I learned to make authentic Venetian-style calves liver from my neighbor Beppi, a couple of years ago–it was one of the first dishes of his region (the Veneto) that he taught me. He learned this dish in the 1940’s as a waiter at the fabled Hotel Danieli. There are probably not many people around from that period who can teach this dish with such perfect recall as Beppi can.
Fegato alla Veneziana begins with lots of sliced onions, sauteed in butter, oil and red wine. After about twenty minutes, the onions are caramelized and meltingly sweet, with the exotic undertone of the wine.
Once the onions are ready, the dish is very quick–the liver, having been meticulously trimmed of any muscle or sinew, is sliced into very small pieces. The pieces are lightly drizzled with red wine vinegar and left to sit for about fifteen minutes. At the last minute, on very high heat, the liver is sauteed quickly, then tossed with the onions and simmered for a few minutes. That’s the dish–it results in something that I’d describe, for lack of better words, as a liver stew. Beppi likes to serve it beside polenta and it’s great that way.
My mother, on the other hand, always made her liver differently–in larger pieces, more like steaks. She dredged them lightly in flour and pan roasted them in oil. She cooked them until they were well-done on the inside. As a standard accompaniment to her liver, she always served piselli e riso (rice and peas).
I’ve adopted my mother’s method of leaving the liver in large steaks, but I’ve kept Beppi’s meltingly sweet onions stewed in red wine. Unlike my mother, I cook the liver to only medium-rare inside. I don’t dredge in flour–I find that the liver makes its own deeply caramelized exterior without any help. At the end of the searing, I like to add a dash of balsamic vinegar to the skillet, which instantly glazes the liver and gives the dish an irresistable sweetness.
Instead of serving rice or polenta, I like to serve my liver with a salad, incorporating a sweet/tart dressing. The salad is a combination of baby arugula, sliced apples and walnuts. It’s dressed with red wine vinegar, agave, and extra-virgin olive oil. This is truly a bright, exciting and light way to serve liver–it’s reminiscent of the way the french sometimes serve foie gras as an appetizer with salad. If you like foie gras, you will love this dish (it’s a bit lighter as well)!
Calves Liver My Way
3/4 lb calves liver, trimmed of all white membranes and visible sinew.
3 medium onions
4 tbls olive oil
1/2 c red wine
salt and pepper
4 tbls balsamic vinegar
On low heat, simmer onions (covered) in 2 tbls oil until golden, about 10 minutes, stirring every so often. Turn up heat, add wine and reduce, uncovered for another 5 minutes or so. Set aside.
In a nonstick skillet, heat the remainin oil and season the liver well on both sides with salt and pepper and place in hot oil. Turn heat to medium and sear for about 3 minutes on the first side. Turn and let sear for another 4 – 5 minutes. Add balsamic vinegar and cook until the vinegar coats the liver with a rich dark glaze. Remove from heat and allow liver to rest 5 minutes before serving.
Salad of Baby Arugula, Apples and Walnuts
2.5 oz. of arugula (half a plastic container)
1/2 fuji apple, sliced thin
2 tbls coarsely chopped walnuts
1 tbl extra-virgin olive oil
1 tsp red wine vinegar
a splash of agave (about a tsp)
salt and pepper to taste
Toss all and serve alongside just about anything!