Saturday, August 16, 2008

Battling Through Imprecision In My Love for Chicken Livers

Chicken livers. How can something so good be reviled by so many people? I am convinced that when someone doesn’t like a particular ingredient or dish, it’s just because they have never had it done well. So many chicken livers come out overcooked, grainy, grey, and dry. They really can be gross. If done well, however, they can be amazing.

The best chicken liver I have ever had was at the The Spotted Pig in NY. The livers came out charred and crisp on the outside, but meltingly creamy and foie gras-like on the inside. They were more decadent than I thought humble chicken livers could ever be. The Bordeaux reduction sauce pooling around them may have had something to do with it, but the livers themselves were simply spectacular.

This chicken liver experience, combined with the fact that I love them love them on any regular day, made me crave it with a pang. I took the first opportunity to make chicken liver pate, following a recipe out of Jamie Oliver’s Jamie’s Kitchen.

Here’s the thing about Jamie Oliver. He is all about the Naked Chef thing – simple food, un-fussed with ingredients, simple processes, great results. Turns out that translates into imprecise directions, and weird quantities like “a small bunch” of thyme, a glass full of brandy, and an onion. What do you mean, onion? Large? Small? Jumbo? Come on! I follow protocols. I need precise instructions. There is no “bunch” in my vocabulary. There are strict volumes and weights. I had total irritation.

He also makes everything sounds easy breezy – bang it in there, slap on some of this, bake off for a minute. Whatev. He uses hard core French techniques just like every other big important chef. The recipe called for the prepared pate to be passed through a sieve twice to make it smooth. After spending 20 minutes huffing and puffing over the first sieve pass, I said no more. It was smooth enough for my peasant tastes.

I quit with the sieving I portioned out the pate into eight ramekins, topped with a fried sage leaf, and sealed the top with clarified butter, to prevent gross dried out pate from peaking through the top. As you may be able to tell from the pictures, I didn’t do so well with that part.

I did do very well with the pate consumption, however. I think I ate my body weight in chicken liver pate that evening. Breaking through the clarified butter top to reach the silky pate was deeply satisfying. The pate was not too rich, with a subtle liver flavor. I had hoped for more of the brandy and thyme to come through, but without precise measurements (I am going to blame the directions, not the execution) I think I was slightly off and did not add enough of either.

While the recipe is neither precise nor terribly straight forward, it is still worth a try. I know I will be making it again very soon.

The menu below was adapted from the original. I took out all the annoying “get yourself a frying pan” bits, and made it as precise as I could, while adding in a few of my own modifications. Stop thinking about liver as liver and think iof it as something wonderful. There. That's my last plug for chicken liver.

Chicken Liver Pate

Serves 6 (though I would say 4, depending on the size of your ramekins/serving dishes)

1 ¾ cups softened butter
olive oil
1 onion, peeled and finely chopped
2 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
1lb chicken livers, trimmed
1 sm bunch of fresh thyme, leaves picked ad chopped
1 lg wineglass of brandy
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
a few sage leaves

Melt 11 tablespoons of butter over very low heat. Pour off the yellow butter (or ghee), leaving behind the white milky solids. Set aside.

Fry onion and garlic in olive oil over medium low heat for 5-10 minutes, until the onion is soft and translucent. Remove the onion to a bowl, wipe out the pan, turn up the heat to med high, and add more olive oil.

Add chicken livers and thyme (I really should have dried the livers thoroughly before dropping them in the pan. I didn’t, and they steamed instead of frying. Oops). Cook the livers in one layer until they are colored, but still pink in the middle. This is the absolute key – overcooked livers are tough, grainy and chewy. Don’t overcook! I kept poking mine with a knife to see what they look like inside. You don’t want them to be bloody, but never grey.

Pour in the brandy and cook off the alcohol. You can simply wait for the alcohol to burn off, or decide to be a badass and set the pan on fire with a lighter. That was a fun column of flames all the way to the ceiling, tell you what.

Sautee livers with brandy for a minute. Take off the heat and add to a food processor with the onions and garlic. I left all the liquid behind in the pan so as not to thin out the pate.

Puree until smooth, then add the rest of the butter. Season with salt and pepper. Divide into ramekins.

Push through a sieve – once if you’re sane, twice if you’re bored.

Fry sage leaves in olive oil and drain on a paper towel. Place leaves over the pate in whatever artistic fashion strikes your fancy. Pour clarified butter over the top to seal. Let cool in fridge for at least an hour.

Serve with toasted bread and good red wine.


aimee said...

I had a flatmate once, whose speciality was chicken liver pate. He was so proud of himself, that when he finally came to serve it to me, he was positively beaming! Obviously, I therefore did everything I could to hide my disgust and the fact that I wanted to vomit. I think he misunderstood the word 'speciality'. Ugh.

