If your mother had been Italian, your friends would have spent the night. Italians know what to do with liver. They don't even need expensive calves' liver. They can take a slice of wafer-thin beef liver, treat it exquisitely -- like a delicate expensive veal scallop -- add a golden polenta, a bottle of red wine, a cool crisp lettuce salad. Heaven.
There is a restaurant in Naples reached along the winding drive from Posillipo to the shore. The restaurant, Da Giuseppone a Mare, is famous for its view of the city, the towering cone of Vesuvius and the sweep of the curving Bay of Naples. But it is also famous for its house specialty, Fegato a Costa Nostra. The locals call it "the liver you can't refuse."
In Italy, liver commands respect. In this country, it has a serious public relations problem.
American shoppers walk by the liver in the supermarket with eyes averted. Its bad rep is fueled by bad memories created by bad cooking. If this is Wednesday, it must be liver. Tough liver. Sharp liver. Bitter liver. Liver like an old boot sole.
The Italians, who taught the French to cook, aren't ashamed to be liver lovers. They are proud to offer fegato (pronounced FAY-ga-toe) on their menus.
For a country not much bigger than the state of California, Italy has liver specialties in several regions. Venice claims it is the mother source of liver and onions. Fegato Genovese usually has rosemary with white wine. In the style of Milan, calves' liver slices are seasoned with lemon, dipped in beaten egg and bread crumbs and fried in butter. Farther south, in Sicily, liver is often skewered with link sausage, separated with bay leaves and grilled over charcoal.
In Florence recently, at the roof garden restaurant of the Hotel Excelsior where the sunset was turning the Arno River into a molten golden pink glow, baskets of fat beige porcini mushrooms were being presented temptingly by the waiters, but the attraction on the menu for the liver lovers was Fegato Tuscan, the regional specialty, liver cooked quickly in olive oil with fresh sage leaves.
The next trick is finding good liver. After all, if the Italians can make any liver taste good, their technique can make good liver taste great. For a food so nutritious, it is a shame that liver is often relegated to the freak sections of the meat counters. Liver and many of the other organ meats have found a home in the export markets, which is making them all rare commodities in this country.
Calves' liver is often found only frozen in neat little packages, gloomy dark brown and thickly sliced, an unappetizing reminder of childhood when liver was almost synonymous with punishment.
Search for a source of good fresh liver. It's around. Many of the small specialty butcher shops have it. Magruder's always has several varieties of fresh liver -- calf, baby steer (which is beef) and sometimes lamb and pork liver. Recently it had veal liver (from animals about a year old) at under $2.50 a pound. The fresh beef liver in Giant Someplace Special in McLean recently may have been the greatest bargain in the store at $1.99 a pound. It was already trimmed, sliced thinly and was unfailingly good tasting. Some of the other Giant meat markets also carry fresh liver (Herndon, Rockville, Bethesda). Safeway occasionally has fresh liver and says it will special order calves' liver for customers.
Cliff Shannon, senior meat buyer for Giant, says he has someone in Souderton, Pa, at the Moyer Packing House personally handpicking the livers for Giant so that the freshness and quality are assured.
With liver color ranging from rusty brown to cherry red to pinkish beige, how is a customer to know what to buy? The color range can be "the nature of the animal, age or maturity, or the feed formula," according to Shannon. He recommends choosing the lighter colors when there is a choice. (Avoid gray and dark brown).
"Years ago," he explained, "young vealers were fed only mother's milk and their livers weighed only one to three pounds and were a light tan." Now, new feeding formulas produce leaner beef, and the calf livers are bigger (three to five pounds) and a darker color.
A nutritional analysis of liver supplied by the National Live Stock and Meat Board in Chicago puts liver at the top of the list of the nutrient-rich variety meats such as kidney, heart, brains, sweetbreads and tongue. Liver is one of the best sources of iron, Vitamin A and riboflavin. A 3 1/2-ounce serving will provide 55 percent of the recommended daily dietary allowance for protein, 176 percent of the RDA for iron, 876 percent for Vitamin A and more than 100 percent for riboflavin and niacin.
Shunned by those on low cholesterol diets, liver isn't all that bad. A normal four-ounce serving of liver cooked in a vegetable oil would produce a 168-milligram cholesterol rating (considered moderate), according to "The Nutrition Cookbook" by Susan and Stephen Kreitzman (Harcourt-Brace Jovanovich).
Once purchased, liver should be rinsed in room-temperature water. Remove all cartilage, veins and outer skin. Refrigerate and cook within two days. Buy only what you need because a second cooking will dry out the liver.
Liver is ideal for Chinese stir-frying, with any mixed grill and can be pan-fried or broiled. But do learn to cook it rare; once past that point it toughens and the taste gets stronger.
