Thursday, 26 July 2012

That Much Heralded (If Not Particularly Weather Appropriate) Chicken Liver Stew

Summer seems to have arrived at last, at least it has here in London – just in time for the Olympics - and I find myself committed to writing up a recipe for stew.  Bleedin’ typical.  Still, as stews go, it’s pretty light and summery, and with it’s combination of paprika dusted chicken livers and butter beans it has a distinct hint of Spain about it too, which works for me any time of year, but summer and Spain do go together in my mind (even if the best times to actually go there are undoubtedly spring and autumn).

In my previous post on chicken livers I’d described dusting the trimmed livers in flour seasoned with salt, pepper and plenty of paprika (hot or sweet, the choice is yours, personally I switch randomly entirely dependent on mood or mere whim), and frying them till crisp and just starting to char at the edges on the outside, still delicately pink and tender on the inside, then using half the batch in a salad, and setting half aside in a bowl in the fridge to use in a stew for the next day.  Overlooking the fact that that I posted that over a week ago, imagine that it is now that ‘next day’, and time for chicken liver stew.  Which really couldn’t be quicker, easier, or much more delicious.

First take the bowl of chicken livers out of the fridge, along with a few rashers of streaky bacon (or pancetta) – a couple per person.  You’ll also need onions, mushrooms and a tin of beans – butter beans are my preference, for size, flavour, consistency, and a properly Spanish feel, but cannellini are a perfectly good substitute.  Or chickpeas work well too, and bring a different, perhaps more Moorish character to the dish.  If you want to throw in red pepper, fennel, or celery, as well as the onion, then go ahead – but the combination of liver bacon and onions is so good, and so classic, I tend to keep it pretty simple.  A little garlic and a bit of fresh chilli, a splash or two of wine and/or stock, seasoning and herbs, and that’s it.

Just start by frying your bacon, chopped to roughly postage stamp sized pieces, then add the onions with fine sliced garlic and fresh chilli (entirely optional and variable on whether you dusted in hot or sweet paprika) and hard herbs – thyme, and ideally a few sage leaves (sage goes wonderfully with all forms of liver), cook till softening, then add the mushrooms.  Cook a couple of minutes more, till the mushrooms are just coloured, then tip in your beans.  Add a glass of wine and a ladle or two of chicken stock (or all wine if you have no stock to hand, or vice versa – although that seems less likely, somehow…), cover the pan and simmer it all together gently till the onions are fully soft and the beans have just a little bite left in them.  Then add your chicken livers and basically just warm them through.  Scatter with fresh parsley.  It’s all done in about 20 minutes.

Serve just with good bread and a salad on a summery day, or with mash, or maybe colcannon if the weather calls for more hearty, comforty sort of eating.

Tuesday, 24 July 2012

Good Foie Gras (who knew?); Bad Asparagus. And How Good/Bad Distinctions Are Seldom That Simple...

Me, communing with ducks.  A bit like Eduardo Sousa (but rest assured none of the ducks in this picture were subsequently killed for their livers)

When I was searching out items to link to on my last post I came across a couple of things that got me thinking.  Thinking among other things that the issues they raised merited rather more than just being hidden away behind embedded links, that might or might not be clicked on.  So, rather than just posting the links and passing on, and at the risk of going back over ground that you may well have covered yourself having clicked on my previous post, here are a few of my thoughts prompted by two of those linked items:

The first was this one, which I came across while searching for articles on the ethics of foie gras production, that would illuminate the issue without being too revolting – after all, I was seeking to turn people on to the delights of chicken livers, not put them off eating all together.   What I hadn’t been expecting to come across was something that made me think again about foie gras, and make me really want to try some – of admittedly a very rare and no doubt terrifyingly expensive kind (there is no indication of how and where you might be able to purchase it on the Pateria de Sousa website, let alone a pricelist).  Even if you are – not unreasonably - unwilling to have your views on foie gras modified by the example of a product you have next to no chance of ever sampling, I would still urge you to click on the link and check out Dan Barber’sfoie gras parable” – because not only is it an extraordinary and intriguing tale, entertainingly told, I have to admit that by the end I also found it genuinely moving and, although it’s a word I’m not generally wont to use, actually inspiring.  And not just in the sense that it inspired me to think again about foie gras in particular, but for what it has to say more generally about animal welfare in farming, and even food production as a whole. 

