The Best Part of the Chicken
As far as food marketing campaigns go, calling anything “offal” is probably a bad idea.
Most certainly it’s unwise if you’re dealing with a foodstuff like chicken liver, already weak in the reputation department.
So let’s come to the subject of chicken liver with an open mind, and an appetite.
So many people think they don’t like liver! I have never understood why, but the aversion may stem back to childhood experiences of something tough and sinewy, or even something as simple as a mother or father who told you liver was yucky.
I was lucky to be raised by a mother who–although she hated to cook and would certainly never have ventured to cook liver–absolutely adored chicken livers whenever she could get them, and passed her passion on to me. It helped that they were affordable beyond belief, by far the cheapest part of a chicken. It made me feel good to know I was appreciating this under-loved part of the bird.
To this day, at my mother’s annual summer birthday bash, I would never dream of skipping the chicken livers, sautéed slightly in butter and Madeira, then wrapped in bacon, impaled on a skewer, and grilled until the bacon just crisps.
So let’s come to the subject of chicken liver with an open mind, and an appetite.”
Rich flavors, juicy and salty, perfect for a picnic. These little nuggets are perfect served on a bed of red split lentils and feta, too, drizzled with a little olive oil and lemon juice.
Chicken liver pâté is, for me, just about the ultimate treat, and I have bought every brand I have ever found, looking for the perfect blend of iron richness, butter and a hint of liquor. But I was really only perfectly happy when I learned to make my own. I don’t bother covering my pâté with a slick of melted butter, but you certainly can.
One of the simplest and most popular ways you will ever serve chicken livers will be simply sautéed in garlicky butter, with a good handful of mushrooms, on a piece of wonderful sourdough toast. Sprinkle on some chives for color, and you have lunch.
Of course, everyone wants (and even needs) chicken noodle soup. The Italians like the addition of a few rich sautéed chicken livers. The combined soft textures of noodles and livers and the golden elixir of the broth are simply heavenly, and make this quite the most nutritious bowl of soup in the world.
No discussion of chicken liver could possibly be complete without celebrating the Jewish staple, chopped liver.
Some people believe that the silly idiom that is often said in a cartoon Yiddish accent, “What am I, chopped liver?” is actually an American invention, not Jewish at all. I go for this explanation, because no Jewish person would ever undermine chopped liver.
There can be nothing more luxurious than this classic spread, and half the fun of making it is learning about the classic “schmaltz” that forms the basis of the dish.
Your kitchen will never smell so heavenly as it does when you cook down chicken skin and fat very, very slowly, resulting in a pool of glorious, pure, liquid chicken fat and the “gribenes”, the crispy chicken skins, left behind.
My best New York friend Alyssa sent me a recipe for chopped liver, but much more fun than that was a long conversation between us across the Atlantic, ironing out the last few details interspersed with family gossip. Just as we used to say in our old New York days, Jewish cooking cannot be achieved alone. It’s all about the chatting, and the shared love of food.
serves 6-8 as an appetizer
Schmaltz, Gribenes and Chopped Liver
skin and fat from about 10 chicken thighs (or about 8 oz. random chicken skin and fat, saved up or from your butcher)
¼ cup water
1 tbsp butter
1 lb. organic chicken livers, trimmed of all sinew and membranes
1 large white onion, finely minced
3 eggs, hard-boiled
salt and pepper to taste
Place the chicken skin and fat in a frying pan big enough to accommodate them in one layer.
Simmer very low for as long as it takes for the skin to give up all its fat and become crispy, like bacon. This will take at least 90 minutes.
When the skin is crispy, lift it out onto paper towels and reserve. These are called the “gribenes.”
The fat left behind is the “schmaltz.” Liquid gold.
While the skins are simmering, melt the butter in another frying pan and sauté the chicken livers in a single layer, turning as needed until fully cooked.
If you do not have a hand-mincer, chop the livers finely and place in a large bowl.
Chop the hard-boiled eggs finely and add to the livers.
If you do have a hand-mincer, pass the livers and eggs whole through the mincer into a large bowl.
When the gribenes are ready, sauté the minced onion in the schmaltz until they just begin to brown.
Add them and the schmaltz to the livers and eggs and season to taste.
Chill the mixture for at least 3 hours.
Serve with rye bread, and pickles if you like. Garnish with grated hard-boiled egg, if desired.
My friend Alyssa reports that chopped liver is quite wonderful on Ritz crackers too, but rye bread is traditional.
As you begin to cook with chicken livers, do go to the trouble and extra expense (they will still be very cheap) of buying organic.
The reason I say this is because (except for chopped liver) chicken livers are best cooked just slightly underdone, before they go tough, and the only way to do this safely is to buy the very highest quality possible.
It’s exactly the same argument for buying organic eggs, unless you want to cook the death out of them every single time, and miss out on that lovely, runny yolk.
There are many reasons to love chicken liver besides its economy, moral uprightness and rich flavor, though.
Chicken liver contains rich amounts of iron, which you may remember you need for developing your muscles and giving yourself energy. It is simply bursting with folates, which we all know build red blood cells and contribute to the genetic material of all cells, and as such are a necessary ingredient in a healthy pregnancy.
Do not, by the way, listen to any silly advice that pregnant women should not eat chicken liver because it contains so much vitamin A: this mistaken observation confuses real Vitamin A in foods with its synthetic sister in a supplement where it is present in very high amounts. It is simply not possible to eat enough chicken liver to ingest the amount of vitamin A approaching anything near dangerous levels. Vitamin A is crucial for the development of eye health and vision, and chicken liver is an excellent way to get it.
The same wisdom applies to a baby out in the wide world, too. Many intelligent people believe that chicken livers should be among the very first solid foods fed to a baby, cooked thoroughly and grated onto a nice organic poached egg yolk. That combination sounds much more appealing to me than the dull rice cereal I fed my baby.
The enormous nutritional benefits of feeding a baby chicken liver should overcome any last, unfair prejudices you may have had toward this, the very best part of the chicken.
What is your favorite way to prepare chicken liver? Care to share?
Photo credit: Avery Curran
Chris Regan and Ashley Mayne produce a wide array of delicious greens for the Hudson Valley.
With his new book, Forrest Pritchard tells the stories of 18 farms from all across America.
Forrest Pritchard and Smith Meadows are prime examples of sustainable family farming.
Jonathan Waxman shares his food philosophy with Slow Films.
A group of star chefs play with fire for a good cause.