Pink of perfection

Low-cost chicken livers deserve a place at the high table
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The Independent Culture
With so many restaurants, from the highly luxurious to the good yet humble, opting to cook either foie gras or calves' liver, it occurs to me that the simple chicken liver has been a little forgotten of late. Its only regular appearance seems to be in a warm salad with croutons, frisee leaves, bacon and a punchy mustard dressing (at least that is how it ought to be) or whizzed into the ubiquitous parfait of chicken livers that, these days, always seems to include foie gras as well.

One should never be bored by any sort of food: good food is good food is always good food, no matter if it is deemed to be "fashionable" or makes perhaps too many regular appearances in books, on TV or on the restaurant table. The fatted duck- or, more rarely, goose-liver and the rosy pink slice of fondant foie de veau almost certainly fall into the category of the constant and well loved, and would most definitely be missed if they were to be absent for long, but let the diminutive poultry liver at least have some of the action, in its own right.

It does not really seem all that long ago that the chicken liver reigned supreme. Most pates that called themselves maison were made from chicken liver, perhaps with a modicum of minced port and bacon, and seasoned with garlic, mixed herbs and chopped onion. This one would often then be termed a terrine, with the aforementioned maison being dropped in favour of campagne, or country, pate. However, the most popular, and easiest to make if the truth be known, was that happy little paste of livers and butter, with a little Cognac for contrast and a smidgen of garlic for kicks.

Here is a good example where the little liver is allowed to shine. The following recipe for chicken livers in a peppercorn jelly originated from a superb and luxurious preparation created by the great French chef Michel Guerard. He used a whole lobe of fresh foie gras, poached in poultry stock and then lacquered with a thick sheen of poultry jelly aromatised by crushed peppercorns. It was, and still is, a staggeringly fine dish, real haute cuisine and intelligently thought out. Well, he is a bit of a genius, that M Guerard. However, you will be pleasantly surprised to see how brilliant the dish can also be, using the common chicken liver in place of its overweight cousin.

Note: try to find pale pink livers for all the recipes here, as they have a richer texture and flavour. Naturally, you should also always try to use fresh rather than frozen.

Chicken livers in peppercorn jelly, serves 4-5

Try not to be put off doing this recipe just because you have to make this jelly thing, as all it is, in essence, is a chicken stock. And, if any is left over, it can only be a good thing.

For the jelly:

500g/1lb 2oz chicken wings

1 pig's trotter, split lengthways by the butcher

1 litre water

275ml/ 12 pint dry white wine

1 onion, peeled and chopped

1 carrot, peeled and chopped

2 sticks celery, chopped

3 cloves

3-4 thyme sprigs

2 bay leaves

12 chicken stock cube

350g/12oz beautiful fresh chicken livers, cleaned of all green stains and sinewy bits

For the clarification:

200g/7oz raw, skinless chicken meat, chopped

110g/4oz trimmed and cleaned chicken livers

2 large egg whites

1 onion, peeled and chopped

1 carrot, peeled and chopped

4-5 sprigs fresh parsley

75ml/3fl oz Madeira or medium sherry

1 tbsp red wine vinegar

1tsp white peppercorns and 1tsp black peppercorns, coarsely crushed and sieved to remove excess pepper powder

Put all the ingredients for the jelly in a large pan and bring gently up to the boil, removing any scum as it forms. Cook at the gentlest simmer for three hours. Drain through a large colander set over another large pan. Pick out the pieces of chicken and also the trotter (the meat picked off it, chopped, can be used to make some potted meat if you like).

Once the stock has settled after draining, lift off any fat from the surface with several sheets of kitchen paper. Take a few ladlefuls of the stock and put into a separate pan. Bring to a simmer and poach the livers gently in the stock for no more than a couple of minutes; the texture of the livers should be bouncy, but not firm. Lift out and allow to cool completely on a plate.

Put all the ingredients for the clarification into the bowl of a food processor. Work to a puree and mix into the cooled stock, preferably with your hands, mulching the clarification thoroughly into the liquid. Set on a low heat and allow to come up to a simmer very slowly. When the first signs of froth and scum appear, and the clarification mush is starting to solidify, a trickle of the stock will come up through the mess. Allow this to happen in various places and then turn off the heat. Leave for a few minutes and then repeat the process twice more. Now set on to the lowest possible flame and leave to percolate for 40 minutes. Switch off the heat and leave to settle for 10 minutes.

