Calf’s Liver, Venetian Style (1973)

Venetian-style liver with Brussels sprouts on the side.

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)

4 Servings

INGREDIENTS

1 pound calf’s liver

6 ounces butter

3/4 cup olive oil

2 medium onions, chopped

Salt and pepper

DIRECTIONS

One pound of calf's liver, sliced and ready to be turned into figa à la veneziana. Disgusting, no?

1. Cut the liver in to thin bite-size slices, 1/8-inch thick maximum.

Onions cooking in butter and olive oil.

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.

Sliced liver browning with the cooked onions.

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.

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Cabbage, Venetian Style

My husband often regales me with tales of his youth, especially college; suffice it to say that his experiences were more adventuresome than mine. His first two years at university, for instance, were spent in Switzerland, and many weekends he and his international band of classmates descended their particular alpine slope and hopped the next train to Venice, stopping in Geneva and Milan before disembarking outside that romantic city of canals and hidden gardens and walking from the Santa Lucia train station across the Ponte degli Scalzi and into La Serenissima. As photographs attest, Venice was where my spouse ruined his first white linen suit by falling into a canal (I thought that sort of thing only happened in the movies, namely to Katharine Hepburn), and where he developed a taste for the city’s famously rich cuisine.

H. F. Bruning Jr. and Cavaliere Umberto Bullo's "Venetian Cooking" (Macmillan, 1973), a recent find at a secondhand bookshop.

Bearing that in mind we recently acquired a copy of Venetian Cooking: 200 Authentic Recipes Adapted for American Cooks (New York: Macmillan, 1973), which critic Mimi Sheraton praised in New York magazine as “esoteric” but “interesting” soon after it was published. The authors, H. R. Bruning Jr. and Cavaliere Umberto Bullo, plainly adore Venetian food but they are strangely brutal about its qualities, cautioning readers with such curious caveats as “a plate so heavy it is not suitable for delicate stomachs” (braised eel) and “after eating, however, it is advisable to take a long walk” (Venetian-style goulash). If one only read the introductions to the two hundred recipes one would imagine Venice populated only by brave souls with a lifetime supply of Pept0-Bismol. Warnings aside we were anxious to try some of the recipes so last night decided to concoct Verze Sofegae, or Braised Savoy Cabbage, which Messrs Bruning and Bullo describe as “a filling dish … [perfect] for cool weather when we have more desire to eat.”

A serving of Verze Sofegae co le Costesine de Porseo on its way to the table.

First of all let me assure you that the Verze Sofegae I made is more that just cabbage. It is finely sliced cabbage leaves cooked for about an hour with minced bacon and meaty spareribs; this main-course version bears the lengthy name of Verze Sofegae co le Costesine de Porseo. Last night’s preparation was also the first time I handed our nine-year-old daughter a sharp knife and sent up a silent prayer. She insisted on helping so I handed over the onions for chopping and then the cabbage leaves, one by one, carefully slicing them into strips measuring about one-quarter-inch wide.

Our daughter, carefully chopping onions for the recipe.

“Don’t be such a scaredy-cat, Papa,” she said after I advised her, once again, to be careful not to cut her fingers. She was indeed observant and very meticulous, though she stated that she had no plans to make a career as a chef. As for the succulent dish we made together, she pronounced it good — truly it was enormously tasty — though the spareribs weren’t cooked to her liking. She prefers them quite brown, even a bit caramelized, so perhaps we’ll adjust Bruning and Bullo’s recipe to reflect that preference in future.

VERZE SOFEGAE CO LE COSTESINE DE PORSEO

(Braised Savoy Cabbage with Spareribs)

SERVES 4

INGREDIENTS

2.5 pounds Savoy cabbage

5 tablespoons olive oil

3 ounces bacon, finely minced or ground

2 pounds spareribs

1/2 medium onion, chopped

Salt and pepper

1/4 cup water (optional)

 

DIRECTIONS

1. Remove and discard the first few outer cabbage leaves. Continue removing the leaves and place them in a sink full of cold water. [NOTE: I MERELY RINSED THEM IN A COLANDER.] Wash well and shake off as much water as possible and then cut the cabbage into strips about 1/4-inch wide. Cut ACROSS the stem, not parallel to it.

Cabbage added to the spareribs and bacon and ready to wilt and caramelize over a medium flame.

2. Use a very large frying pan or casserole, or if need be a pot. It must have a cover. Place the olive oil, bacon, and spareribs in the cooking vessel and put it over medium heat. When the bacon is sizzling nicely and looks as if it may start to brown, add the onion and a little salt and lots of pepper. When the onion becomes translucent, add the cabbage and mix well. Cover, but uncover and stir after a couple of minutes. If the cabbage does not start to give up some liquids at this point, add about 1/4 cup of water to create a little steam in order to get the cabbage started. For the first hour keep covered except when stirring. You should stir every 10 minutes or so after the cabbage has wilted completely, but more often before that time. If after an hour there seems to be a lot of liquid, cook with the pan partially uncovered. If after 1.5 hours you still have puddles of water, cook completely uncovered until the cabbage turns a pale shade of brown. [NOTE: I TOOK THE POT OFF THE HEAT WHEN THE CABBAGE WAS UTTERLY LIMP AND BEGINNING TO DARKEN.]

3. Serve immediately or place in a casserole or other ovenware and reheat later in a 300-degree Fahrenheit oven. Polenta is popular [as a side] with this dish.