Liver is heritage. It's a cut that our great grandparents had absolutely no problem with, in the days before all American butchery was reduced to a mere dozen cuts of any given animal, unceremoniously bundled in styrofoam and plastic and discounted for 2.99 per pound. It is unctuous, like a rare steak or top grade salmon sashimi. It smells like earth mixed with blood -- life, really, in all its depth and raw-ness.
Here's how Julie Powell, of Julie and Julia fame, describes it in the first chapter of her new book, Cleaving (in which she becomes a artisanal butcher's apprentice, an ideal perch from which to wax poetical about under-appreciated cuts of carcass):
"I now slice off eight pretty burgundy flaps of liver. The cut organ releases a metallic tang into the air, and yet more blood onto the table. Changing knives now, I delicately excise the tight pale ducts that weave through the slices. Perfectly cooked liver should be crisp on the outside with a custardy-smooth center. Nothing tough or chewy should get in the way of that sensual quintessence. Six of these slices are for the gleaming glass and steel case at the front of the shop; the last two I set aside, to wrap up and take home after work for a Valentine's Day dinner tomorrow. Once, I thought the holiday merited boxes of chocolate and glittery cards, but in these last couple of eye-opening years, amid the butchery and wrenches of the heart, I've realized life has gotten too complicated for such sweet and meaningless nothings; I've even learned I'm okay with that." Julie Powell, Cleaving: A Story of Marriage, Meat, and Obsesssion, p.3.
Poetry. What a way to start a book! She then inserts a recipe for Valentine's Day Liver for Two, where she coats the beef liver with flour, and sears it on the rare side in butter, oil, salt, and pepper. That prose inspired my dinner tonight, but instead I used a recipe from Elizabeth Ehrlich's autobiography about acquiring a sense of self by learning to cook with her Holocaust-survivor mother in law. She devotes a whole chapter to learning how to cook liver, of which the sentences below are extracts:
"'Then we can start with the leybern.' Leybern - livers. Lukshn mit leybern: chicken livers with noodles. I am here to learn this, and next Friday, something else. For my husband, and for our children.
I remember my first taste of this dish. Just home from the hospital with Miriam's first grandchild, I found her in my kitchen, warming her pot on my stove and insisting I come to the table. The richness, the oil, the iron, the cholesterol, the onion, the salt overtook my body like an intravenous drug. Miriam beamed. "It's good," she stated. There had never been a dish like this one.
Many women of Miriam's generation and background have moved toward broiled fish or chicken. But Miriam stays with her chopping bowl, soup pot, and frying pan, with the old labor-intensive recipes, the rich and salty ways.
Can I use less oil, I wonder?"
Elizabeth Ehrich, Miriam's Kitchen, p.41-47
Miriam's recipe, which is the one that I made for dinner, is below. My comments are in italics.
Lukshn Mit Leybern. Serves 4.
1 lb chicken livers (I used top quality beef livers, because my butcher didn't have chicken)
1 large onion, diced (I'm tempted to use two next time)
1/4 cup vegetable oil
3/4 Tbs flour
3/4 Tbs sugar (I eliminated this, as unlike Polish Jews I don't fancy sugar in my mains)
1/4 tsp salt
Egg noodles, medium width (I used 1/2lb, could go with less).
Parsley, chopped, for color.
Clean livers. Slice into generous bite-size pieces. Broil gently until done, then drain on toweling to remove all blood (remember, this is a Kosher recipe).
Place onion in medium saucepan and sprinkle [generously] with black pepper. Cook on low heat until onion pieces sweat. [Or until you're so hungry you can't stand it any more.]
Add the oil to cover bottom of pan and onion. Mix. Saute until just golden. Stor in livers. Cook for a few minutes over low heat. Add the flour and sugar and mix together. Cover with hot water and simmer for 10 to 15 minutes over low flame. Add salt to taste. Simmer for a few more minutes. Serve hot on cooked noodles, sprinkle with parsely.
The broth tastes like that from a 6 hour long beef stew - the kind where you make your own beef broth from scratch with bones in order to enrich the broth with marrow. The richness of it all makes it kind of taste like Stroganoff... even though there's clearly no cream in it. I'm half tempted to add just a half teaspoon of mustard to emphasize the similarity. This isn't necessarily Liver at its most shocking - that would be seared, minimalist. But it's simple, honest. Rooted in another era.
And now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to settle down with my bowl full of days gone by and my glass of wine, and enjoy.