Europeans tend to be more creative with organ meats than we Americans. Tripe, for instance, shows up frequently in old-guard European cookery books, ditto sweetbreads, tongue, kidneys, and, of course, brains. (My husband, Matthew, remembers being served a tongue sandwich on Sabena Airlines, Belgian’s national carrier, back in the 1980s; he disturbingly describes the meat as “bologna with tastebuds.”) As a child, however, only three organ meats passed my lips: liver (which I adored) and chicken hearts and chicken gizzards that had been breaded and fried by my paternal grandmother (neither of them made much of an impression on me).
I still love liver in its various forms, including pâté de fois gras, and was pleased to see a recipe for liver in the book currently distracting me in the kitchen: Venetian Cooking: 200 Authentic Recipes Adapted for American Cooks by H. F. Bruning Jr and Cavaliere Umberto Bullo (Macmillan, 1973). The recipe is not, however, the liver I remember from childhood, meaning great lobes of liver sauteéd with onions. Nor is it the impossibly good liver with parsley I devoured every Wednesday for several years at Bagatelle, a late, lamented French restaurant in Marrakech, Morocco. Instead this particular Venetian dish, figa à la veneziana, is calf’s liver sliced thinly into small pieces which are then gently and quickly cooked with olive oil and previously reduced onions.
My husband pronounced the figa à la veneziana delicious indeed, the onions making an unctuous sauce that went well with the richness of the meat, which we served with Brussels sprouts fresh from our garden. (The writers of the cookery book suggest polenta as a side dish but I wanted to make it from scratch and didn’t have sufficient time.) “I love liver and would be happy to eat it every couple of weeks,” he explained. “But at the grocer it’s so gross looking that I’m intimidated by it.” Then he added that when he was a foreign-exchange student in Turkey during high school, he often ate a similarly prepared liver dish — his host family used sheep’s liver — and wondered if there was a connection between the Venetian and Ottoman versions, given the cultural cross-currents between those two places at the time. Our daughter, on the other hand, took one bite of her dinner and shook her head in quiet disapproval. The musky flavor of the meat, she pointed out, was odd, which I have to admit is true; liver is an acquired taste for many people, and she wasn’t fond of looks of the noble organ when it was raw and waiting to be sliced on the cutting board. “You know me, Papa,” she said. “If it’s something unusual, don’t tell me what it really is. It’s better just to call it meat, and then I’ll probably eat it.”
FIGA A LA VENEZIANA
(Calf’s Liver Venetian Style)
1 pound calf’s liver
6 ounces butter
3/4 cup olive oil
2 medium onions, chopped
Salt and pepper
1. Cut the liver in to thin bite-size slices, 1/8-inch thick maximum.
2. Place the butter, olive oil, and onion in a frying pan over medium heat. Add some salt and pepper. Stir frequently while cooking until the smallest pieces of onion just begin to take on a golden color.
3. Add the liver to the onions and brown it, turning constantly. This should take no more than 4 minutes, probably less, depending upon the thickness of the slices. Test a piece after 2 minutes. It should have just barely lost its red color and should be firm but not tough. Do not overcook the liver for it will quickly become too chewy and lose its flavor.
4. Serve the liver and onion and a goodly amount of the sauce onto warmed plates, with lots of polenta.