"Liver & Onions" -- Sautéed Calf's Liver, Vidalia and Red Onion Confit, Onion Rings, and Vinegar Sauce
My mom and I had a conversation on the phone the other day about a particular meal from my childhood that I really, really hated: liver. Not even liver and onions, but liver with other sides I don't remember because I was way too focused on how disgusting and stinky liver was. Oh, I ate other things as a kid that many people would find sort of disgusting -- hogmaw (pig's stomach stuffed with sausage and potatoes) comes to mind -- but I couldn't stand liver of any sort. Chicken livers -- blech. Calf's liver -- vomitorious. Mom said she doesn't remember my hating liver that much, but I know she's blocked it from her memory because I was such a freakin' brat about some things (okay, many things) that she had to purge at least some of these awful childhood culinary peccadilloes of mine from her brain. I know I would have.
I have a very clear memory of a late spring/early summer evening when I was 10 or 11 years old. I was sitting in our family room watching TV, and as the smells began to waft from the kitchen down to where I was, I wondered to myself, "Wow. Who died in our kitchen and how long has the body been rotting there?" Or had the sewer line backed up? Or maybe my brother was suffering from one of his famous Dorito-induced farting spells? As I walked up the stairs from the family room to the ktichen to sit down at the table for dinner, I realized the smell was actually food-related when I saw what was sitting on our plates at the table. Liver. As we talked about our day, I ate whatever the side dishes were, and tried one bite of liver even though I hated it. I wanted to at least get credit for trying it. But I couldn't get past one bite.
I only half participated in the dinnertime conversation because I was too busy disdainfully eyeballing the nasty piece of liver sitting in front of me. My parents asked me to finish my dinner before I was excused (back then, I believe it was the Cambodian children who were starving). I remember the smell and the texture and the thinness of the cut and the eeeewwwwwwwwww, and came up with the brilliant idea of covering it with so much salt and pepper that OF COURSE my parents wouldn't make me finish it. But, as always, they outsmarted me and told me I had to sit at the table until I'd finished my liver. No TV, no reading, no nothing. So, while my brother got to be excused, I just sat at the table until 9 o'clock that night, head in hands, shifting my body weight as the chair grew more and more uncomfortable, and sighing heavily and dramatically every 15 minutes or so. But I was not going to take one more bite, no sir.
Not long after 9 p.m., my mom quietly took the plate away and just gave me a look -- a look that I knew meant I was supposed to keep my mouth shut, go upstairs, and go to bed. I knew I had been a jerk, and probably could've been excused had I tried one more teensy bite instead of killing that poor, disgusting liver even further with fourteen pounds of salt and pepper, but I was trying to make a statement. I was trying to be an activist. I was trying to.... okay, I was being a brat.
So, even though I am really enjoying all the meat preparations in The French Laundry Cookbook, I was not really psyched about making liver. And really, I hope my mom isn't offended by the story above, because my distaste of liver is not her fault and has nothing to do with the way she cooked it. It's all me and my childlike distaste for liver, or anything grey and mealy. Everyone else in my family loooooved liver, and most of my friends today loved liver when they were kids. Not me. Even when my grandparents or aunts and uncles would order liver in a restaurant, it completely ruined my appetite. Bleeaarrghh.... just thinking about it makes me skeeve.
But as I read The FL Cookbook's description of the dish, and learned I'd be cooking a much thicker cut of liver, I became a little less grossed out by the prospect of making this dish. And, there would be lots of onions on the plate that I could bury the liver in so I could excuse myself from the table without feeling guilty, had I not finished it. And, one of the instructions in the recipe was to melt a pat of butter on top of the cooked piece of liver, and how that can be a bad thing? So, with all those caveats in mind, let's dive in...
The first thing I did was make the red wine vinegar sauce. Here's the mise en place:
I heated the canola oil in my Le Creuset pot over medium high heat, and then added the mushrooms, carrots and shallots, and cooked them, while stirring them around, for about 2 minutes:
I added the parsley and thyme, and cooked this combo for another 2 minutes:
After the 2-3 minutes of cooking, the vegetables began to caramelize, and I added a cup of red wine vinegar and let is simmer for about 30 minutes, until the liquid had almost entirely evaporated:
One of the things I've really learned as part of cooking every dish in The French Laundry Cookbook is how the smell of food changes in increments as it cooks. Because I am fascinated by this (clearly I need a more robust social life), I often will lean over a pot and take a big whiff -- and when I did it at this point in the process, I had a giant hacking coughing attack because vinegar can do that to a person. Holy crap.
Once the pan had become nearly dry, I added four cups of heated veal stock to the pot:
I simmered this sauce until it had reduced to about a cup of liquid.
I then strained it twice (you could probably do it once; I felt like doing it twice because it looked like it needed it) and set it aside in a smaller saucepan (off the heat) while I got to work on the other elements of the dish.
Next up, was the onion confit. I used red onion and a sweet yellow onion. Couldn't find Vidalias anywhere -- I imagine we'll get them in the stores in a month or so. In the meantime, here they are:
I peeled and sliced them somewhat thin, but not too thin, and preheated the oven to 300 degrees. I placed the yellow onions in one pan and the red onions in another. I covered both with cold water, brought it to a boil, drained, rinsed under cold water, and did it all over again. Blanching the onions in this manner sweetens the onions and helps remove excess acid.