Wet an old tea towel or muslin and use it to line a sieve. Suspend over a roomy bowl or pan and, with a ladle, transfer the now clarified stock from underneath. Leave to drip for 20 minutes or so, but under no circumstances consider pressing any of the solid matter, as this will cloud the jelly.

Set the clear jelly in a bowl set over another one filled with ice. Stirring from time to time, allow the jelly to become syrupy. Once this starts to happen, lift the jelly from the ice and stir in the peppercorns. Cut the poached and cooled chicken livers into dice and put into small ramekins or one larger, shallow dish. Spoon over the jelly to cover the livers completely, and put into the fridge to set for at least three hours. Serve in the pots or spooned out of the single dish with a warmed spoon. Crisp, buttered toast and gherkins would make suitable accompaniments.

Simple chicken liver pate, serves 4-5

110g/4oz butter

225g/8oz chicken livers, trimmed of any sinew and green stains

salt and pepper

3 shallots, peeled and finely chopped

14 tsp ground allspice

1 clove garlic

12tsp fresh thyme leaves

2tbsp Cognac

a little extra melted butter

Melt 25g/1oz of the given butter in a roomy frying pan until foaming. Add the livers, season and fry quickly until pale golden and bouncy but not firm. Lift out on to a plate and allow to cool. Add a further 25g/1oz butter and sweat the shallots in it until softened and transparent. Stir in allspice, garlic and thyme and pour in Cognac. Set alight, allow the flames to die down and add the remaining butter.

Take this mixture from the flame and leave to cool for a few minutes. Tip into a food processor and add the chicken livers. Puree until coarsely smooth and then pour into a bowl. Check for seasoning. The mixture should be especially savoury because as the pate cools, its flavour mellows and can become bland if not highly seasoned. Spoon the mixture into a suitable dish and cover the surface with cling film. Put into the fridge for one hour to firm up. Remove the film and carefully spoon over the extra melted butter until none of the pate shows through. Return to the fridge for 24 hours before eating, but best to consume within four days. Serve spread on to hot, thin toast.

Warm chicken liver mousses, serves 6

This is a classic of the rich cookery of the Lyonnais. One of the most famous renditions is to serve it with an equally rich crayfish cream sauce which, strange as it sounds, works wonderfully. As fresh, live crayfish are not available at your local supermarket or fishmonger, try it with your favourite tomato sauce, liquidised to a luxurious smoothness with a little butter and cream and not, for once, with olive oil, please.

The amount of bone marrow in the following recipe should be obtainable from one beef bone, sliced by the butcher with his handy band-saw. When you get the pieces home, soak the bones in cold water in the sink for an hour or so. This will help loosen the marrow so that it may be eased out with the fingers.

110g/4oz bone marrow, chopped into chunks

150ml/5fl oz milk

150ml/5fl oz single cream

1 clove garlic, peeled, green germ removed and coarsely chopped

1 small shallot, peeled and chopped

2 eggs

1 egg yolk

150g/5oz chicken livers, trimmed of all sinew and green parts

14 tsp salt

freshly ground white pepper

freshly grated nutmeg

Put the bone marrow, milk and cream, garlic and shallot into a small pan and heat to only just warm; this will soften the bone marrow. Leave to cool to room temperature. Put the eggs, egg yolk, livers, salt, pepper and nutmeg into the liquidiser and puree. Once the milk/bone marrow mixture has cooled add the pureed livers and blend all together until really smooth. Pass through a fine sieve into a bowl and leave to settle for 10 minutes.

Place a steamer on to heat up (this is undoubtedly the best way to cook these little mousses) and also generously butter six small ramekins or dariole moulds. A small disk of greaseproof paper placed in the base of each will ease removal of the mousses, once cooked.

Now that the mousse mixture has settled, remove the scum that has collected on the surface, with a small ladle. Stir the mixture gently and ladle into the prepared moulds. Cover each one with a piece of foil and place in the steamer. Turn the heat down and simmer for 10 minutes.

Without removing the lid, leave the mousses to finish cooking in the residual heat for a further 40 minutes. Lift off the foil, carefully run a small knife around the inside of the moulds and turn out on to hot plates. Spoon over the tomato sauce and serve

Many apologies for the double bill of sauce gribiche recipes over past two weeks. The only consolation could be that this wonderful sauce will now be firmly embedded in your culinary consciousness.