Make Offal Great Again!

Any fool can whip up a jar or two of chicken liver pâté. Growing up, it was a staple around the house, usually taken with a glass of sherry on Sundays after Mass, and from the age of ten or so, I was allowed a sip, just enough to wet my lips, enough to feel how it was to be a grown up.The combination of dry sherry with chicken liver pâté, taken on an empty stomach, after Mass or not, still sits in my inside pocket pleasure bank of memories, and still, to this day, generates interest and groovy salivations. In fact it’s one of the most pleasant memories I have of being a kid, along with the mischievous pleasure of stealing cigarettes from Sunday visitors, as my parents were strict non-smokers. Mother thought it a fearful habit.

But she was fearless whenever she approached an organ meat. Beef tongue was often around, always a slippery conversation piece, sliced and served cold, as were lamb’s kidneys, on toast, or in a pie teamed with beef, and calf’s liver dredged in flour and fried in bacon fat beneath mounds of onions simmered in butter, cut into thin rings, and sometimes tripe, which she objected to, because of the smell, but she did it for my father, who has always had a appreciation for it, and still cooks it for himself today, smell be damned. And there was often a steaming pot of reeking lungs with potato skins simmering on the Aga, sustenance for the dogs. Of course, folks these days tend to be queasy about eating organ meats, objecting to the smell, the look, the texture, the mouth feel, the whatever. My generation, and the decade before, those born right after world war two, was perhaps the first to achieve the dubious ability, through a combination of economic advancement, aggressive pressure and persuasive techniques from the ad men in the employ of beef industry giants, to wantonly discard certain cuts of the animal deemed — over the span of a couple of decades — too offensive to eat and too unprofitable to sell. That meant pretty much everything outside of the muscle sector, excepting hot dogs, and, of course, dog food which, if you study the ingredients, can be of better quality than most hot dog brands.

It was a sophisticated assault carried out over time by corporate food interests, to re-educate, to borrow a phrase — to dumb down our tastes, and thereby persuade us to buy what they wanted to sell: more expensive and profitable cuts of the animal. Throw the offal, often the most nutritious parts, to the dogs, hot or not.

Yet, resisters there are. Subcultures within the food world hold offal in high regard. Activists are out there, reviving lost recipes, returning lost dignities and changing public opinion. Of particular note are the teachings of British chef Fergus Henderson who has done more than anyone I know to refresh people’s memories and introduce younger palates to the delights — gustatory, ethical and political, of eating the whole animal.

In a world where most of us feel powerless to change anything, where all we can do is absorb a daily onslaught of information and feel helpless to respond, the simple act of sitting down and eating a homemade meal made from fresh, local ingredients is a political and economic statement, with a small but direct effect on the planet, and on the bottom line of the super-sized food corporations that feed us with maximum profit and minimal nourishment in mind.

As an entry-level organ meat, a pâté made from the modest chicken liver is as easy and as mild as it gets, especially if you add a little cream, a little booze and lots of butter.And if you like chicken, as most people since the dinosaurs do, I advise forget the spare parts and buy the whole bird, that way you’ll get the darling little organs neatly packed in a bag, and stored for safe keeping in the damp darkness of the main cavity. Then as you purchase and eat your chickens, you can save and freeze the livers until you have enough to make pâté, or, if you’re not into bird roasting you can buy livers from your local butcher or market.

Eat the pâté on thinly sliced baguette or crackers, buttered or not. Top it with a little French mustard and a slither of cornichon.  Try it with a thinly cut slice of prune on top, or cut a Turkish fig in half and fill ‘er up with pâté.

I inherited this recipe, along with a penchant for a glass or two of dry sherry, from my mother, and both have been house staples, on and off, since I was ten.

4 oz butter (100 g)

a large shallot, peeled and finely diced, weighing perhaps 2 oz (50 gr)

a bunch of saved, thawed, and chopped in half chicken livers, strained of excess fluids. This bunch weighed in at 10 oz.(275 g)

1/4 cup (mL) of booze, brandy, cognac, port, sherry, madeira, I used Irish whiskey once and it was fine too.

a splash of cream, about 3 tablespoons

a pinch of fresh thyme, like a teaspoon full

a generous grating of fresh nutmeg

salt to taste and a few twists of black pepper.

Simmer the shallots in half the butter until soft, not browned. Dump in the livers, toss them around with a spatula for half a minute or so and add the booze. Let it bubble a bit to cook off the alcohol, maybe 10 sec? The livers like to remain slightly on the pink side.  Add the cream, thyme, nutmeg, salt and pepper. Transfer to a blender, wasting nothing, add the remaining butter, cut up a little, and blend to a creamy consistency. If it seems too thick, dump in some more cream, and adjust to perfection next time you make it. It should be thickish but pourable, it will firm up in the fridge. If it doesn’t add more butter next time.

Grab few of those small mason jars, put in the pâté and top it with melted butter. Store in the fridge. It makes a great sandwich too. Smear a load on both sides of a stripped open baguette, add sliced cornichon, mustard and radicchio leaves. Yummy!

12 thoughts on “Make Offal Great Again!

  1. I’m in Ireland right now and the meat seems especially fresh and delicious so I’m sure the parts are too. I have always loved chicken livers. My sister and I made my Dad a delicious kidney and steak pie years ago and when I lived in southern Colorado and an animal was butchered I developed a love for pancreas, brains and eggs, you name it! So anyway, I like my meat fresh and organic and adore chicken livers but haven’t been able to find a carton of livers in Denver which is organic. Do you know anywhere??

    1. Hope you’re enjoying Ireland Claudia. Western daughters butcher shop on Tejon street has livers. Also some of the Vit cots have tubs of organic livers in their freezers. Not Cap hill or downtown though.

  2. Nice work (as usual). Now I’m headed out the door for some chicken livers and sherry. Tanya has a Russo version with cognac, bacon and onions that’s not bad, either. Thanks for the inspiration.

  3. About ten years ago, sitting in a Jewish Deli, there were probably eight of us, six Jews and 2 Christians, the Christians were eating the chopped liver, me being one. We both looked up and said this tastes different, vinegar after taste, the six raised their voices and yelled don’t eat it, it’s going bad. But what I ate was chicken livers, schmaltz and onions and my mouth still waters thinking about it. I would like it right now. Who cares about my cholesterol. Never have had pate

    1. Hi Sally! I think it’s hi-time time you made some, don’t you? It actually will lower your cholesterol—a little known fact— don’t believe what they tell you!

  4. When I was a young, careless artiste/musician in NYC in 1967, or thereabouts, I had a tendency to become obsessed with a particular food (still do), and to eat little else for weeks at a time. A chicken liver paté was unavailable in any form but chopped chicken livers, with schmaltz and onion, provided in a cardboard carton at a deli on 2nd Avenue and eaten with a plastic spoon on my way to the club on St. Mark’s place filled the void. For two months. Every day. I, too, was introduced to the miracle of sherry at about age 10 – by my grandmother Minnie. Now, it’s paté campagne and a sip. The next time I indulge, I hoist a toast to you, Hugh. Excellent article, as always.

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