Thursday, February 21, 2013

Liver: Love It or Hate It

When browsing through my mother's cookbook recently, I was reminded of many dishes she had made when my sisters and I were children.  It's not always a favourite recipe that stands out in my mother's cookbook, but one that perhaps we didn't like at all.  One of those was liver.  Another was rice pudding.  Mom loved the latter, so she made it occasionally.  In those days we always had our main meal at midday as many Germans still do today.  When arriving home from school at noon, before I even closed the door behind me, I would call out:  "Mom, I'm home!  What's for dessert?"  (My then favourite part of dinner!)  No answer.  I knew that meant rice!  Her rice was creamy with raisins in it.  Likely she thought the raisins would change my mind.  They never did!  I have never made rice pudding and I never will.  I do like cooked rice as part of a main course though.

At school in Junior High in Dartmouth, N.S., we had what was then called Domestic Science.  I didn't like the sewing (although I made many of my own clothes years later) and I didn't like the cooking (that changed later as well).  We made such things in our class as porridge and mashed potatoes, both of which we had to eat afterwards.  Perhaps that is why I always hated rolled-oat porridge!  When I did have to eat it, I loaded it with brown sugar.  I do love mashed potatoes today, but with butter, salt and pepper, a little garlic and a good sauce or gravy to go with them.  I can't remember any dishes that I liked that we made in our class, although I am sure there were a few.  The ones I didn't like stand out.

As a child, I hated liver.  I can still see the liver on a platter on our dining room table in Charlottetown, P.E.I.  Mom didn't make it often, but as Dad loved it, she made it for him.  Of course, she would tell us it was good for us as it had lots of iron.

Left: Liver in a red wine sauce served with Bratkartoffeln in zur Bure-Stube south of Freiburg.

My sister Carol--who lives in New Hampshire--and I talked about this on the phone this past week.  She told me she also hated liver and still does.  As a child, when Mom served it, Carol would hide pieces of it inside chunks of her boiled potatoes so that she could then manage to eat it.  I had forgotten what kind of potatoes we had with that meal, but I can see that they would have been a foil for the liver.

I also talked to my two other sisters on the phone.  Paula--in Nova Scotia--told me that when she spent several months in London, England at age 19, she ate liver every day for a month because it was fresh, cheap and it helped her lose weight!  She hasn't eaten liver since she added.  No wonder!  At that age, I would have starved first, I think.  Anne--in Toronto--said she always hated liver (still does) and had never eaten it at home.  She was the youngest of us sisters, so I guess by that time Mom had given up.

One memory has stayed with me all these years.  As I came into the house one night, a wonderful aroma floated through to the door.  Steak, I thought!  That was during the 1940s when we rarely had steak.  Mom never said a word.  Liver!!  Just the grainy feel was enough to turn me off and what a time I'd have eating it.  I can't remember how I managed to do so, although I suspect some found its way into a handkerchief under the table.   Strange to think about that now as I did learn to love liver years later (I always loved steak!).  Today, I like liver in all its forms, including how Mom made hers with fried onions (something I also didn't like then, but love today).  It might have been the aroma from the onions that greeted me at the door as I loved the smell of them even then.  I seldom have liver these days, but when I do, I enjoy it.  I always think of my mother when eating it.  Her recipe wasn't in her book as she didn't need one.  Our father loved liver and onions so that is what she cooked.

The liver dish in the picture just below I made this week. 

The simple recipe that follows changed my mind about liver.  This recipe was from Madame Benoit--one of my favourite food writers--printed in The Canadian Magazine in the late 1960s. It was the first time I had ever cooked liver. And I liked it!  Some of Mme Benoit's do's and do not's about liver:  (1) Overcooking liver toughens it.  (2) To have tender liver without a strong taste, cover the liver slices with milk and refrigerate them for 12 hours before cooking; this was also mentioned by a German chef.  (3) Don't wash or scald liver as it will destroy the vitamins and minerals.  (4) The foremost rule, she said, is to cook liver briefly, over fast heat when thinly sliced.  Cook it just enough to heat it through and to change its colour.  From a German chef:  Never salt liver until it is cooked as that will toughen it.  The same goes for steak.  None of the recipes following had salt on the liver itself; the salt was added to the sauce or liquid and poured over the cooked liver.

Mme Benoit's Pan Fried Liver - Makes 4 servings
Can you believe that this was one of a child's favourite meals?  My son, although always a bit leery at first when presented with something new, loved liver.  So did his father.  My daughter, who was an adventuresome eater even as a child, never liked it.  I certainly understood that. 

