Pan-fried calves' liver with bacon, cäpes and red wine jus (serves four)
Ingredients (serves 4)
4 x 120g slices of calves' liver
Salt and pepper
30g good-quality butter
1 sprig thyme
2 sliced garlic cloves
100ml red wine
For the garnishes
100g spinach, cooked
100g button onions,braised
100g sliced sautéd cäpes
4 x 70g garlic mashed potatoes
80g cooked Savoy cabbage
Deep-fried Savoy cabbage
4 slices crisp pancetta
Red wine jus
Heat a heavy, non-stick frying pan. Add the butter. When it sizzles and turns noisette, add the liver. Colour quickly on both sides and season. Add the thyme and garlic.
Take the pan off direct heat and let the liver finish cooking with the heat from the pan. Take it out of the pan and reserve.
Put the pan back on the range, deglaze with red wine and reduce it to a glaze. Strain this concentrated liquor through a fine sieve.
Flash the liver under a salamander so it's piping hot and brush with the glaze. Arrange the garnishes on a large plate. Slice the liver and stack it on the garlic mash. Spoon a little jus around the garnishes and serve.
Liver: what chefs and customers think
Plenty of customers who eat in restaurants are still uncomfortable about ordering offal, says Gary Jones, head chef of Waldo's restaurant at Cliveden, Taplow, Buckinghamshire. "But those who do enjoy liver and kidneys will probably choose them if they see them on a menu."
Jones has a point. So why do many chefs who happily purchase foie gras for starters or garnishes balk at foie de veau? True, liver and onions or bacon have a slot in most brasseries, but the range of dishes on these menus tends to be wider than in smaller, more expensive restaurants where there are often fewer than 10 main courses.
There are other reasons why chefs may hesitate to buy veal offal. One is political, the other practical. Calves' liver isn't cheap - about £15 per kg for good quality, and more for the best - but it's more perishable than, say, a cushion or loin. It eats much better when fresh, doesn't benefit from hanging, dries out rapidly in the cold room and may spoil.
The political reason has more to do with the public perception of calf husbandry, with its implications of questionable animal welfare. Most veal is imported from The Netherlands, which uses an intensive crate system for rearing the young animals. This attracts much public hostility, and a chef could be forgiven for thinking: "I don't need to be involved with this." Cooks with a conscience do have a choice. They can buy English or top-of-the-range veau sous la märe - milk-fed French veal.
Preparing calves' liver
Calves' liver weighs 2-3kg. Its colour may vary from pale pink to cherry red, and is not an indication of quality. More important, it should have:
No signs of bruising.
No dry patches.
No cuts on the surface.
It will have none of the characteristic smells of "hung" meat. Before preparation, rinse the liver quickly under a cold tap and pat dry.
Store for as short a time as possible. A whole liver will provide 15 to 25 portions. A restaurant that wouldn't expect to sell these in two days would probably do better not to keep liver on its menu.
The rounded, clean surface of the veal is covered in a fine membrane. This needs pulling off before the meat can be portioned. It may detach itself quite easily. If it starts to stick, lay a sharp-bladed knife against the liver and use it to free the membrane (the technique is similar to skinning a fish, in that you keep the knife still but pull on the skin).
Turn the liver over, exposing the main artery. Cut this out carefully without digging into the meat. You may expect a maximum 10% weight loss from trimmings. Because of the meat's tendency to lose moisture, it is better not to portion it in advance but cut to order. Only salt a piece of liver when you start to cook it, to prevent sweating.
Most chefs will pan-fry liver, so portion size will vary between 120g and 170g according to which other elements go on to the plate. For the classic fegato alla veneziana, the slice of liver is cut into bite-sized strips before frying. Joints of liver weighing 1kg can be braised or pot-roasted.
Note on cooking liver
Although chefs have a tendency to cook all meat less than they did a decade ago, liver should not be dished up rare any more than it should be cooked right through. If it has been fried or baked and left to rest properly, the pink juices will be evenly distributed through the piece. To test "doneness", press the meat as if you were checking a steak. If the meat is springy but not hard, it should be ready. If it's flabby, it will still be raw in the centre.
It is better to buy kidneys protected by their suet, which should be white, fresh-looking and abundant. They should be left in their suet until required because it lengthens their shelf-life to about a week. Most of the suet needs paring away, but it should not be wasted.It can either be grated and used for dumplings, steak and kidney or similar steamed puddings, or it can be rendered down. Graisse normande, for instance, is made by rendering it with chopped vegetables so that it takes on their flavour.
The set of kidneys will range in colour from pale coffee to pink, although colour is not a serious indication of quality. The kidneys should be unmarked and undamaged. They weigh between 250g and 300g - two to three portions, depending on their accompaniments - although in French restaurants, where kidneys were prepared at the table by waiters until the 1970s, one kidney per portion was common.
If the kidneys are to be cooked in their suet, a thin layer of it should be left around them as a basting.
Kidneys have a core of gristle which has to be cut out. This is easier to do with a sharp pair of kitchen scissors. Simply snip around it without cutting into the rest of the kidney. Jones either extracts the kidney from its suet, halves it, slices it into medallions for sautéing and nips out the core, or cuts the kidney into three portions and extracts it. (Nico Ladenis divides the kidney into its separate lobes and cuts out traces of gristle in each one.)
Note on cooking veal kidneys
Overcooked kidneys are tough and rubbery. They should always exude pink juices after cooking. However, they do not seem to retain heat well, especially when they have been sliced up for presentation purposes. Coating them with a little hot sauce helps to keep them hot. When served tepid, they lose some of their pazzazz. They have a natural affinity with mustard, port and other fortified wines.