One of the best aspects of buying whole chicken is the plastic-wrapped bundle of organs tucked inside the cavity. Raise your hand if you use the contents. No?
Perhaps recognizing that most people just throw out the liver, heart, and gizzards, many chicken processors – including one of my favorites, the sustainable-practices Ayrshire Farm – no longer include that little packet of organ-y goodness. And that’s a shame. I know it’s annoying when people whip out the old “When I was a kid” line, but when I was a kid, my favorite parts of the chicken were the heart and gizzards. My mom would set an entire chicken to simmer in spices and aromatics, or rub it in salt and pepper to roast in the oven; soon after the cooking started, she’d spear the heart and gizzards with a fork or chopstick and hand it across the counter to me. Years later, driving through Dollywood (I know) on the way to the Smokies, I stopped for gas at a filling station in Tennessee that also sold hot paper cones of fried gizzards. We can debate the wisdom of buying gas station food from a guy in a dirty sleeveless Bud t-shirt with a cigarette who filled the cone with a lit cigarette firmly clamped between his lips, but we can’t argue about the taste. Those gizzards were good.
I wrote recently about my foie gras and sweetbreads initiation in Paris a couple of decades ago. Undoubtedly, the path to foie was eased by many a chicken liver. My husband, who claims not to enjoy liver, makes numerous exceptions: for Braunschweiger, a hastily made chopped liver flavored with Cognac on toast, chicken liver pâté. Once, while an undergraduate at Oberlin, he and some friends, having taken responsibility for the weekend meal at their co-op, prepared chicken liver pâté for eighty people. Or what they thought was the right amount for eighty people, which with a certain perspective on how much pâté any one person might eat has turned out to be way more than eighty people ever were going to eat. In any case, they filled a three gallon plastic bucket with the remaining pâté, which Nat brought home to his apartment. According to the Baldwin Co-op Chicken Liver Pâté Mythos, the next day – Super Bowl Sunday – his housemates ate most of the pâté right out of the bucket while watching the game until a certain sense of gastric unease forced them to stop. Asked about it today, Nat will only deliver this message: “Tony Geron, no one forced you to eat all that pâté.”
No one’s going to force you to eat three gallons of pâté from a plastic bucket. But you might want to think twice before throwing out that little plastic packet next time you buy a whole chicken. Use it to make a quick chopped liver, to serve before the chicken. Or freeze it, covered in milk, adding livers and milk to the container with each chicken you butcher, and make a smooth, rich pâté.
Quick chopped liver
This is the perfect way to use one large chicken liver, fresh from the chicken. Don’t have Cognac? Don’t worry – Madeira, brandy, Calvados, port, and even bourbon can substitute.
1/2 small onion, peeled and diced as small as possible (1/8″ if you can)
2 tbsp butter, divided
2 sprigs thyme
one large chicken liver
1 tbsp Cognac
salt and pepper
Place a sauté pan over medium heat and, when hot, add 1 tbsp butter. When the butter foams, add the onions and thyme and reduce the heat slightly, seasoning with a little salt. Sauté the onions until they just begin to turn golden.
While the onion cooks, clean the liver – remove the veins and connective tissue – and chop as finely as you can. The liver is very soft so you should be able to chop with ease. It will appear to coalesce into a pool, rather than distinct small pieces.
Raise the heat slightly. Add the liver to the onions, season with salt, and cook, stirring from time to time, until the liver is tender and begins to brown. Add the Cognac and cook until the liquid is absorbed. Remove the thyme, stir in the remaining butter. Garnish with chives.
Serve on toast points.
Chicken liver pâté
This makes a decent amount of pâté – about 28 ounces or so, probably enough for at least 10 servings – but if you cover it with fat, pack it into small tightly sealed containers with gaskets, and don’t open it until you’re ready to eat, you can prolong its life to about 3 weeks. Great for parties!
The awesomeness of this pâté is its silken texture. You won’t find fibers or granular bits in this pâté because it’s been passed through a fine sieve. That step takes a little time and I won’t pretend it’s fun standing there pushing it through, but it’s worth it. You can dispense with the sieving, and it’ll taste good, but not as good.
If you accumulate livers in milk in the freezer, prepare this dish once you have about a pound (maybe 8 large) livers. Thaw them in the refrigerator and, when totally thawed, drain the milk. You can dispense with the milk-soaking step in the recipe, which reduces the blood content and bitterness of the livers.
1 lb chicken livers
2 c milk
1 large onion, peeled and diced
6 sprigs thyme
optional: curing salt (Tinted Curing Mix or pink salt)
1/4 tsp quatre épices or a large pinch each of the following ground spices: cloves, ginger, and nutmeg plus 1/8 tsp white pepper
3 tbsp Cognac
5 oz (10 tbsp or 1 1/4 sticks) unsalted butter
1/2 c melted duck fat, or chicken fat, or butter
Clean the liver – remove the veins and connective tissue. Divide into equal-sized large pieces. Soak in milk, refrigerated, for at least 2 hours. Drain well and discard the milk.
Place a sauté pan over medium heat and, when hot, add 2 tbsp vegetable oil. Add the onions, thyme, and bay and reduce the heat slightly, seasoning with a little salt. Sauté the onions until they just begin to turn golden.
Raise the heat slightly and add the quatre épices. Add the liver to the onions, season with about 3/4 tsp salt or 3/4 tsp salt plus 1/16 tsp curing salt (if using), and cook, stirring from time to time, until the liver is tender and begins to brown. Add the Cognac and cook until the liquid is absorbed. Remove the thyme and bay leaf.
Transfer to a vitaprep or blender and process until relatively smooth. Add the butter and continue to process. The mixture will be quite runny. It will firm up on chilling.
Pass through a tamis or fine sieve, using a rubber spatula or bowl scraper to push the mixture through. Taste for seasoning and transfer to lidded jars, preferably with gaskets, leaving 1/2″ or more space at the top.
Melt the duck fat and pour a thin layer over the surface of the pâté in each jar. Chill until firm.
Serve with toast or grilled bread, accompanied by sweet onion confit or cornichons.