Liver is a largely unsung superfood. Modern culture sneers at it as one of those healthy but gross things that a member of the older generation forces kids to eat. Most people know that it’s “good for you,” but even people who readily eat it admit the flavor is an acquired taste. My challenge, due to members of my household claiming they hate it, is to sneak liver into all kinds of dishes. I grew up eating elk liver thoroughly cooked with onions under the watchful eye of my grandfather, and in adult life discovered I have a real fondness for paté, a dish made nearly entirely of the stuff. This post will be lean on pictures because I cannot come up with a photo of paté that doesn’t look like canned dog food….sorry.
Liver is the most nutrient dense cut a carcass has to offer; the numbers speak for themselves (representative of a four ounce serving, the percentages are the USDA recommended allowance for 2,000 calories):
Calcium 10.2 mg 1%
Iron 26.3 mg 146%
Magnesium 20.3 mg 5%
Phosphorus 325 mg 33%
Potassium 308 mg 9%
Sodium 98.3 mg 4%
Zinc 6.5 mg 43%
Copper 0.8 mg 38%
Manganese 0.4 mg 19%
Selenium 59.6 mcg 85%
Vitamin A 24463 IU 489%
Vitamin C 28.6 mg 48%
Riboflavin 3.4 mg 200%
Niacin 17.3 mg 86%
Vitamin B6 0.8 mg 39%
Folate 240 mcg 60%
Vitamin B12 29.4 mcg 490%
Pantothenic Acid 7.5 mg 75%
Two crucial vitamins, B12 and A, are generously provided in a small serving of liver. It’s also a great source of iron and Riboflavin. Unfortunately, a lot of these nutrients are degraded by heat. The thoroughly cooked liver I consumed as a kid did my body good, but not as much good if it had been raw. That’s right, raw liver has been consumed for millennia in traditional cultures around the globe, a la that scene in Dances with Wolves.
While I can vaguely imagine warm liver from a wild, tall prairie grass-fed buffalo as a pleasant reward to a thrilling hunt (were my life annnnything at all like a nomadic hunter gatherer, that is), the thought of eating it cold and plain from a plastic bag in the refrigerator? Makes me cringe. I guess if you’re more concerned about the nutritional value of your food than the taste of it, you could simply choke it down, like this guy (guy also refers to meat as “flesh food”…..). But for those of us who actually enjoy eating, there’s an alternative. Tucked away in the glorious diversity of you tube, I found a video recipe for raw fermented liver paté.
I’ve made this fermented paté twice, and both times started with super fresh liver. We raise pigs, and on a hog harvesting day I cooled a liver in fresh water for several hours, then went to work combining it with the ingredients in the video. Freshness is key to minimizing that “livery” taste. Whey, salt, garlic, rosemary, pepper, egg yolks, and liver, all whirred in the food processor until creamy. I poured the mixture into some glass loaf containers with lids, and waited. As promised, it was very runny at first, but I figured that as the acid in the whey worked on the yolk, it would solidify. It’s a form of cooking caused by chemical reaction, put to good use in hollandaise sauce and key lime pie.
Whey from raw milk is a rich source of beneficial bacteria. To make it, all one has to do is let clean raw milk sit around in a warm place. The bacteria begin to eat the sugar (lactose) in the non-fatty parts of the milk, and convert it to lactic acid. At a certain point the milk becomes acidic enough to curdle, and it separates into solids and acidic water. The water is whey. It can be added to all sorts of ferments to kick start the fermentation process. It’s basically lactose free, and the vast majority of people who do not tolerate milk can eat ferments that have been started with a tablespoon or so of whey.
Warm temperatures are key, as they are the optimal state for these milk loving bacteria to flourish. I grew impatient for my paté to firm up in my relatively chilly winter cabin, so I put it on top of my wood stove for a few hours to speed things along. It warmed up to 97 degrees F, but I wanted it a little warmer. So I moved it to an even warmer spot, the warming oven of my wood stove, where it quickly got up to 106 degrees, and became incredibly bubbly. So bubbly in fact, the paté curdled – liver solids floating in bloody whey. Not that appetizing. I whisked it with some yogurt and vinegar and made a lovely salad dressing, reminiscent of caesar.
The second time around, I decided to be more patient. I left the mixture in relatively warm place (probably between 60 and 80 degrees F), for two days. It solidified without separating – success! The flavor of this paté is heavy on garlic and herbs and slightly sour, it gets tangier with time. It has a green tinge because of the herbs, I guess. I swapped dried sage for fresh rosemary and prefer the sage. In the future I might get very creative with the seasonings, but in getting familiar with the recipe I decided to keep it simple.
I feel comfortable eating raw liver that I raised and fermented for a number of reasons. Acidic conditions prevent pathogenic bacteria from proliferating, and the whey is an excellent source of acid and beneficial bacteria. The other worry, of course, is parasite load. Freezing meat for a few weeks is said to kill the parasites raw animal parts might contain. It seems backwards to me to assume that all livers are going to contain parasites – the Lakota didn’t throw theirs in the freezer before eating it. They relied on the health of the buffalo, and the buffalo’s health was due to their unconfined existence on vast prairies. I don’t eat liver, raw or not, unless I intimately know the animal from which it came. Parasites thrive in conditions where animals can’t get away from their feces. Our pigs live either outside on frequently rotating pastures, or (in the winter) in a barn pen with lots of hay. We layer hay over their latrine area regularly (given the space, pigs always choose a corner to be the toilet and use it exclusively for this purpose). I have never tested our pigs liver or intestines for parasites, but I’ve never seen anything but incredibly healthy looking livers in any of their carcasses. Call me crazy or ignorant, I’m going to trust that my animals are healthy enough to safely eat their livers, and eat them fresh and raw to boot. For people without the option of raising their own clean animal, I highly recommend searching out organically raised liver from a farm you can visit, and would also advise the freezing period as a safe guard.
A whole hog’s liver is about three or four pounds, and makes a lot of paté. I reserved half of the second fermented batch in a bowl for 24 hours, to give the bacteria some time to do their thing. Then I mixed in a pound of ground pork, and baked it like traditional cooked paté, at 325 degrees F, in a water bath to moderate oven temperatures. When finished cooking, the juices are clear, and it should be swimming in fat. I lined the bottom of the loaf pan with bacon, and arrayed a few slices on top as well. As it cools, a weight is placed on top of the dish so that the paté is pressed into its container (I used paté to press paté, plus my partner’s ingenious use of plastic wrap, see photo below). This compression helps obtain a smooth spreadable texture.
I used to eat paté smeared on a crusty piece of white bread, but I don’t eat white flour anymore, so I’ve had to come up with other ways of enjoying it. Our favorite way to eat cooked paté is sliced and fried, accompanied with a fried egg. The fermented paté all by itself is not for the faint of heart, but it’s delicious smeared on slices of cooked sweet potato, turnip, raw tomato, or toasted sourdough bread. A little goes a long way toward health. Thanks, Grandpa, for introducing me to this super food at such a young age.