[13 January 2014]
In the many food blogs that appear to be overtaking the internet, one never sees a mistake.
Nobody, it seems, in their perfectly appointed kitchens, has ever charred a chicken, torched a tomato, or just plain ruined a recipe. Nosiree, everything out there in internetland is gorgeous, parsley-flecked, and perfectly ready to eat.
Friends, I am here to change that.
I am here to tell you about my screw-up. I share this in the spirit of making you feel better. Of admitting that even the most experienced cooks make mistakes. Of starting the new year off on honest footing. And to counter the increasing perfectionism out there in internet foodieland.
I did not burn, scorch, mangle, or ruin. Arguably, what I did was worse. I threw out what began as perfectly good food: I tossed approximately five pounds of organic cow’s liver.
Nearly a month later, I still feel queasy about this.
About three weeks ago, a friend emailed. Was I interested in sharing a cow?
Much email to-and-fro’ing ensued, culminating in a confusing Tuesday night trip to downtown Oakland, California, where a large box of cow was placed in my van.
I had, obliviously, asked for the liver. Nobody else wanted it.
It’s much bigger than I thought, my friend wrote me, adding he’d run out of freezer space. The highly perishable liver had gone into his fridge.
No problem! I’d replied breezily. I’ll just cook it!
I had no idea.
When I got home and opened the box, I found myself in possession of a scrambled order. The sweetbreads I’d requested were a no-show, but there were shanks aplenty, a packet of ribs, a rib roast, two packs of sirloin steaks, a pack of short ribs, and the liver, halfway defrosted, bloody, enormous. The label affixed to this monster read “11 pounds”. I laid it in my biggest Pyrex dish and shoved it in the refrigerator.
Eleven pounds! What was I thinking? Somehow I’d failed to think cow, in all its bovine enormity. Did I really think cow’s liver came in the tidy little slices displayed in the butcher’s case? Me? Miss Curious Omnivore, Miss Farm-to-Table, Miss Pay-More-Buy-Organic-Respect-the-Animal?
Never mind. Keep calm and carry on. Wednesday evening arrived. I consulted my cookbooks, shocked by the paucity of liver recipes. Only my 1964 edition of Joy of Cooking offered more than the standard liver and onions.
As I planned to freeze, I decided on an Italianate liver, winging it off Joy, and a stir-fry picked up from Fuschia Dunlop’s marvelous Every Grain of Rice. I found a little bacon in the freezer and put it aside for a couple of the Italian go-rounds.
I hefted the liver into the house (I am blessed with a large second refrigerator in my garage). It was not a pretty sight: a square, purplish-brown slab leaking copious amounts of blood. Wary of pouring blood down the drain, I tipped it into the garbage bin, smearing it everywhere. I remembered the study of college boys and housewives and their respective kitchens. The messy college boys had the safer kitchens, as they never smeared their bacteria-laden sponges around in well-meaning efforts to clean up. I fetched a supply of ammonia and clean rags. I washed my hands a lot.
Within minutes I realized I could never be a professional cook. Or, at least, my kitchen and I were woefully unprepared for the arrival of this foreign, purpled object, already oozing itself a fresh pool of blood.
I remembered the butchers at my market, standing at worktables with their long, curved knives, chatting easily in Mandarin as they deftly scythed away. I had just managed to hack the liver in half with my ten-inch Henckels chef’s knife, reasoning a smaller piece of meat would be easier to deal with. The liver was cold and slippery, difficult to gain purchase on; the knife wasn’t sharp enough. Nor was there adequate space to do the job properly. Blood continued to spatter everywhere. I chased it as best I could.
Finally I had a ragged pile of slices ready for cooking. I began with the stir fry: peanut oil, Chinese rice wine, dark and light soy sauces, minced garlic and ginger. Liver cooks in a flash. I scooped it into freezer containers, labeled them, moved to the pseudo-Italian dish: Marsala, olive oil, garlic. I varied it with a dredge in seasoned flour and a little of the bacon.
I did this for two nights. Rushed cooking on weeknights, after long workdays, with dinners and packed lunches to deal with besides, rapidly becomes onerous. I was making little dent in the liver, which would soon begin turning.
I felt like a fool.
“Throwing away the scantest morsel is agony for me.”
—Nigella Lawson, Nigella Kitchen
“Throwing away food offends me.”
Barbara Kafka, Soup: A Way of Life
Here is Michael Wild, owner of Oakland, California restaurant Bay Wolf, writing about eating at the Hotel Edison at ate seven, after fleeing to the United States from wartime France in 1947. His Jewish family had been in hiding.