1 to 1-1/2 lbs liver, sliced very thinly (each piece is served whole, not sliced again)
3 tablespoons butter or more (no substitute)
Juice of 1/2 to 1 lemon
3 tablespoons fresh parsley, minced (don't skimp)
1/4 teaspoon seasoned pepper or to taste
Salt to taste
3 tablespoons cold water

Heat the butter in a cast iron frying pan--this is important--until very hot and light brown in colour.  Mix the lemon juice, parsley, pepper, salt and cold water in a small bowl.  Set aside.  Warm a platter.

Roll the sliced liver lightly in the flour.  (I do that in a bag.)  Shake it well.  I then lift the liver out and put it into a strainer and shake it.  (This is fast and easy.)  As soon as the butter is ready, raise the heat as high as you can, then quickly put the liver into the butter, one piece next to another; do not crowd too much.  When the last piece is placed in the pan, start turning the first pieces.  Let fry, always over high heat, for half a minute.  Remove from the heat and place the liver on the warm platter.  When there is more to cook, repeat the operation.  Liver should not be cooked too long.  If the liver isn't sliced thinly, you will have to cook it a bit longer, but do not overcook it.  Liver should be cooked quickly and at a high heat.

As soon as all the liver is cooked and removed from the pan, pour the lemon juice mixture into the pan and stir it quickly with a wooden spoon for about 30 seonds or so, scraping the bits from the bottom of the pan.  Pour over the liver and serve.

Below:  Marge's Liver and Wine with Bacon

For those who love liver, you might like it served the following way.  I received this recipe from Marge, whom I met for the first time while playing bridge one night at the Officer's Mess in Moose Jaw, Sask.  We happened to be at the same table.  As was always the case in the military, we each asked how long the other had been in Moose Jaw, where we had been on our last posting and, then, where had we been born.  When she said she was from Charlottetown, I, of course, said that I was as well.  Then the next question to me:  "What was your maiden name?"  "Cameron," I answered.  Marge then said, "I think we are cousins!"  It turned out that my grandfather and her grandmother were brother and sister.  I had gone to her grandmother's a few times with my grandfather, but we children didn't know that family well.  Marge and I had never met, even though we had lived only ten to fifteen minutes away from each other.

My Cousin Marge's Liver and Wine - 8 servings (enough for 4 to 8 people)
I used liver that Hans sliced into bite-sized pieces (see picture below left).  The recipe calls for whole slices.  I halved the recipe, although I used more bacon, diced onion and more herbs.

4 tablespoons butter (I used more than called for)
8 slices calf or beef liver; I used beef
8 slices lean bacon, cooked until crisp (do that ahead and keep warm)
1 tablespoon diced onion (I used more)
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1/2 cup dry white wine (I used a white wine with a pleasant flavour; Riesling is one)

3 tablespoons mixed fresh herbs:  flat parsley, chives, thyme, chervil or 1 Tbsp mixed dried parsley and chives and 1 teaspoon mixed dried thyme and chervil (I didn't have any chervil, so I added dried marjoram.  The rest of my spices were fresh ones.)

1/2 teaspoon salt or to taste
Freshly ground pepper (I used seasoned pepper)

Heat 2 tablespoons butter or more in a heavy iron fry pan. Brown the liver quickly on both sides and when cooked, place on a warm platter.  Keep the platter in a warm oven, but not a hot one.

Melt the remaining 2 tablespoons butter or more in the same pan.  Saute the onions 2 or 3 minutes.  Add the lemon juice, wine and herbs.  Stir quickly with a wooden spoon, scraping up the bits left from the liver.  Add the salt and pepper.  Heat quickly to boiling.  Remove from the heat and pour over the liver on the platter.  Garnish with the still warm crisp bacon.  Serve at once.  NoteAs in all the liver recipes, the salt should not be added until you are finished cooking the liver.

 The picture below shows the liver served at the Gasthaus Bruckerhof outside Lahr.
The Bruckerhof's liver has cream added to the sauce.  Served with it are Bratkartoffeln and Süsse Rubin (a type of turnip).  Hans says he would also add some cream or, perhaps, some sour cream.  Some recipes call for broth.  Liver is served in many Gasthäuser here in Germany and all will be somewhat different.