A light red wine is usually served with liver, but if white wine is used in the recipe, serve the same white you used for cooking. PICCATA DI FEGATO AL LIMONE (Saute'ed Calves' Liver With Lemon) (4 servings)
Italian cooking expert Marcella Hazan says that cooking liver as you would a veal scaloppine, saute'ed and sauced with a little lemon juice is "unquestionably the freshest and lightest things one can do with liver."
The cooking secret is very fast cooking -- no time for second thoughts or re-reading the recipe.
This is a technique you can adapt for many liver recipes.
4 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 1/2 tablespoons butter
1 pound calves' liver, trimmed, sliced 1/4 inch thick
1/4 cup flour
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
In a 12-inch saute' pan, heat the oil and butter over medium heat until the butter foam subsides and the butter turns a very faint brown. Rapidly dredge the liver on both sides with flour and slip as many slices into the pan as will fit loosely. Cook liver for 30 seconds a side, then transfer to a warm dish. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Do not overcook. Liver should be pink and moist. When all liver is done, add lemon juice to the pan. Stir quickly once or twice, return liver to skillet to heat briefly. Transfer to warm serving dish, pour pan juices over and serve immediately.
Adapted from "The Second Classic Italian Cookbook" by Marcella Hazan, Macmillan, London. FEGATO ALLA TOSCANA (Calves' Liver Saute'ed with Sage and Lemon) (4 servings)
The Italians frequently team sage with liver. If you aren't growing sage in your herb garden, it is worth adding a plant this spring just for liver recipes.
1 1/2 pound calves' liver, sliced 3/8-inch thick
4 tablespoons light olive oil
1 clove garlic, peeled, cut in half
6 large fresh sage leaves (or 1 teaspoon dried sage)
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons lemon juice
Freshly ground pepper to taste
Lemon wedges and sage sprigs for garnish
Trim liver and cut into 3/8-inch strips; width and length of strips may vary but thickness should be the same to cook evenly.
Heat oil in large, heavy skillet over moderate heat. Add garlic and sage leaves to the skillet. When oil is hot add liver and saute' 2 or 3 minutes, stirring or moving pan constantly. Liver should be pink in middle.
Dissolve salt in lemon juice and add to the pan, stirring for about 30 seconds. Season with pepper. Transfer liver to serving dish and pour juices over it. Garnish with lemon and sage.
Adapted from "Cooking With Herbs" by Caroline Dille and Susan Belsinger, Van Nostrand Reinhold Co. $15.50. FEGATO ALLA MILANESE (Breaded Calves' Liver with Lemon)
* 1 pound calves' liver, sliced 1/2-inch thick
1/2 cup bread crumbs
1 egg, beaten
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons olive oil
Salt to taste
Juice of 1/2 lemon
Trim liver of tendons and membrane. Spread bread crumbs on a plate, dip liver into egg, then into crumbs, pressing crumbs into the meat to make sure they cling.
Melt butter and oil over medium high heat. Saute' liver slices a couple at a time. Do not crowd in the skillet. Cook until golden brown on each side -- liver should still be pink in the middle. Arrange slices on serving plate, sprinkle with salt and lemon juice. FEGATO ALLA VENEZIANA (Saute'ed Calves' Liver With Onions) (4 servings)
While liver and onions is served all over Italy, the Venetians claim to have invented the dish. They treat it with reverence, and their light and delicate version bears no resemblance to the depression-era recipes that forever prejudiced future generations in this country into believing that liver and onions meant a hard, leathery scrap of meat hidden beneath a heap of greasy onions.
4 tablespoons olive oil (divided)
1 cup onions, thinly sliced
1 teaspoon fresh sage leaves, finely chopped, or 1/4 teaspoon dried sage leaves
1 pound calves' or beef liver, thinly sliced, trimmed of membranes and veins, cut into strips
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 tablespoon wine vinegar, preferably white
2 tablespoons fresh parsley, chopped finely
Heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a heavy 10- to 12-inch skillet. Add onions, cook over moderate heat, stirring frequently until onions are limp and lightly colored, about 7 or 8 minutes. Add sage, cook another 2 minutes, remove onions to a warm plate.
Pat liver strips dry with paper towels, season with salt and a few grindings of pepper. Add remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil to the skillet and heat until a light haze forms over it. Drop in the liver strips and saute' quickly, about 30 seconds to 1 minute per side depending on thickness, or until lightly browned. Do not overcook. They should be lightly pink inside. Add onions and heat briefly. Remove both onions and liver to a warm platter.
Add vinegar to skillet, stirring and scraping up bits clinging to the pan. Stir in parsley and pour sauce over the liver and onions. Serve immediately.
