January 29, 2013

Liver is Sexy

I remember Twitter chatter a couple years ago between some local chefs about Valentine’s dinner menus.  One person asked why lobster seems to be the go-to for Valentine’s Day dinner.  Someone else replied that it was because being in a restaurant on Valentine’s Day is like being boiled alive.

I’ve also never understood the fascination with eating lobster on Valentine’s day.  Sure, it’s an expensive ingredient, but lobster is fairly brutal to prepare (it does involve murder after all) and a little messy to eat whole (if you steam them, there’s a lot of water that leaks out when you break them apart at the table).

Besides, I’ve never considered going out to eat much of a “sexy” activity.  It’s much more erotic to cook a meal for your lover at home (see my tips for preparing the perfect dinner).

My idea of sexy food is probably much different from most people’s.  Strawberries with whipped cream is out; dark chocolate tart is in. Red wine is out; a ginger-laced cocktail is in.  Seafood of all types is out; bone marrow is in (the innermost part of a body, eating bone marrow is like eating an animal’s soul).

After reading Julie Powell’s Cleaving, I discovered the sexiness of liver.  Yes, that’s right…LIVER.  Don’t believe me?  Read the beginning of Powell’s book and judge for yourself:

Prologue
February 13, 2008

This is really not what it looks like.

The work is most often a delicate thing, and bloodless. In the year and more I’ve been doing this, I’ve gone whole days with no more evidence of my labors by evening than a small bit of gore on my shoes or a sheen of translucent fat on my hands and face (It’s excellent for the skin, I’m told.) So this is unusual, this syrupy drip, my arms drenched up to the elbows, my apron smeared thickly with crimson going quickly to brown.

I reach down into the plastic-lined cardboard box one more time, coming up with an organ weighing probably fifteen pounds, dense and slippery dead weight, a soaked blood sponge. I slap it onto the cutting table with a sound like a fish flopping down on the deck of a boat; the risk of dropping it on the floor is not inconsiderable. The box is a deep one, and one of the times I reached to the bottom of it my face brushed up against the bloody lining. Now I can feel a streak of the stuff drying stickily across my cheekbone. I don’t bother to wipe it off. On what clean surface would I wipe it, after all? Besides, it makes me feel rather rakish.

I take my scimitar from the metal scabbard hanging from a chain around my waist. For most work I use my boning knife, an altogether more delicate thing, six inches long, slightly curved, with a dark rosewood hilt worn to satin smoothness by all the fat and lanolin that has been massaged into it. That little knife cracks open a haunch joint or breaks down muscle groups into their component parts like nothing else. But with this heavy, foot-long blade I can, while pressing firmly down on the flesh with my right palm, slice straight through the liver in one dragging stroke. Thin, even slices. With the boning knife I’d have to saw away to get through that bulk of organ meat, making for torn, jagged edges. And you wouldn’t want that. You want the blade to slip easily through. Smooth. Final.

More than a year ago, when I first told my husband Eric that I wanted to do this, he didn’t understand. “Butchery?” he asked, an expression of mystification, perhaps even discomfort, screwing up his face.

His suspicion hurt me – there was a time, just a few years before, when there was no trace of it in his heart. I knew I deserved it. But it was just so strange to have to try to explain; strange to have to explain anything to Eric at all. I’d known him by then sixteen years, almost literally half my life. I knew him when he was a beautiful, shy, blue-eyed teenager in baggy shorts, a stretched-out sweater and worn Birkenstocks, with a dog-eared paperback jutting out of one rear pocket. And almost at the beginning I picked him out, decided he was the one I needed. It took most of a school year to snatch him up from out of the swarm of pretty girls that seemed always to be circling – he so oblivious, he so sweet and gentle – but I managed it. God, I was invincible when I was eighteen. When it came down to it, I pretty much got whatever I went after. Want, Take, Have, that was my simple motto. And I was right – to take him, I mean. From the beginning we were interlocking puzzle pieces. From the beginning we nestled into the notion that our two lives were to be irrevocably woven into one.

I now slice off eight pretty burgundy flaps of liver. The cut organ releases a metallic tang into the air, and yet more blood onto the table. Changing out knives now, I delicately excise the tight pale ducts that weave through the slices. Perfectly cooked liver should be crisp on the outside with a custardy-smooth center. Nothing tough or chewy should get in the way of that sensual quintessence. Six of these slices are for the gleaming glass and steel case at the front of the shop; the last two I set aside, to wrap up and take home after work for a Valentine’s Day dinner tomorrow. Once, I thought the holiday merited boxes of chocolate and glittery cards, but in these last few, eye-opening years, amid the butchery and wrenches of the heart, I’ve realized life has gotten too complicated for such sweet and meaningless nothings; I’ve even learned I’m okay with that.



Valentine’s Day Liver for Two

2 1/2-inch-thick slices high-quality liver, trimmed of any tough veins or filament
1/2 cup flour
Salt and pepper to taste
2 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon olive oil
Spread flour on large plate. Season liver slices with salt and pepper, then dredge in the flour, shaking off excess.

Set skillet over high heat, and add butter and oil. When the butter foam has just subsided, add the liver slices. Sauté just until a crispy golden brown crust develops, about two minutes. Flip slices and do the same on the other side. (Don’t worry about undercooking them. Overcooking is by far the worse fate for liver.)

Beef liver cooked like this – I keep telling people in the face of near-universal scoffs of disbelief – is one of the most, well, passionate things you’ll ever eat. I don’t know exactly why this is. It’s sexy as hell, but difficult too. Somehow faintly forlorn, like there is no denying that something was torn from something for your pleasure.

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