My adopted country has a longstanding love affair with liver and onions. Preferably served with butter-laden mashed potatoes.
More often than not, the liver served is either pig, beef or lamb, which are not my favourite. In fact, I don’t like them. Calf’s liver on the other hand… ah… now that’s another story. That’s a much more delicate proposition.
I had my first taste of the unusual combo of calf’s liver and lime at a Raymond Blanc Brasserie in Cheltenham many years ago. At the time, there were only a few of those in the country, so the opportunity to taste affordable brasserie food from this famous Michelin star French chef was a real treat.
The lime beautifully cut through the richness of the meat. I remember the joyous surprise of it to this day. So seeing a recipe for calf’s liver and lime by bad-boy Marco Pierre White in his 90’s book “White Heat”, I couldn’t wait to make it. Especially as Raymond was one of Marco’s mentors, so the likelihood of the flavours being similar… I was salivating.
I have no idea why it eventually took me 15 years to finally attempt it. So much to cook, so little time. But since I cooked it that first time, it is my go-to recipe for calf’s liver ever since.
Of course I also need guests that appreciate calf’s liver. Not everyone is a fan. Or at least so they think. If you are one of those people that think you don’t like liver, but have never tried calf’s liver, I strongly suggest you give this a go. You may be pleasantly surprised, especially with the refreshing addition of lime.
Marco’s recipe suggests 5 mm thin-cut tranches of calf’s liver. I prefer mine thicker at about 1.5 cm. Not always easy to come by in England, as it is not a very popular meat and it’s often sold wafer-thin. Thicker pieces are more practical in the home kitchen though, as they tend to be smaller for the same weight, so you can fit 4 portions into one large frying pan. A thicker cut also increases the chances for an amateur home cook like myself to cook it just rosé pink. Over-cooking calf’s liver is a punishable crime in my book.
Enter Donald Russell. Not my guest, I’ll have you know, but my favourite UK online butcher. I am not paid to say this, by the way, as I am not commercially tied to anyone to promote anything. But their meat, including their calf’s liver, is superb and cut just that little bit thicker. I’m sure a good local butcher can help you as well.
If you can’t get hold of calf’s liver, feel free to use pig, beef or lamb. But you will likely need to adjust the cooking time accordingly, as those may be thicker cut and by their nature need to be cooked a touch longer. I suggest you soak pig’s, beef, or lamb’s liver in milk for minimum 2 hours or overnight before cooking too. This removes any bitter taste. An old trick I learned from mum. A good calf’s liver doesn’t need it.
Marco serves his calf’s liver and lime simply with a heap of baby leeks. Nine per person to be exact. No mash. But I like to pay homage to the British classic of liver, mash and onion. I find a standard potato mash too heavy here though, and it doesn’t love the zesty lime. As liver and onions is often served with cabbage, I usually opt for a generous dollop of my celeriac and savoy cabbage crush instead. It has a little potato in it, but not too much. Perfect.
And just to amuse you, check out these youtube clips of a young Marco Pierre White in the late 80’s. He cooks the very buttery onions at the end of the first clip, and the liver at the start of the second clip, minus the lime and the oven finish. Don’t miss the parking attempt of the yellow car and the curious kid outside the window at about 6 mins into the second clip. Gordon Ramsey makes a silent appearance too. Enjoy!
Calf’s Liver With Lime, Caramelized Onions And Baby Leeks (serves 4 – GF LC RSF)
This pretty much mimics the original recipe in “White Heat”, but I’ve reduced the amount of butter and made a few changes along the way. The book also suggests an optional garnish of caramelized lime zest, which I never bother with. It adds nothing to the dish in exchange for the extra hassle in my opinion.
Use GF flour such as buckwheat if you need this dish to be gluten free.
4 tranches of calf’s liver, about 150-175 gr each, preferably 1.5 cm thickness
(GF) flour for dusting the liver (optional)
1 1/2 tbsp clarified butter or ghee
1 whole lime
juice of 1 lime
4 shallots, finely chopped
1/2 tbsp butter
1 tomato, chopped
2 cloves of garlic, peeled whacked with the back of a cook’s knife
1-2 tsp unrefined sugar such as coconut palm sugar
1 bay leaf
3 tsp sherry, balsamic or wine vinegar
150 ml port
300 ml dry white vermouth, preferably Noilly Prat
a sprig of fresh parsley
2 sprigs of fresh thyme
600 ml good chicken stock, or half and half chicken and veal stock if you can get it
2-3 large onions, thinly sliced (I used a mixture of red and white)
8-12 baby leeks
celeriac and savoy cabbage crush or your favourite mash to serve
The sauce: Peel 1 of the limes, cutting away the bitter white pith as well. Over a bowl to catch the juices, cut the lime segments from between the membranes. Retain the core. Cut the segments into 2 or 3 pieces and set aside. Set the juice and the core aside as well.