That's been my only experience with chicken livers thus far, and easily one of the worst things I've ever eaten. But you know what, I'm going to give this a bash and get over my liver fear!

jo said...

Not being a scientist...That is precisely what I do love about The other teachers i work with at cac always roll their eyes at me when I give them a Jamie recipe for a class. knob of butter, bash it around, etc. But then they are all professional bakers...precise measurements please. Pfffft, tht is exactly why I went savory.
Anyway, chicken livers. Oh how I love them. I can offer you a great recipe poached form Martha eons ago where you dredge, saute, make a pan reduction sauce with dry marsala and serve with so so good. That is my go to recipe when craving iron. and sometime I literally do crave iron.
I'm going to look up that pate recipe now....

Lissa said...

You will forever be more adventurous than I in the kitchen, I fear. But, I have set aside preconceived notions enough that at least now I try everything once - but I suppose it may be too much to ask that there is any left over I could sneak? :) It was great to see you yesterday - I know we've said this a bit lately, but far too much time has passed, we need to work on that. As soon as our to-do lists have cleared? Pffft - yeah right. Hope to see you again soon!

mehdi said...

I love Jamie, the plating, his passion for food and of course the British accent! I plan my Saturday mornings in a way not to miss his 9:30 am show.

About the imprecision I had the same problem with my grandma, she would also say "enough" of this or that!!! but that was not a cooking book!

The way I tried to fix it fro my blog (this is for you Jamie!) was to use the scale, oil poire,,, when I cook, even if I'm fine eyeballing stuff.

Anna said...

Aimee - See, that's the thing. Liver can be horrific when not done right. I have faith both in you and in the liver. Do it right and it will be wonderful!

Jo - No fair. You teach people how to cook! You know how to cook (understatement). People such as myself, who are far less experienced in the kitchen department, need more concise directions, at least until we figure out how to do everything from feel, touch, and smell. I would LOVE that chicken liver recipe! That sounds amazing. I do have a question for you - was I supposed to dry the livers very thoroughly? They kinda steamed a little when they went in the pan because there was still a lot of water clinging to them. Or would the paper towels just tear the livers up? I didn't know what to do.

Lissa - So wonderful to see you too! I will be making a greek barley salad very shortly. Yum! I will make pate for you any time. Afraid the batch I made didn't last through the night... or morning. The man friend and I had pate for breakfast :)

Mehdi - I tooootally needed a scale while making this! It would have made everything easier. The other problem with Jamie Oliver's cookbooks is that they are written in the British style, ie using weights instead of volumes. The American editions of the books have half-assed translations of weights into volumes, leaving me with amount like 1 3/4 ounces. WTF. Scale would have come in very handy. His enthusiasm for food and cooking is really infectious though, I agree.

leena! said...

How funny--earlier today I was talking to another food friend about how I was dying to make chicken liver pate again. Who knew. I like how you made individual molds. That would be adorable for a dinner party. Could you top the pates with duck fat, maybe? Or better yet, BACON fat?

I made chicken liver pate for the first time a few months ago in Australia, and we flavored it with a bit of Madeira wine and some Chinese five spice, just a pinch (sorry, 1/8 teaspoon?). It kicked major ass. Great post--now I have to make it!

mehdi said...

" The other problem with Jamie Oliver's cookbooks is that they are written in the British style, ie using weights instead of volumes"

Excuse me?!! Thats one thing that i love about UK cooking stuff, the SI system. I dont have any sense for a quart of water, until I convert it to millilitres. And I cant help laughing when on Jamie's show there are subtitles telling people what 250 grams mean! Besides, I think weight is more accurate than volume, for flour for example.

"When in Rome, do as Romans do" I dont, sorry!

JC said...

Liver is something I've never really developed a taste for. I might be willing to try it again at some point if it was prepared really well.

Don't most chefs eschew actual recipes, and they just kind of "know" how much of whatev to put in to get the taste they want? I mean, bully for them, but if you're creating a cookbook I think you need to be more precise!

Anna said...

Leena - Oooh, you said the magic words... duuuuuuck faaaat... That would be wonderful with pate! Now I really have to try it again!

Mehdi - If you read my previous comment carefully, you will realize that I was not passing judgment on the weight measure approach to recipes, only the faults in the conversion to volumes. Weight measure is far more precise and generally superior to volume, especially when it comes to baking.

JC - For real! I am not a chef. I need direction. Tell me what to do, and I will do it. I am still working on the whole "pinch of this" business. It's not going so great. Yaaaaay for graduating, JC!! Congratulations again.