If, of all things, foie gras can be produced with such respect for the welfare of – even love for – the geese involved, and for the environment in which they, and the farmer, live, then surely there is hope for us all.  And I’m not just talking about those who hanker for guilt free foie gras, or even just about those of us who do genuinely care about the ethics of food production, but ultimately, actually, everyone, because we all depend on the farming industry to produce our food.  Even those very few people among us who don’t directly, who manage to be 100% self sufficient, do still rely on an environment profoundly affected by the farming industry. 

Further, the fact that the foie gras produced in this way is so good, not in spite of the focus of attention being on the welfare of the goose and it’s environment, but as a direct result of it, is a truly beautiful thing.  An inspiring thing.  And, I think, the thing that turns the story into a parable.

Now I’m not so naïve to believe that Eduardo Sousa’s methods can be applied across world farming; that every livestock farmer will ever have either the time or the inclination to lie down with his flocks and whisper sweet nothings in their ears; that the lives of all domesticated animals reared for meat can be made so attractive that wild members of their species voluntarily come and join them.  Nor am I likely to be convinced that foie gras, or any other part of the goose for that matter, produced by his methods is ever going to be anything other than a prohibitively expensive luxury, available only to a very few.  But still, there are wider reaching lessons to be drawn from Dan Barber’s parable, lessons that apply to all animal husbandry, to all farming. 

There’s even a lesson that applies more generally than that: a lesson about ethics generally, or perhaps more particularly about how we view the world.  Too many people, too much of the time tend to reduce all issues to black/white; right/wrong.  The real world is more complex than that, and if an issue as apparently black and white as the ethics of foie gras production (foie gras: clearly bad, on animal welfare grounds) can turn out to have such a massive grey area (some foie gras, it turns out: not just good, but the highest welfare meat product you’re ever likely to encounter…) then what does that tell us about all the other, more obviously fuzzy, areas of ethical debate, that people still tend to polarise?  Don’t polarise, that’s what – think, and think again.  Just like the veal issue.

The other link that got me thinking was this one, about the impact of asparagus farming for overseas markets in Peru.  It seems our taste for out of season asparagus is, literally, draining Peru dry.  Which just goes to illustrate that the current trend for seasonality and local produce is based on more than foodie faddism (which is not to claim that all its proponents are more than mere foodie faddists).  Although, in light of my comments in the paragraph above, one does also have to take into account the benefits of $450 million annual export revenue for a country as poor as Peru, and the 10,000 jobs the asparagus industry has created in one of the very poorest parts of that poor country.  See, it can be tricky, living in the grey areas - so I’ll leave it entirely up to you whether or not to purchase Peruvian asparagus from your local mega mart.  On balance, personally, I won’t be.

I did say I’d be writing up more things to do with chicken liver on my next post – that’ll have to wait.  In the mean time, here’s a picture to keep you going…

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

I am a chicken liver lover

A month and more has passed since last I posted, making June 2012 the first month since I started this blog to come and go without a single word from me.  There’s no obvious excuse: yes, I’ve been busy, but I’ve been busy before, and I’m sure many others out there in the ‘sphere have been busier and still managed to blog regularly.  I think the problem has been, as much as a lack of time, a lack of inspiration – I do try to keep my posts seasonal, and the past month has been so depressingly unseasonal it’s been hard to come up with anything appropriate, either to write about, or for dinner for that matter.

Nevertheless, I must try – and do – better.  And will promise to at least make an effort not to go on too tediously about the bloody weather.  Apologies in advance for my inevitable failure on that particular score.  Bloody weather, blah, blah

My last post featured the barbeque, and I’m somewhat torn between picking up where I left off in a - dare I say characteristically British? - spirit of bugger the weather, and not wishing to do anything that’s only going to further rub in the absence of suitable barbequing conditions - given that chances are that as you read this it’ll be all grey, gloomy and distinctly soggy outside, as indeed it is as I write.  This dilemma though is neatly resolved by a scan through my recently accumulated food pics which reveals that the few times this year I’ve had the means, motive and opportunity to throw together something explicitly summery, either on the barbeque or not, it has inevitably featured asparagus.  And as we are at best, in the dying if not already dead days of this year’s asparagus season (I’m talking British asparagus here, obviously – it seems to be Peruvian asparagus season all year round – how? – but that doesn’t count) then any write ups of those meals will have to wait till next spring.  In the mean time, I guess I’ll stick to things that are sort of a bit summery, but also quite hearty and warming.