Adapted from "The Cooking of Italy" by Waverly Root, TIME-LIFE Books, New York. FEGATO DI VITELLO ALLA ITALIANO (Calves' Liver With Ham and Marsala Wine) (4 servings)
1 pound calves' or beef liver, trimmed, sliced thin
3 tablespoons flour (divided)
1/4 cup ( 1/2 stick) butter
2 slices prosciutto, chopped fine (or thin slices of cooked ham or salami)
1/2 small onion, minced
1/2 teaspoon dried sage leaves (or 1 tablespoon chopped fresh sage)
3 tablespoons parsley, chopped
1/2 cup chicken or beef broth
1/4 cup dry marsala wine
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Lemon wedges for serving
Dredge liver slices in 2 tablespoons flour and fry in hot butter very quickly, about 30 seconds to 1 minute per side, until golden. Do not overcook. Remove to hot platter. To the butter in skillet add ham, onion, sage and parsley. Saute' about 1 or 2 minutes or until onion is limp and tender but not brown. Stir in 1 tablespoon flour, add broth, wine, salt and pepper. Simmer about 5 minutes. Add liver slices just long enough to warm. Serve immediately with lemon wedges.
Adapted from "Great Recipes From the World's Great Cooks," by Peggy Harvey. Recipe attributed to "The Italian Cook Book," by Maria Luisa Taglienti, Random House, 1955. MIMMETTA LO MONTE'S GRILLED LIVER AND SAUSAGES (6 servings)
File this one away for summer cookouts. Sicilian-born Mimmetta Lo Monte, cookbook author and teacher of Italian cooking, says this is an old recipe from Palermo. She is another good cook who is not snobbish about beef liver and sees no reason to use the more expensive calves' liver when the dish will be highly seasoned.
She serves this with crostini, the crunchy French or Italian bread brushed with olive oil, crisped in an oven and sprinkled with pepper.
Lo Monte uses the double skewer technique also used by the Japanese to keep food from swiveling on the skewer.
1 pound country sausage links
1 pound beef liver, cut 1/2 inch thick and into 2-inch strips
1 large sweet onion, cut lengthwise and then into strips matching size of liver and sausage
Whole bay leaves, soaked in water several hours to soften
3 tablespoons olive oil
Salt to taste
Lemon wedges for serving
Simmer sausage links in 1/2-inch of water in a frying pan about 20 minutes, turning occasionally to render fat. Cut links into 2-inch sections.
Toss liver strips, sausage pieces, onion strips and bay leaves in olive oil. Place 2 thin skewers (if wooden skewers are used, soak them for about an hour in water to keep them from catching fire) parallel, about 1/2 inch apart. Alternate liver, sausage, onion and bay leaves, attaching each piece to both skewers. (When skewers are turned on the grill the food won't revolve.) Broil under broiler or on charcoal grill very quickly just until liver is done but still pink in the middle. Salt to taste and serve with lemon wedges. POLENTA (4 servings)
Polenta, the soothing cornmeal pudding from northern Italy, is the perfect accompaniment to liver dishes. It can be spiked with any of your favorite herbs and the cheese can vary -- either parmesan or mozzarella, or both. This Italian classic used to require long slow cooking, but modern cornmeals have turned it into a fast food -- a superb change from potatoes, rice or pasta for many other meals.
3 cups weak chicken or vegetable broth, or water
1 cup yellow cornmeal
2 tablespoon fresh sage, chopped (optional)
1/4 cup parmesan cheese, freshly grated
1 tablespoon butter
1/2 teaspoon salt
In a heavy saucepan, combine the cold broth and cornmeal, sifting the cornmeal slowly into the broth through your fingers and stirring with a whisk to prevent lumps. Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly. As the mixture thickens, add sage, cheese, butter and salt. When thick, cook 30 seconds without stirring. Remove from heat, cover and let stand a few minutes before serving. If you aren't going to serve the polenta immediately, it may be poured into a shallow buttered baking dish sprinkled with additional parmesan and left covered for an hour. When ready to serve, place in a 350-degree oven for 20 minutes until it is bubbly and edges begin to brown. Let stand 10 minutes before cutting into squares for serving.
If you prefer the traditional longer cooked version, start the polenta in the top of a double boiler over direct heat; when it comes to a boil put it in lower half of double boiler with just enough water so that it doesn't touch the upper half of the pan. Simmer over low heat for an hour. LAMB LIVER WITH SHALLOTS (4 servings)
Lamb livers are small and tender, but they have a distinctive lamb flavor. In testing this recipe, one member of the family thought it was fabulous, the other found the flavor too sharp.
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 cup shallots, chopped
1 pound lamb liver, sliced 1/3 inch thick and then into strips
1/4 cup dry white wine
In a saute' pan, heat together butter and olive oil. Add shallots and cook until golden brown, about 5 minutes. Add liver strips and cook briefly until liver is still pink in the middle. Add wine and cook 1 more minute.