Liver is one of those proteins that are often overlooked or flat-out rejected, either because, not being a prime cut of meat, they are deemed gross or because their consumption reminds people of leaner, harder times when nothing could be wasted. This really is a shame. Yes, it is cheaper than prime cuts of meat and yes, its texture can be surprising, but these aren’t bad things! It will never be a cut of steak, but if you embrace it for what it is, liver is a nutritious, economical, and, most of all, tasty dish that takes almost no cook-time to prepare. So, this is a public service announcement to rethink your prejudices against the humble but delectable organ.
When I think of how liver is perceived in our culture, I can’t help but remember a specific episode of the old Nickelodeon cartoon Doug, whose protagonist was haunted by the stink and sight of liver and onions. He imagined himself a knight who must conquer a particularly grisly foe. In the end, Doug vanquishes his own fear and tries it, finding—much to his surprise—that he likes it. However, his long-standing aversion and the combative imagery the cartoon employs to convey it speaks to a much larger cultural issue with the food, particularly in younger generations. I myself didn’t really have it as a kid, probably because my mother had my sister and I try it and we disliked it. The first time I myself bought chicken livers in the store, it was to use as bait for fishing with my then-boyfriend; I never even considered that it might be used for anything else, at the time.
The ironic thing is that fois gras, the delicacy that is fatty goose liver, is considered elevated—a luxury. My fiancé and I just tried foie gras for the first time at our anniversary dinner at the Michelin-rated Gabriel Kreuther. We felt very posh. Immaculately dressed waiters presented it to us and lowered it onto the table with flourish, and it was both plated and consumed with the highest degree of reverence. Meanwhile, most Americans would cringe if I set down a plate of liver and onions in front of them. The French name lends foie gras an international mystique in addition to verbally obscuring the fact that we’re eating offal: as Anthony Bourdain observed, “Saying ‘foie gras’ makes your mouth open in awe, rather than the horizontal gnashings of ‘fatty liver.'”
While its fair to say that fois gras is, due to how it’s cultivated, an elevation of regular liver, it’s also true that the difference between fois gras and, say, chicken liver is a matter of “taste,” in the sense that the foods carry cultural and socio-economic, sometimes even political, associations that fluctuate over time. It isn’t simply the liver of a goose, but that of a goose which has been force-fed so as to fatten the organ and in doing so achieve a rich, buttery taste. Cruel, but also an intensive process that enhances the natural flavors of the liver. It also makes it vastly more expensive. It’s elite status as a delicacy, in large part, rests on the fact that eating it signals that the consumer has the means to pay for it. Meanwhile, regular liver is just…offal. Trash food. A poor man’s food.
It wasn’t always this way. Eating offal has for most of human history been a natural part of food cultures—in hunter-gatherer societies, Paleolithic as well as contemporary (such as the Inuit), hunters would scarf down the liver and other offal themselves precisely because it was more nutritious and flavorful than the muscle meat, which would then be distributed to the rest of the community. It is a very recent development—as in, 19th century—that prime cuts of meat have become inexpensive enough for most families to stop using every part of the animal. And hopefully, as offal finds its way back to Western tables, we’ll begin to see a steady turn-around in the perception of organ meats like liver.
To that end, here is a recipe for chicken liver, eggplant, and chickpeas spiced with Georgian aromatics like green coriander, savory, blue fenugreek, and tarragon. The spices bring complexity and balance to the iron-y flavor of the liver, and the meat plays nicely with the textures of the eggplant and the chickpeas. They key with liver is not to over-cook it, so use a light touch! Give them a sear; don’t try to cook them through. They’ll finish perfectly in the last five minutes.
3 TBSP ghee
½ lb chicken livers, chopped into bite-sized pieces
White wine or chicken stock, for deglazing
1 onion, chopped
1 small eggplant, diced
Salt to taste
¼ tsp green coriander (ground)
½ tsp dried parsley
½ tsp savory
½ tsp fenugreek (ground)
a couple dashes white pepper
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 can chickpeas, rinsed and drained
A small handful of tarragon leaves, chopped, to garnish.
Season the livers with salt and pepper. Heat ghee in a large skillet over medium-high heat and sear the chicken livers for about 1-1/2 minutes total, until they’re browned on both sides; remove and set aside.
Deglaze the pot with a splash of white wine or chicken stock and lower the heat to medium. Add the onion, eggplant, spices, and garlic, and cook until the onion is softened and the eggplant is easily pierced with a fork, about 10 minutes.
If the pan is quite dry, deglaze again. Add in the chickpeas
and liver and gently heat on medium low for another 5 minutes, to allow the
flavors to mingle. Taste and adjust the seasonings accordingly, then serve
immediately, topped with the tarragon.
. Nobuhiro Kishigami, “A New Typology of Food-Sharing Practices among Hunter-Gatherers, with a Special Focus on Inuit Examples,” Journal of Anthropological Research 60.3 (Autumn, 2004): 349.