Welcome to Old Folks Food Week, where we resurrect and celebrate the delicious dishes of yore.
There exists a fine line in cooking between “old school” and “retro,” and it seems to be delineated by nostalgia. Any foodstuff we can point to that has fond memories associated is “retro,” and a return to them is met with paroxysms of delight (Steak Diane, for example—it’s beef but with fire and theater!). Some “old school” foods, however, are met with a combination of head-shaking humor and distaste. Case in point, molded gelatin “salads,” the butt of many an internet listicle joke. There was a time when these dishes were the height of entertaining elegance and fun family dining, but they fell out of favor for a reason.
They are ghastly. They do not look good, they do not taste good.
Still, some dishes considered “old school” may be due for a “retro” revival. Liver and onions are a prime candidate. For decades, this classic dish of sliced liver, pan-fried and smothered in braised onions, was a staple of American families and would translate to diners and greasy spoons. But in the last half century, it began falling out of favor, becoming a rarity in American gastronomy. Mention liver and onions to baby boomers, and they either love and crave it, or they hate it. Past that generation (anyone under, say, 50), liver and onions as a construct is virtually a non-starter.
I’ve got several theories. First, the broad tradition of liver and onions was two-fold. For those living in rural areas and doing their own butchering of livestock, nose to tail cookery was a sustenance necessity and not a slogan at some trendy restaurant. Offal cookery was as common as baking your own bread, and the frying of fresh liver was considered a butchering day treat. And this rich cut—full of iron and minerals and protein and fat—was just the thing to replenish the energies after a long day of hard work.
For more urban dwellers, liver was an inexpensive cut of meat with excellent nutritional value. But then as prosperity, well, prospered in the 1950s, changing times meant for changing cookery. Housewives were inundated with two important messages: First, your home was your pride and joy and should be immaculate at all times. Second, there are newfangled time-saving gadgets and appliances and food products galore to ensure that when hubby gets home, you are dressed and pressed, the martinis are chilled, and the children have been fed a nutritious meal before bath time. So, some of the historically scratch cooking disappeared in favor of frozen and store-bought foodstuffs. They were cheap and convenient.
And so much of the “stinky” cooking went by the wayside. Fish and liver were notorious for smelling up your kitchen for days. And the desire to assimilate away from the memories of homes that smelled of cabbage, pickling, fermenting, or the cooking of foods associated with the immigrant generations, led to housewives who bought their sauerkrauts and herrings in jars from the supermarket. Why have your husband come home after a long day at work to a house that smelled like a seaport when frozen fish sticks and potted shrimp can put seafood on your table without the nasty odors? And why make your house smell like an abattoir by cooking liver when ground chuck is available for pennies a pound?
This perfect storm of 1) readily available cheap cuts of meat, 2) housewives desperate to make the right impression, 3) plus first/second-generation American families seeking an identity that was more apple pie and less apple strudel, and it’s no wonder liver and onions didn’t stand a chance. Then, as the 1970s began to bring in awareness of dietary health and calorie counting, poor out-of-fashion liver, with its high fat and cholesterol content, was further jettisoned for leaner (and less flavorful) chicken breasts. What had always been considered a food that was good for you was now perceived as supremely unhealthy, which seems to have been the proverbial nail in the coffin.
But there is room to move this dish out of the “old school” realm and settle it down in “retro”. When it comes to offal, we in 2018 are a little more adventurous. So perhaps this dish, which used to be ubiquitous and now is considered an acquired taste, is actually a taste worth acquiring. The ventilation hoods in our kitchen can withstand stir-frying with kimchee and charring serrano peppers right on our burners, so the fear of a funky house can be put to bed. Since most of us aren’t doing our own butchery, we can source milder calves liver or even chicken livers as the gateway organ, thereby holding out another day for gamier beef or pork liver.
Cooking a mess of onions in butter is never a bad idea, and now that we know more about food safety, we can sauté our liver to a gentle pink tenderness instead of hammering it to a rubbery well-done. Add lemon for acid and balance, sage for herbaceous flavor, and you’ve got a classic dish that is just as relevant and delicious in 2018. Add some creamy mashed potatoes, a steamed green vegetable, and both dinner and memory are served. It’s so old it’s new again.
Classic Liver and Onions
- 3 medium yellow onions, sliced thin
- 6 Tbsp. unsalted butter
- 1 1/2 lbs. calves’ liver, membrane removed and sliced about 1/2-inch thick (your butcher can do this for you, and you can substitute 1 1/2 lbs. chicken livers if you prefer)
- 1/2 cup Wondra flour (you can substitute all-purpose, or even rice four if you need this to be gluten-free)
- 1/4 cup chicken stock
- 1 Tbsp. fresh lemon juice
- 2 Tbsp. chopped fresh sage (can substitute flat leaf parsley)
- Salt and pepper
Heat 4 tablespoons of butter in a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. When it has finished foaming, add the onions, along with a generous pinch of salt and about five grindings of black pepper. Stir so that all of the onions are coated in butter. When the onions begin to release their liquid, reduce the heat to medium and cook, stirring frequently, until tender and a light golden brown. You are not looking for deep caramelization here, but you do want a definitive color change. This may take 10-15 minutes. When the onions are done, remove them to a bowl and set aside.
Season the liver slices on both sides with salt and pepper and dredge in the flour, shaking off the excess; you just want a light coating. Melt the remaining butter in the same skillet, no need to have cleaned it out, and when the butter stops foaming, add the liver slices in one layer. You may need to do this in batches. Cook about 1-2 minutes per side until the liver is golden brown but still soft. Once you have turned the liver twice, ensuring that there is good color, remove the liver to a warmed plate, and if you need to, sauté the second batch of slices. Once all of the liver is browned and set aside, return onions to the pan and add stock, lemon juice, and sage. Cook, stirring, until the juices have thickened slightly, then taste for seasoning, adding more salt, pepper, or even more lemon if it needs it. When the sauce tastes good to you, carefully lay all of the liver over the onion sauce mixture and gently spoon some of the sauce and onions over the top of the liver, cooking about 4-5 minutes longer to finish cooking the interior of the liver. You can check for doneness by making a small cut into the thickest part of the liver, you are looking for a gentle pink with brown on the edges, and no raw or rare looking line in the middle.
Once the liver is cooked, serve with a generous tangle of onions on top, with the sides of your choice—mashed potatoes or buttered rice highly recommended for soaking up the sauce.