After the second blanching, I put the onions onto separate dishtowels, squeezed them dry, then returned them to their separate pans. I then added a little butter and salt to each batch of onions, let it melt on the stovetop, covered each pan with a parchment lid, then put both pans of onions in the oven at 300 degrees for an hour:
When they were done, I stirred in a little honey and white pepper into the yellow onions, and set both pans aside (without burning the palms of my hands again) until it was time to plate the dish.
While those onions were in the oven becoming all glazed and creamy, I worked on the wee little pearl onions:
I placed the onions into separate small saucepans, added water, sugar and butter to each, and simmered them for about 20 minutes.
When they were done, the water had evaporated and the pearl onions were tender, but not browned. You'll see the onions in the final plating photo.
The last onion preparation I did was to make tempura onion rings. Anytime I see the word tempura anywhere, I give a little >snerk< because for about three years, the Asian grocery store near my house had a huge sign in one of the aisles advertising "Tempura Butt Mix" instead of Tempura Batter Mix. I know, I'm 9, but I don't care. It's FUNNY. Tempura butt mix. Klassy. And, did I notify the manager of the typo? No, I did not. This is the same Asian market that regularly advertises "Crap Meat" instead of crab meat, so there you go.
Aaaaaanyway, I'd never done tempura anything at home, even though I enjoy ordering it when I'm out to dinner. So, this was a treat to be able to do. Sort of. I think I screwed up the batter a bit because it got clingy and clumpy and didn't really coat the onions like I thought it would. But I'm getting ahead of myself. Let's back up a bit.
I sliced some of the sweet yellow onions into fairly wide, but not obnoxious slices (about a half-inch each), and made the dry part of the tempura batter according to the recipe in the book -- cornstarch, cake flour, baking soda and salt:
Looks a little tan, doesn't it? Yeah, I didn't realize I'd bought wholewheat instead of regular white cake flour until after I'd already mixed the ingredients and noticed the taupey-beige hue. Oh well. I scooped out some of the dry mix into a smaller bowl, added some sparkling water (3 parts dry mix to 2 parts sparkling water) and then began dunking the onions and adding them to the pot of hot oil I already had going on the stovetop. They only needed to cook for about 2-3 minutes until they'd turned golden brown, it's just that the batter didn't really coat the onions. It merely just kind of globbed on there. They didn't look bad, but they didn't look like what I expected, either:
Kinda looks like the Staff Meal at Bennigan's, doesn't it?
The last step was to prepare the liver:
You'd think with me and all my texture issues that this slab o' organ would gross me out. It didn't. I sliced that gorgeous liver into six pieces -- each an inch thick and about 3 ounces per person. I lightly dusted them in flour, salt and pepper, and then cooked them in a little bit of oil, making sure to sear all sides of the pieces, and cooking it until it felt like a steak does when it's cooked to medium. I removed the liver from the pan, and put them on a paper towel-covered plate, then put little pats of butter on top of each piece, so it could melt down over the liver. That was a thing of beauty, indeed, and I was too wrapped up in the butterliciousness to photograph it. Sorry.
To plate, I spooned some of the warmed-up sauce onto the dish first. I then added a little bit of each of the red and yellow onion confit and topped that with a piece of liver. I cut some fresh chives on top, and added the onion rings on top and the pearl onions on the side. Wanna see?
The liver and onions from my childhood was nothing like this. Back then, and even in most restaurants and diners today, liver is sliced way too thin, looks like a piece of wet cardboard that has sat in raw sewage, and doesn't taste or smell much better. Doing a thicker cut is the way to go. The smell is barely noticeable and it's meatier and allows for some nice crusty brownness on the outside. I loved it, and would actually make liver again this way. Not sure I'd do all the onion preparations, but adding the honey and white pepper to the yellow onions for that creamy confit was really wonderful. I'd do that again, for sure.
This dish got a big thumbs up from everyone around the table. The kids loved the onions, and didn't gag over the liver. And, it didn't stink up the house, like I thought it would.
This was a homerun and a half -- really delicious and quite easy to do. You just have to ask a butcher to give you the thicker cut of meat, instead of buying it already sliced. I found a new butcher in doing this dish, and he was awesome about getting me what I needed. If you have The French Laundry Cookbook and want to try this at home, I'd suggest doing the sauce, the liver, and the onion confit (in the oven). You could get away with not having the onion rings or pearl onions and the dish would be just as good.
Although, I wonder if this guy cared at all about the onions. This looks like a face that says "pur-leez gimme some a dat livvvurrr":
I'm such a sucker. I saved a piece for him and he gulped it down without even tasting it.
Up Next: Pineapple Chop -- Oven-Roasted Maui Pineapple with Fried Pastry Cream and Whipped Crème Fraîche
Calf's Liver from Max's Kosher Butcher (University Blvd. in Wheaton, MD)
Produce and herbs from Whole Foods
Sourwood honey from my friend, Ann
Music to Cook By: Chromeo; She's In Control (sorry for the MySpace link; I know you're not 14). They do their own version of "Tenderoni" that is quite boppy and I love it. I also love the song "Mercury Tears," except that when I listen to it, it reminds me that my cousins and I used to PLAY with MERCURY in my uncle's dental office (which was connected to my grandmother's house) when we'd have holiday gatherings or Sunday dinners... and then when I think about all those times we played with mercury -- poking it on the countertop until it exploded into hundreds of little mercury balls we'd push back together into one big drop again -- I am quite confident and rather depressed that I shall one day sprout an arm out of my back, or some other hideous disfiguring illness. But please, don't mind me and my potential third arm -- enjoy Chromeo!
Read my previous post: Roasted Sweetbreads with Applewood-smoked Bacon, Braised Belgian Endive and Black Truffle Sauce