“I saw platters of bacon, stacks of this, sides of that, an unimaginable show of abundance. The people at the table next to us had left an egg, some bacon, some toast—a meal for four in our recent existence in France—and the busboy came along and swept it into the garbage. My mother turned to me and said: ‘This is the place to which we’ve come.’”— The Bay Wolf Restaurant Cookbook
While the liver caper was an exceptional experience, it pointed to a larger issue: the increasing amounts of food I throw away.
Part of this is an issue of self-perception: I don’t like thinking of myself as a person who throws food away. I prefer the to imagine myself a thrifty cook, an inventive user of leftovers, a woman who can make something from nothing.
But I am lying to myself. And until now, I had not admitted, to myself or anybody else, just how much was going into the trash. But with midlife came a slowing of metabolism; along with it, a decreased appetite. The problem is, I still cook like my husband and I are ravenous graduate students.
We’re not. The indignities of middle age are in full force. The days of mindless appetites are behind us. And so, at week’s end, the containers of this and that are stacking up at an alarming, impossible-to-finish rate.
Although I abhor New Year’s Resolutions, with their intimations of dieting and inherent failure, I am making one: it is to become the person I’ve been pretending to be. That frugal woman who exists only in broth making, where she hoards bones and leek trimmings and corn cobs for her stocks. Everywhere else, God knows, she is a red-blooded American, wasting, if not heedlessly, then certainly furtively.
While aging’s physical depredations are inevitable, fossilized thinking is not. And so: half a bag of pasta. One cup of rice instead of two. Three quarters of a pound of ground beef, or perhaps even a half-pound. Changing my definition of “enough” in the shopping cart, in the pot, on the table. Realizing that with two markets and two inexpensive restaurants within walking distance, we will hardly starve.
This will take time. I will make mistakes. But mistakes are inevitable on the road to change. And change I must. Pick whatever reason you choose: people are starving, it is disrespectful to the animal, it is wrong and just plain wasteful. I never, ever want to throw five pounds of food into the trash again.
* * *
Yield: feeds 2
Time: approximately twenty minutes
Note: I did not measure anything; recipes reflect cooking stoveside. Trust yourself!
Second note: Liver should be pink in the middle—overcooking is what makes it so unpalatable. It will reward you by cooking rapidly. Most of the cooking time is prep.
Liver stir fry after Fuschia Dunlop:
Enough peanut oil to film a 10 inch non-stick pan or wok
a glug of Chinese rice wine (you can substitute Sherry)
a glug of dark soy sauce
a glug of light soy sauce (if you have only one soy sauce, that’s fine)
approx 1 teaspoon minced garlic
approx 1 teaspoon minced ginger
dried hot pepper to taste, minced (optional)
bunch minced scallions or spring onions (optional)
¾ pound beef liver, sliced into thin strips
Heat the peanut oil over medium heat.
Add the rice wine, soy sauce(s), garlic, ginger, hot pepper and spring onions or scallions, if using, and stir fry until you can smell them. Add the liver and stir fry rapidly, turning continually with a spatula or wooden spoon. Liver cooks quickly—don’t turn your back for second! You want the liver pink in the middle—this takes about two minutes. Serve with rice or noodles.
Italianate Liver after the 1964 Edition of Joy of Cooking
Again, all measurements are approximate.
unsalted butter (optional yet wonderful)
dry marsala wine
minced garlic to taste (I used three big cloves, but we’re garlic lovers)
sea salt or your favorite salt
approximately ¾ pound beef liver, sliced
Film a heavy bottomed 10 or 12-inch skillet with olive oil. Add a good glug of marsala wine; you want there to be some liquid in the skillet. Add a bit of butter if using; even the smallest amount brings rich depth and flavor to the finished dish. Remind yourself that liver has no fat. Add the garlic and heat gently on low/medium heat. Add the liver slices. Salt and pepper them to taste. Watch them closely. When blood rises to the surface, after two to three minutes, flip them over. Give them only an additional two minutes or so, no more.
Serve with mashed potatoes, rice, or noodles, and a green salad.
Theme and variation:
Instead of olive oil, or if you are a pleasurable hedonist, in addition to the olive oil, fry a few slices of bacon in the pan. Once they are close to cooked, add the liver and carry on with the recipe.
Dredge the liver in seasoned flour: pour just over a ¼ cup of flour into a shallow dish. Add a little salt, pepper, and paprika. If your palate is so inclined, add a shake of hot pepper flakes. Continue as above.