As a kid, the cartoons that consumed a good, oh, two-thirds of my waking hours warped me into believing a lot of erroneous stuff. Vintage Looney Toons made me wary of dogcatchers, limburger cheese, anvils, and banana peels, all dangers I somehow have yet to encounter in real life. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles taught me to shun anchovies, leading to a tragic Caesar salad deficiency in my early years.
And then we have liver and onions, a combination that several cartoons used as shorthand for “something disgusting your parents will force you to eat.” I’m thinking specifically about an episode of Doug that revolves around the title character’s fear that he’ll be forced to eat the dreaded dish when he’s invited to dinner at Patti Mayonnaise’s house. You know, the stuff of your worst 11-year-old nightmares, although I’m pretty sure I didn’t know what liver was until my animated pal taught me to hate it. Having brought a pile of raw liver into my kitchen recently, I can’t imagine why he wasn’t a fan.
As a result of my Nickelodeon addiction, liver still sort of grosses me out — even if it’s taken from a fancy goose that eats naught but ambrosia and honey, called foie gras, and stuffed inside a gold-plated Kobe burger or whatever.
So naturally, I wasn’t really thrilled to learn that the Small Portions project would require me to make not one, but two liver dishes — including one that’s basically just, yes, liver and onions, cooked together and pulverized into a grayish mush. Classic Jewish soul food, sure — but kugel it ain’t.
You can already tell how this story is going to end, right? I bought the liver; I cooked the liver; I kinda liked the liver, though not really enough to add it to my regular repertoire. Real world, 1; Doug Funnie, 0.
Chopped Liver; main text Nonnie’s, italicized asides my own
3 tablespoons peanut oil [More traditional recipes will use schmaltz instead — but I guess Nonnie didn’t generally have spare chicken fat lying around]
1 lb. chicken liver [You still shouldn’t rinse your chicken — but you might want to rinse these in a fine-mesh sieve to get rid of excess blood. God, liver is gross.]
2-3 onions, chopped
2 hard-boiled eggs [Revelation alert: Lower cold eggs into boiling water instead of cooking them with the water as it heats, and they’ll peel like a dream. It’s science!]
Heat oil in skillet. Add onions and sauté lightly. [I went until they were getting translucent-ish.] Add liver to onions and continue to sauté, stirring occasionally, until onions start to turn brown. [I’m not totally sure what Nonnie meant by this instruction — until they get brown with liver juice? Until they begin to caramelize? Either way, I did some research and found other recipes that recommend cooking until the livers are just barely pink inside, which is what I ended up doing. Liver is unappealing enough; you don’t want to eat undercooked liver.]
Remove from heat and turn into a wooden bowl. Add eggs and chop all ingredients together until you arrive at the consistency you desire. [Psst, Nonnie: How do you expect us to chop things inside of a bowl? Instead, I dumped the liver and onions onto a cutting board, let it cool, then transferred it to the food processor, knowing that my “desired consistency” would be a whole lot finer than anything I could produce by knife alone.]
Cover and refrigerate. Serve at room temperature. Do not add salt until ready to serve. [Try to ignore just how much what you have created looks like dog food.]
The verdict: Turns out homemade chopped liver is more about texture than taste. Mushed together with gently cooked onions and a perfectly hard boiled egg (if I do say so myself), the organ makes for a creamy, only mildly liver-y spread that’s pleasantly rich; there’s a slightly iron-y aftertaste I wasn’t crazy about, but overall, the flavor’s much less overtly offal than I feared it’d be.
I’m not totally sure why Nonnie advises leaving out salt until right before you serve the pâté — other recipes don’t carry the same warning. I can say, though, that I enjoyed the liver a lot more with a sprinkling of fleur de sel — and even better when topped with slices of sour pickle, a la Russ and Daughters’ famous Oy Vey Schmear sandwich. (Which, granted, I haven’t actually tried, but my chopped liver adventure may inspire me to change that.) Their salty, garlicky sharpness cuts perfectly against the smooth liver, making for an exceedingly balanced bite.
You know what, though? The people I served this to — all goys, for the record, at a treif-filled Christmas dinner that also featured, no joke, a whole pig cooked under an open fire — liked it just fine even without pickles, and in several cases, even without salt. Why? It’s a mystery — although maybe we can blame their lack of exposure to formative episodes of Doug.