Calf’s liver, onions and beetroot

Preparation info

  • Difficulty

    Medium

  • Serves

    2

    (to cook this for 4 would require an enormous frying pan and very strong wrists)

Appears in

Fegato alla veneziana, a Venetian dish of calf’s liver with onions, has been on virtually every Soho Italian restaurant menu for decades. Surprisingly, it was the one dish they all seemed competent at: ghastly trattorie that couldn’t manage a decent meal if their lives depended on it somehow managed to get this one right. Possibly because of all these associations, the dish has never been served at Frith Street, which is a pity as the Italians have, as usual, got it completely spot on – liver and onions is a winner. Liver and beetroot, on the other hand, sounds exceedingly dubious. The idea was first mooted by Michel Guérard in his Cuisine Gourmande as a footnote to roast saddle of hare with beetroot. The great man says that the beetroot sauce would work equally well with calf’s liver. Well, it does work, I’ve been bashing away at it ever since.

A lunch at the restaurant in late 1998 left me with six portions of liver, but only enough beetroot for three. Normally the dish includes a little finely chopped shallot, so by substituting coarsely sliced onion, slivering the liver and using what beetroot I had, a new dish was born. Whilst this is all true, it is also all rubbish; nobody ever creates a new dish (or if they do, there are perfectly sound reasons why it hadn’t been served before. Disgusting taste would be one). Common sense, necessity, taste, confidence in technique and pure happenstance are the creative forces that resulted in this combination. A combination that was only new to one restaurant, its customers on that day and its repertoire of liver dishes. I am confident that such a delicious mixture must exist somewhere else, probably somewhere in central or eastern Europe, judging by its flavour.

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Ingredients

  • 300 g calf’s liver (ask your butcher to skin it and cut into thin slices)
  • 300 g onions, peeled and cut into slices roughly as thick as the liver
  • 150 g cooked beetroot (not pickled), peeled and sliced
  • 50 g plain flour, seasoned generously
  • salt and pepper
  • a little sunflower oil
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 50 g butter
  • ½ tsp balsamic vinegar
  • 50 ml veal, beef or Chicken Stock, fairly concentrated (tinned consommé is a good alternative but be cautious with salt in the rest of the recipe)
  • juice of ½ lemon

Method

Cut the liver slices into 1 cm strips, removing any major veins and gristle as you do. Prepare the beetroot and onions.

The whole dish only takes a couple of minutes to cook, but it must be a seamless process: once you start, you mustn’t stop. Heat a large frying pan over a high flame. Dredge the liver strips in the seasoned flour and shake off any excess. Put a tablespoon of oil into the hot pan, and as soon as this is hot, throw in the onion and bay leaf, and sauté briskly until colouring and starting to wilt. Add a small amount of the butter, and as soon as it melts put the liver in and cook, still on high heat, until the meat is sealed on all sides. You will probably need to add a little more butter and some seasoning. These two phases of the cooking should only take 2 minutes. Time now to add the beetroot. Mix thoroughly with the other ingredients and sauté for 30 seconds, then add the vinegar and stock. Return the pan to a boil, stir and remove from the heat, add a couple of knobs of butter, swirling the pan as you do to incorporate it as it melts. A squeeze of lemon juice, adjust the seasoning and remove the bay leaf to finish the dish.

Serving

Serve immediately. Fegato alla veneziana is correctly served with soft (wet) polenta but a much more palatable alternative is Mashed Potatoes.

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