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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It Ain’t Chopped Liver

X. Marcel Boulestin's foie de veau, with a side of asparagus.

X. Marcel Boulestin is a name lost in the culinary mists of time, at least as far as popular kitchen culture goes. But in the 1920s and 1930s this dapper, energetic Frenchman ran one of London’s swankest restaurants. At Boulestin’s, which opened in Leicester Square in 1925, moved to Covent Garden a year later, and closed in 1994—it was replaced by a Pizza Hut—the décor was colourful (he once worked as an interior decorator and was greatly influenced by Paul Poiret’s Atelier Martine), the clientele posh (Lady Diana Cooper was a fan), and the menu a tasty mixture of French standards and English country.

Given Boulestin’s celebrity, it comes as little surprise to learn his recipes were staples in the pages of Vogue, The Manchester Guardian, and The Daily Express and enjoyed a great deal of popularity. Or that he became reportedly the first televised chef, thanks to his appearance in 1936 on the television programme “A Scratch Meal with Marcel Boulestin.”  This native of Périgord (1878-1943) gathered his restaurant’s specialties into charming cookery books intended, he wrote, for “people who have a good cook, to those who only have a plain one, and to those who have not got one at all.” Part of what makes the volumes so delightful is the impressionistic illustrations by Jean-Émile Laboureur (1877-1947), an artist so close to Boulestin that one suspects their friendship was a bit more serious than mere camaraderie. Another pleasure is the wit that infuses the pages, with such well-turned phrases as “the mellowing influence of food on civilised beings.” Elizabeth David, for instance, called Boulestin’s books “fresh and original.”

In any case as I was lazily sipping a cup of tea Saturday morning my husband announced he and our daughter were going to the grocer and that I’d better make a list. So I broke out several cookery books for guidance, including Boulestin’s A Second Helping (Frederick A. Stokes Company, 1925). From its pages I decided we would dine that evening on foie de veau or liver.

The liver that came out of my mother’s kitchen during my childhood was a sad thing, leathery and tough. It was only after I was grown that I learned liver, a most delicate organ, should be cooked medium rare, so it is silken in texture. With that in mind we dove into Boulestin’s recipe, which is incredibly simple, just a bare paragraph of instruction; I’ve given it a bit more structure and insight, as seen below. We paired it with slender spears of green asparagus cooked with a bit of olive oil, butter, salt, and pepper. The wine was Colli Vicentini’s Cabernet Veneto 2008, a perfectly acceptable Cabernet Sauvignon from the sale bin at Astor Wines & Spirits; it cost $3.59. Astor calls it “full of blackcurrants and … incredibly accessible and soft on the palate.”

Our daughter, Catherine, loved her first dish by Boulestin, saying it tasted like cheese; when pressed, she explained she meant the texture. Then I slipped up and used the L word, at which point she screwed up her face and downed a glass of water to rinse the taste out of her mouth. Ah, well. It’s often safer just to describe liver and other such viands to her in general terms as “meat.” That four-letter word is vague enough not to disturb a child’s delicate sensibilities.

FOIE DE VOIE AU FOUR

SOURCE: A Second Helping by X. Marcel Boulestin (Frederick A. Stokes, 1925)

Serves 4

INGREDIENTS

1 slice bacon, raw and finely chopped

A handful of parsley, finely chopped

1 shallot, finely chopped

Salt and pepper

6 tablespoons unsalted butter

1 pound liver, cut into two-inch pieces

1 tablespoon unsalted butter, softened

Parchment paper

DIRECTIONS

Preheat oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit.

Toss the bacon, parsley, and shallot together in a bowl. Season with salt and pepper. Sprinkle this mixture evenly in an ovenproof dish (approximately 10 x 10) and set aside.

Heat a skillet over a medium-high heat for about 4 minutes. Add the 6 tablespoons of butter and when it has melted and ceased to foam, add the liver. Cook it a scant two minutes per side, so the liver is browned but medium rare. (NOTE: This is a crucial step, so watch the liver carefully, otherwise it’s going to overcook.)

Covered with a buttered sheet of parchment paper, the foie de veau is ready to place in the oven.

Place the browned liver in the ovenproof dish on the bacon, parsley, and shallot mixture, and pour over it the butter in which it was cooked. Cut a piece of parchment paper just large enough to cover the liver completely and butter one side of it; lay it on top of the liver, butter side down.

Bake for 15 minutes and serve.