Like a warm chicken liver salad, for instance.

Now I love chicken livers.  Properly, seriously, love them.  To the extent that it is an enduring mystery to me how come they’ve not featured more heavily on this blog – or indeed (hardly, having been mentioned only in passing) at all.  Maybe it’s because whenever we do have them I’m always in too much of a hurry to eat them to take any decent pictures – which might or might not explain the quality of the pictures accompanying this particular post (or my blog in general, come to mention it…). 

Anyway, finally, let’s talk about chicken livers: not only are they utterly delicious, they are cheap, versatile, and both quick and very simple to prepare.  What’s not to like?  When considering poultry livers considered to be delicacies, most people’s minds will turn automatically to foie gras, but without even considering the ethics of its production, for me the fabulous richness that is the basis of foie gras’ appeal, is also its limiting factor, both in terms of its moreishness (perhaps just as well considering its exorbitant price) and perhaps more significantly its versatility.  And for those reasons alone – again without factoring in ethics, or cost – if forced to choose, I’d take chicken livers over foie gras, without any real sense of a dilemma.  You wouldn’t actually have to force me.  Add ethics to the equation, not to mention relative costs, and you’d have pretty much the dictionary definition of a ‘no brainer’ (although if I were ever to be offered any of the foie gras Dan Barber talks about rather marvellously here it might just change my mind…).

Also, and sorry to mention it again, but they’re just the thing for this dubiously summery and thoroughly unpredictable weather we’ve been having, being the perfect basis of a main course salad, either hot or cold, or a light and quick stew.  Or of course you could use them to make a pate (which given the soft, buttery texture they start off with could really hardly be easier, being, at its simplest just a question of mashing them with a fork) which would be ideal for taking on a picnic – if anyone’s been on one of those this year…

Pretty much whatever I’m going to end up doing with them, I start off by preparing them in the same way, which I have to admit is another appealing thing about them.  This is the method I devised (if that’s not too grand a word) to recreate at home the meze dish served at the Real Greek years ago (and I daresay to this day, but since it became a chain, no doubt not to the same delicious effect).  This is simply to dust the livers in flour seasoned with salt, pepper and paprika (use the sweet, or smoked/hot entirely depending on personal taste, or mood – I generally favour sweet so as not to overpower the delicate flavour of the livers, but sometimes feel in the mood for a little more spice) and fry quickly till the outsides have gained a lightly crunchy crust and the insides are still just pink.  The only trick to any of this is trimming the livers of any stringy bits of sinew, and, above all, to make sure you’ve properly drained them of any of the blood and general gloop they come packed with.  You want them dusted in flour before frying, not coated in a gluey paste.  The whole process takes about ten minutes including no more than a couple of minutes a side frying time, and will have prepared enough livers for a couple of main meals for the two of us, so normally when I take the livers out of the pan I’ll set half aside to cool before being put in the fridge for tomorrow, half to be used for tonight.

And normally the first night’s dish is a salad.  The simplest thing to do of course is just throw the livers together with a few leaves – chicory has a particular affinity, something to do with the contrast of the bitterness and crunch of the leaves with the sweet softness of the livers, I guess – but I usually include a couple of other things that just go so well with the livers it seems a criminal waste not to: pretty much always shredded bacon, because I always have bacon on hand (and why wouldn’t you?); very often avocado, depending on whether we have one that’s anything remotely like ripe; occasionally some black pudding or morcilla.

Usually I’ll mix the warm livers (and bacon) with cold leaves, dress with a sweetish sherry vinegar vinaigrette, and serve with sautéed potatoes on the side, but if the evening’s a particularly bleak disappointment – or you’re doing this at another time of year when chilly evenings are more seasonal – then you can obviously make the whole thing a hot salad by sautéing your leaves too – another thing chicory has a particular affinity for, although gem hearts are good too, just split lengthways and cooked in a lightly olive oiled pan with the cut surfaces down till they start to caramelise.  If it’s a hot salad, I’ll generally just toss it all together, potatoes and all.

 The following night I’ll generally turn the remaining livers into a stew: I’ll write that up in more detail in my next post.