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Liver & Onions: ironic if not iconic

Lamb's liver and onions with creamy mash and red onion marmalade

Liver and onions was a staple week night dinner of my youth, but I have yet to make it for my own family. They just won’t eat it, being generally allergic – in the hypothetical sense – to pretty much any offal. Chicken livers are okay, apparently, I presume because they’re smaller and not quite so in-your-face.

Offal is such an ironic food, if you think about it. It’s the cheapest red meat going, to be found at the bargain bin end of the supermarket or butchery fridge. It’s eaten by the poorest people of the world, and often thought of as “peasant” food, not that we would apply the term in South Africa, although they would and do in France.

Yet offal is also a food of nobility, of gourmands, prized by restaurant critics and salivated over by the ponciest of food snobs everywhere.

This excepts, of course, that grand and much maligned form of offal, the foie gras or fattened liver of goose, which is among the most expensive food ingredients on the planet. But here we’re only talking about common-or-garden cheap-as-chips liver and kidneys.

I have to admit that a whole lamb’s liver, fresh and bloody and raw, must be quite a daunting thing if you’re squeamish about red meat. And making things worse for the blood-shy is that liver, any liver, is best served pink (but not red).

Not that my own mother did. Ours was always cooked right through to the centre, and I can’t say it is unpleasant, though my own adult palate has come to favour lamb’s or ox liver that is pink at the centre.

Our liver and onions, as with many British families, was almost invariably served with my mom’s favourite creamy mashed potato. And it just feels “right” somehow.

A rare night home alone presented me with the opportunity of cooking something I very rarely get a chance to cook, given that I’m the chief cook and bottle-washer in the family, so I went off and bought a whole lamb’s liver, a red onion (the recipe I give here though will be for two, as I can’t presume that you’ll also be eating home alone), two little lamb’s kidneys, and a very large potato.

Old-fashioned Liver & Onions

1 whole lamb’s liver for two people

2 lamb’s kidneys

2 red onions, sliced

2 cloves garlic, crushed

2 tsp honey

1 whole star anise

1 tsp onion seeds

60g (3 Tbsp) butter and more for frying

3 Tbsp full-cream milk or 2 Tbsp cream

Herb leaves of your choice – sage, rosemary, thyme, or a combination

2 large potatoes

Salt and pepper to taste

Make the mash first and then leave it aside to finish off with butter, milk (or cream) and salt and pepper before serving. Peel the potatoes and place in a pot of salted cold water, enough to cover the potatoes comfortably. Bring to a boil and then simmer rapidly until tender, about 20 minutes. Drain and mash. Leave aside for now, but once you’ve cooked the liver, onions and kidneys, add the milk or cream and butter to the mashed potato over the hob, stir thoroughly, season with salt and pepper and plate up. You can either pot it in a ramekin (first rinse the ramekin in cold water so that the mash will slip out easily) – and I do mean ‘pot’, not put – and upturn on to the plate, or plop a mound of it on the plate for the liver to be placed upon.

Melt butter in a frying pan and simmer the star anise and the onion (kulunji) seeds for about a minute. Saute the red onions in the same pan with the garlic until they start to “catch” and turn brown, then add the honey and simmer slowly until they caramelise. Remove and discard the star anise. Remove to a bowl and keep aside.

Open up the liver (it folds out like a butterfly as it is essentially two parts of the same thing) and carefully cut out the sinews and discard, just as you would with the much smaller chicken livers.

In the same frying pan, add more butter and your choice of chopped herbs. Fry the lamb’s liver (one will serve two very well, or four if you’re feeling really stingy) on each side for about four minutes, but keep an eye as it really is much nicer pink in the middle. Season with salt and pepper. Prick with something sharp and squeeze a little, and if the juices run pink they’re fine, if still red it’s underdone. Keep to one side.

Slice the kidneys into little cubes, discarding the sinews, and panfry quickly, until nutty brown, in the same pan. Season with salt and pepper. Quickly reheat the onion in the same pan.

Plate up the mash (completed as described above) with the caramelised red onion alongside, arrange a slice of liver against it, and drizzle over the pan juices.

If you’re in the same boat as me, don’t make too much of a song and dance about what you had for supper when your family come home.

 First published in Weekend Argus April 2012


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