Melt 1/2 tbsp butter in a pan over medium heat. Sweat the shallots for about 3-5 mins. Add the tomato and 1 garlic clove. Sweat for a further minute or so, then add 1 tsp sugar, the bay leaf and 2 tsp vinegar. Cook for 5 mins or until caramelized.
Add the juice from the segmented lime. Squeeze the core of the lime over the pan as well and add the core. Stir and cook until reduced away. Add the port and cook until reduced by half. Add the vermouth and the parsley and again cook until reduced by half.
Add a sprig of thyme and the stock. Turn the heat down to low and let the sauce simmer away for an hour or until both the taste and thickness are to your liking. Check the seasoning midway through and adjust to taste with more lime juice and sugar if needed. Check the seasoning again at the end. Then strain through a fine sieve and set aside.
The onions: Melt 1/2 tbsp clarified butter in a large non-stick frying pan over medium heat. Add the sliced onions and cook for 3-5 mins or so until translucent. Add the other sprig of thyme and the other clove of garlic. Cook for anther 5 mins or so or until starting to nicely brown at the edges.
Season and add 1/2 tsp sugar and 1 tsp vinegar, stir and continue to cook for about 5 mins until nicely browned and caramelized, but not cremated. They should still retain moisture. Check the seasoning, adjust with sugar or vinegar, cook for another minute or so and set aside.
The leeks: Steam, microwave or blanch the leeks until al dente. Season and set aside.
When ready to serve:
Heat the oven to 220 C
Reheat the mash, onions and sauce while you finish the leeks and cook the liver, either in a microwave or gently over low heat on the hob or in a medium oven if you have the luxury of two ovens.
Finishing the leeks: melt 1/2 tbsp clarified butter in a non-stick frying pan over medium-high heat. When foaming, add the leeks and 2 tbsp water or stock. Toss the leeks until well coated, check the seasoning and simmer on low until glazed and warmed through
The liver: Melt 1/2 tbsp clarified butter in a large non-stick ovenproof frying pan over medium-high heat. Season the liver on both sides and dust in flour, patting the excess off before adding to the pan. Fry for 30 secs on each side, seasoning as you go.
Transfer the pan to the hot oven and cook for a further 2-4 mins depending on thickness. Meanwhile cut the lime segments into 2 or 3 pieces and gently heat in a small pan for a minute or so. Don’t forget them and cook them to mush like I did, doesn’t look great in the pics, but they still tasted great.
Remove the liver from the oven and remove from the pan to a heated plate to cover with foil if the rest of the garnishes aren’t quite ready yet. Leaving them in the pan would surely overcook them. Ideally you’d have everything ready immediately when the liver comes out of the oven.
To serve: spoon some caramelized onion onto one side of each plate. Spoon some mash on the other side. Top the mash with 2-3 baby leeks each. Top the onions with a tranche of liver. Spoon a little sauce over and around the liver. Serve the rest of the sauce in a sauce boat at the table (admittedly, mine was so reduced I had little to hand round at the table, but there was enough on the plates).
Lastly top each tranche of liver with a few lime segments. Or lime mush in my case.
Stir-fry a handful of bacon or pancetta lardons in a non-stick frying pan or wok. Add any leftover savoy cabbage and a crushed clove of garlic. Add a splash of water or stock if needed to keep the mixture moist and wilt the cabbage. Season with plenty of black pepper (you won’t need much if any salt due to the bacon or pancetta). Grate in a little nutmeg. Serve with any leftover liver and sauce.
Leftovers of the stir-fried cabbage and bacon make a nice brunch or lunch dish:
Lightly grease a ramekin or small oven dish (mine used to be a paté dish from a supermarket) with butter, oil or coconut oil. Whisk one egg and seasoning with a fork. Briefly soak sliced bread to line the bottom of your dish.
Stir the rest of the egg through left over cabbage and bacon. Top the bread with the cabbage and bacon.
Top with another egg. Season, scatter with some chopped fresh herbs if you’ve got them and bake at 180 C until set and golden. If the yolk cooks too quickly, cover with an alu foil hat and turn the oven down to 160 C.
Serve with bread or a salad garnish. I used left-over apple and cucumber dressing for the salad.