It Is Just Chopped Liver

Traditional Holiday Favorite Gets a Tasty Makeover

Spreading the Love: Try a few new ways to make chopped liver more interesting and less predictable.
Rivka Friedman
Spreading the Love: Try a few new ways to make chopped liver more interesting and less predictable.

By Rivka Friedman

Published March 25, 2012, issue of March 30, 2012.
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Nothing evokes the Jewish holidays quite the way chopped liver does. It frequently appears at post-Yom Kippur break-fasts and makes eating matzo on Passover somewhat bearable. How chopped liver became a classic Ashkenazi Jewish staple is less clear. The Jews of Eastern Europe and Russia probably ate offal and lesser cuts of meat and poultry because they couldn’t afford to waste them, but the actual idea of turning liver into a spread may have come from their non-Jewish neighbors.

And yet, despite its well-deserved spot in the canon of Jewish food, chopped liver is one of the most polarizing foods. I’ve often wondered why so many dislike chopped liver, when its glossier siblings, liver mousse and pâté, fly off menus at upscale and rustic restaurants. Do people know they’re basically the same thing? Sure, mousse is often smoother than chopped liver. But I think the real key to mousse’s popularity is the creative license it allows. Classic chopped liver consists of liver, schmaltz, hard-boiled eggs, caramelized onions and maybe some parsley. Every time. Mousse, on the other hand, is served with chives, with soft, sticky pears, even with sour cherries. Each rendition is slightly different, each delicious in its own way.

This spring, I decided to give chopped liver a fresh start — a makeover of sorts. Inspired by chicken liver mousse, I set out with a few different plans to make the dish more interesting, more glamorous and less predictable.

Butter and cream are hallmarks of liver mousse, giving it that smooth, silky texture. For obvious reasons, I passed on both. I didn’t, however, skimp on the fat. In no way is liver a health food; why even pretend? Staying true to chopped liver tradition, I started each batch with schmaltz. (Okay: Once, I started with duck fat. It’s a more-than-acceptable substitute, if you won’t feel you’re cheating on chopped liver’s quintessential fat.) To offset the liver’s strong flavor and give it some structure, I added a hard-boiled egg yolk. I passed on the white, to ensure a smooth texture.

But that’s where I parted from tradition. For one batch, I turned to a pair of classic liver mousse flavorings: apples and sage. I sautéed the onions with the sage, then blended them along with some apple sauce into the final chopped liver. The result was full of earthy flavors, and was sweetened gently from the apples.

In search of something zestier, I looked Eastward for inspiration. Szechuan-roasted chicken, heady and spicy, is a perennial favorite in my house. I thought its flavors would work well with chicken livers, and I was right: Five-spice powder (traditionally a combination of cinnamon, star anise, fennel, Szechuan peppercorns and cloves) gave the chopped liver a fragrant base note, and the soy sauce and Szechuan peppers brought the savory, spicy kick I so love in the original dish.

The result was a chopped liver that seemed quite far away from its lowly origins. Admittedly, this dish isn’t suitable for Passover, since it contains soy and rice wine. Still, it’s classy and delicious; I could see serving it as an appetizer at Rosh Hashanah or at an elegant Shabbat dinner. Liver tends to keep a low profile year-round, but just like the rest of us, it knows how to dress up for the holidays.

Chopped Liver With Apple and Sage

Serves 8 as an appetizer

16 ounces chicken or turkey livers, cleaned and dried
¼ cup schmaltz or duck fat, divided in two
½ cup sliced onion
¼ cup white wine
1 tablespoon chopped fresh sage
¼ cup applesauce
1 hard-boiled egg yolk

1) Preheat the broiler.

2) Set a rack on a rimmed baking sheet, and spread livers, ungreased, in a single layer on the rack. Broil for 3 minutes, then turn livers and broil 3 minutes more, until livers are no longer raw inside (it’s okay if they’re light pink). Slice into a relatively thick piece of liver to check for doneness; if still raw, broil 2 minutes more. Remove from oven and let cool about 10 minutes.

3) Set a medium sauté pan over medium heat, and put 1 tablespoon of schmaltz or duck fat in the pan. Add the sliced onion, and cook until softened and starting to caramelize, about 5 minutes. Deglaze the pan with the white wine, stirring all the brown bits from the bottom of the pan back into the onion mixture. Add the sage and cook another 2 minutes, then remove from heat.

4) Put livers and onion mixture into the bowl of a food processor, and process until liver is in very small pieces. Add remaining schmaltz or duck fat, applesauce and egg yolk, and process until liver is your preferred consistency. (I like it very smooth.) Serve immediately, or refrigerate in an air-tight container up to two days.

Szechuan Chopped Liver

Serves 8 as an appetizer

16 ounces chicken or turkey livers, cleaned and dried
¼ cup schmaltz or duck fat, divided in two
2 shallots, sliced
½ teaspoon five-spice powder
¼ teaspoon Szechuan peppercorns
¼ cup Shaoxing wine or rice wine
1 teaspoon soy sauce
1 teaspoon honey
2 hard-boiled egg yolks

1) Preheat the broiler.

2) Set a rack on a rimmed baking sheet, and spread livers, ungreased, in a single layer on the rack. Broil for 3 minutes, then turn livers and broil 3 minutes more, until livers are no longer raw inside (it’s okay if they’re light pink). Slice into a relatively thick piece of liver to check for doneness; if still raw, broil 2 minutes more. Remove from oven and let cool about 10 minutes.

3) Set a medium sauté pan over medium-high heat, and put 1 tablespoon of schmaltz or duck fat in the pan. Add the sliced shallots, five-spice powder and Szechuan peppercorns, and cook until softened and starting to caramelize, about 5 minutes. Deglaze the pan with the Shaoxing or rice wine, stirring all the brown bits from the bottom of the pan back into the shallot mixture. Add the soy sauce and honey, and cook another 2 minutes, then remove from heat.

4) Put livers and shallot mixture into the bowl of a food processor, and process until liver is in very small pieces. Add remaining schmaltz or duck fat and egg yolks, and process until liver is your preferred consistency. Serve immediately, or refrigerate in an air-tight container up to two days.

Rivka Friedman of Washington, D.C., blogs at www.notderbypie.com.


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