4 as a main course
- 2 thick thick slices of bacon, cut into ¼-inch sticks (about ¼ pound)
- ¼ cup +1 tablespoon cup extra virgin olive oil
- 1 medium red onion, cut into ¼-inch rings
- Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 1 tablespoon thinly sliced garlic
- 1 tablespoon rinsed capers
- 1 pound cleaned chicken livers
- 4 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
- ½ cup toasted pine nuts
- ¼ cup currants soaked in 1 tablespoon warm water and 1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
- 6 ounces bitter greens: chicory, escarole, frisee, radicchio
- ½ cup torn mint leaves
- Heat 1 tablespoon olive oil in a large sauté pan over low heat. Add the bacon and cook until rendered, but not crisp, about 5 minutes. Transfer the bacon to a plate and reserve.
- Increase the heat to medium; add the onions to the pan, season with salt and pepper and cook, stirring occasionally until tender and they begin to caramelized, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and capers cook 3 minutes. Remove from the pan and combine with the bacon.
- Combine the lettuces and mint in a large salad bowl.
- Add 2 tablespoons oil to the pan. Pat the livers dry with a paper towel, season with salt and pepper and sear on each side, 2-3 minutes, or until browned and cooked to medium. Add the bacon mixture, 3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar, the pine nuts, currants and soaking juices to the pan and toss well. Remove from the heat.
- Drizzle the salad with 2 tablespoons olive oil and the remaining tablespoon balsamic vinegar, season with salt and pepper and toss well. Spoon the livers over the salad.
When I was growing up, it was was an unwelcome surprise to peek into the kitchen before dinner and catch sight of a slab of beef liver swimming in “Good Seasonings” salad dressing in a dish on the counter. I knew it was going to be a slog through dinner. My mother was an adventurous cook, but she was also a full time working woman with 3 girls and had a routine of simple affordable recipes for getting dinner on the table by 6:00 every night of the week. The weekends and dinner parties were times of pouffy semolina gnocchi and chocolate pots de crême but our weekday suppers were built on frugality in time and content.
It wasn’t until I was in college and cooking for myself that I started to understand what it meant to produce supper day in and day out on a budget. My roommate Amy and I each had $30 a week for food which did an amazing job of stretching over 7 days. Liver reentered my world, but I chose chicken livers. We cooked them with lots of caramelized onions finished with red wine vinegar – balsamic hadn’t hit the wings, let alone center stage, in my culinary world. I learned to love them.
This salad builds on the simple principle that rich livers marry well with sweet and sour combinations. I’ve also added lots of other big flavors like bacon, capers and mint, which I can get away with because, as any child will tell you, there’s absolutely no masking the bold flavor of liver.