The following two recipes I made this week as well.  Both are fast to prepare and to cook.  In fact, I think liver is likely one of the quickest of all meals to make.  I can hardly believe that a person who hated liver actually cooked so much of it in one day!  (We shall be eating it for a while as much of it is in the freezer.  It does freeze well.)

Anna-Lisa, who is 86, gave me the following recipe when a group of us met at the Gasthaus Deutscher Hof.  She owned and ran the Gasthaus Grünen Baum a number of years ago in Seelbach, a town near Lahr.  This was one of the dishes she served.  I wrote it down as she gave me the ingredients.  She gave no amounts, other than for the liver and onions.  Liver lovers might like to try it using their own amounts as I did.  Anna-Lisa adds red wine to her sauce.  Her liver in the picture below.

Anna-Lisa's Saure Leber mit Zwiebeln
1 lb pork, veal or beef liver (thinly sliced and in bite-sized pieces; I used beef liver)
1 onion, sliced
Red wine (a wine that you would like to drink)
Vinegar (I used red wine vinegar)
Cinnamon (I didn't use any)
Cloves (I added a little, but only a shake or two)
Salt and pepper to taste (I used seasoned pepper)

Saute the liver in lots of butter in a hot fry pan, but not for too long.  Remove liver to a warm platter and keep warm.  Saute the onions in the same pan in more butter.  (I wiped out the bacon fat but didn't wash the pan.)  Add a Sluice (her word) of red wine (a splash), but not too much.  I used a couple splashes!  Add a little red wine vinegar (I guessed, so a splash), cinnamon if using, cloves, salt and pepper (not too much pepper, she said).  Stir, heating it well, until hot.  Pour over the liver and serve.  The cinnamon and cloves are a little unusual, I think.  This is a simple dish and it was very good.

Lastly, I made our friend Monika's liver recipe.  It is also simple and quick to do.  Her liver recipe is in the forefront of the picture below.

Monika's Saure Leber und Zwiebeln
1 lb liver (I used beef liver)
1 onion, peeled and sliced
100 mL red wine vinegar (about 1/3 cup or so)
200 mL water (about 3/4 cup)*
Salt and pepper (again, I used seasoned pepper)
Maggi or Knorr (to taste); I used a little Maggi at the end in the sauce

*I think a little red wine instead of all water would also be very nice.

She gave no method, but do it similarly as above.  Remove the liver as soon as it is brown on both sides.  Keep warm.  Saute the onions and then add the remaining ingredients.  Stir and heat it well.  Pour over the liver and serve immediately.

In our area here in Germany Bratkartoffeln (pan-fried potatoes) are usually served with Saure Leber.  That is what we had last night with ours.  Cook the potatoes whole in their skins.  We peel them while hot.  Leave them whole, cover well and set aside.  This can be done early in the day.  When ready to pan fry them, cut them into slices or cubes and saute them in butter in a pan with some onions.  Season them well with salt and pepper.  A mixed green salad goes well with the liver and Bratkartoffeln.  I also like sliced tomatoes with the meal.  To accompany dinner, a red wine is recommended.

A memorable supper as a child:  One night in winter, after skating on an outdoor rink in Brighton in Charlottetown, I came home cold and rosy-cheeked.  I was starving!  I have never forgotten walking into the house through the back porch and into the kitchen and the heavenly aroma that turned out to be steak!  (Not liver!!)  Nor have I forgotten the feeling around the table that evening.  Perhaps it was the lovely afternoon outside in the cold air or perhaps it was the cosy warm dining room where we all sat down to eat.  Mostly, though, it was likely that steak and French fries that my mother made that night, two things we seldom had.  I can still see myself and my family at the table that evening so many years ago.

Two steaks we have had this past year:  Left, at the Bruckerhof, steak with a cream and peppercorn sauce; on the right, at the Krone in Mussbach, steak filet with a red wine sauce.  I still like steak best!  But liver, from time to time, is also enjoyable.


Food is one of the things that binds a family together, not because it is always something we like to eat, but because we are enjoying our time together.  That is when a family shares tales of the day along with the food on the table.  Of course, certain dishes become our favourites and those we take along in life with us:  the memories, the tastes and the atmosphere.  We also take along the memory of food we did not like--such as that liver and rice!--as those dishes also add to our repertoire of memories of past long-ago family dinners.
Below, from left to right:  Mom, Paula, Dad, Anne, Carol and I, Circa 1950

My mother's recipes and those of others from that earlier generation not only keep those eras alive in our memories, but by making the recipes ourselves we continue the customs through the years for our children and grandchildren.

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