"Liver is the ultimate quick-cooking offal."
Although I've been gnawing on chicken feet for most of my life, my love affair with viscera began in earnest in college. I was the student who, between mouthfuls of potato chips, voiced nitpicky objections to the argument. Due to an unlucky incident involving yours truly and a bowl of tikka masala, my Introduction to Western Philosophy professor instated a no-snacking-policy in the classroom, curry or otherwise. For the rest of the semester, I toiled through the class without the aid of food. This was unfortunate, because the further we moved into Greek philosophy, the hungrier for offal I became.
The ancient Greeks tell all sorts of delectable tales about the liver. Most famously, Prometheus, immortal son of the Titans, thief of fire, is punished by being chained to a rock while eagles devour his liver. The crux of the tale rests on his immortality: Overnight, the liver of our hero regenerates so that he is forced to suffer the same fate for eternity. What most don't read about Prometheus, however, is that he's deceived Zeus once before. As my professor recounted during one especially trying seminar, Prometheus tricks Zeus by placing before him two offerings—the first, a selection of meats placed within the stomach of an ox, and the second, a collection of the ox's bones hidden within layers of glistening fat. The significance of the tale is no longer clear to me, but I do remember that with all the talk of liver, tripe, and fat, I walked out of the seminar ravenous for innards.
Thankfully, we're never more than a few minutes away to a perfectly cooked piece of liver. Tripe may take a long while to stew; liver, on the other hand, is the ultimate quick-cooking offal. Poultry livers are good and well, but there's nothing quite like the flabby, glistening, massive presence of a calf's liver. Sweet and rich, a fresh piece of calf's liver is incomparably delicious, possessing the tenderness of a poultry liver coupled with the more assertive, feral taste that comes with eating a larger animal.
More so than Plato, calf's liver with onions defined my college years - I cooked it for myself before big exams as a stress-buster, after the exams to celebrate, and sometimes in between on rainy days.
One of my favorite calf's liver recipes comes from The River Cottage Meatbook, in which the pan is deglazed with balsamic vinegar after the liver has been seared. A well-aged balsamic pairs nicely, but recently I've been using an aged fig vinegar, a sweeter and much fruitier alternative. Flash-fried leaves of sage accompany the liver and onions, providing a welcome, herbaceous contrast to the heaviness of the dish.
Calf's Liver with Onions
- 2 to 3 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 onion, sliced finely
- 1/4 cup flour, seasoned with 1/2 teaspoon salt and ground pepper, to taste
- 1/2 cup aged vinegar, such as balsamic, apple cider, or fig
- 2 dozen sage leaves
- Additional oil, approximately 4 tablespoons, for frying the sage leaves
Cut the liver into slices 1/3 inch thick. Set aside.
Heat 2 tablespoons of oil in a large, heavy frying pan over low heat. Add the onions and sauté over low heat for 10 or so minutes, until the onions are tender and browned.
Add a little more oil to the pan and turn up the heat to high. Lightly dredge the slices of liver in the flour mixture and lay them in the pan. Cook for 1 to 2 minutes on each side, until the surface is deeply browned and the center is pink. Transfer the cooked slices of liver to 4 warmed plates while you finish the sauce.
Over medium to medium-low heat, deglaze the pan with the aged vinegar, scraping up the crusty bits that will have stuck to the pan. Reduce the vinegar until only two tablespoons are left. Drizzle the vinegar over the liver on the plates.
In a separate pan or wok, heat up a shallow pool of oil and briefly fry the sage leaves until they are crispy and lightly browned, about 10 seconds. Scatter the sage leaves and onions all around the plates of liver. Serve immediately.