"My grandmother cooked it, and as good as she was at some things, she wasn't real great at cooking liver," Rodney Staton said of his history with the internal organ. (Staton's new bar and restaurant, the Ogden, will open in the next few weeks.) "Whenever she'd cook it, there was that smell about the house. When I was little, I didn't like onions either, and it was always liver and onions, so I stayed away from it."
He's since learned to like liver—mostly. The taste has "a mineral kind of undertone to it," Staton said. "It reminds me of, as a kid, being punched in the mouth while wearing braces. That kind of metallic, bloody type of taste. But it's a good thing, not as bad as it sounds."
Different types of liver retain the characteristic flavor of the animals they're from, to some extent. "With chicken liver, like the meat of the chicken, it's mild. Duck liver's similar to the duck, where it can be gamier—it's got a little bit of that red meat to it. Calves' liver can be a little bit strong. . . . Foie, obviously—just delicious and buttery."
Staton generally prefers other types of liver to calf. His personal rankings: duck, chicken, monkfish, "then somewhere down there, beef."
Figuring that nothing pairs with meat like meat, Staton decided to make a sort of agnolotti stuffed with calves'-liver mousse but substituting chicken skin for pasta. He trimmed and seared the liver, cooking it to medium rare—it gets grainy if it's overcooked, he said—then threw it in a food processor with bread crumbs and caramelized shallots (he also eventually overcame his childhood hatred of onions).
The skin came from chicken thighs; Staton carefully peeled it off the meat and scraped off as much of the fat as possible, which he said would help create a better seal because less fat would render out. After spooning a little liver mousse onto each rectangle of chicken skin, Staton folded the skins over the mousse like ravioli and set them aside while he heated the oil in a pan to fry them.
"I'm just hoping this works," he said. "I've never done this before." At least, he'd never rolled liver paté in chicken skin—he's used it to wrap other things. When the little meat packages hit the hot pan, a couple of them unraveled but most survived. Once the skins were browned and crispy, he served them over potato-leek puree with glazed red pearl onions and sauteed oyster mushrooms. He drizzled his own take on saba—apple cider instead of the traditional grape juice, reduced with balsamic vinegar—over the top. "The sweetness helps with the flavor of the liver," Staton said. "It also brings out some of the sweetness in the onions."
He described the dish as "livery but not overpowering." The chicken skin was tricky to use, Staton said, because it shrank more than he'd expected, but it worked well in the dish. "It gives it a nice crunchy texture, because you have the softness of the liver filling and then the potato puree. So you get a little bit of texture out of the chicken skin and the pearl onions."
Video by Michael Gebert/Sky Full of Bacon
Duncan Biddulph of Rootstock Wine & Beer Bar, working with cod milt—the male genitalia of the fish, including the semen. Biddulph happened to mention while talking to Staton that he'd recently come across the milt in an Asian grocery store. "He's like, yeah, it's fish sperm," Staton said. "I was like, all right, there's your ingredient."
Calves' Liver Pate
½ gallon whole milk
1 pound calves' liver
2 shallots, cut into rings
¼ cup toasted breadcrumbs
2 T heavy cream
Salt and pepper
Zest of one lemon
1 T saba or aged balsamic vinegar
Soak the liver in milk overnight, then remove and pat dry. Cut the liver into one-inch chunks and season with salt and pepper. Heat a large sautee pan over medium high heat and sear the liver on both sides. Cook until medium rare. Remove the liver from the pan and in the same pan, caramelize the shallots. Place liver, shallots, breadcrumbs, heavy cream, lemon zest, and saba in a food processor and puree until smooth. Pass the pate through a tamis or sieve to remove any lumps. Wrap and refrigerate.