After years of waiting, I finally got around to making one of my favorite Ashkenazi dishes: chopped liver. This recipe has become a sort of “catchall” dish for the entirety of Ashkenazi Jewish cooking, much as other specific recipes have become “representative” of entire cuisines. It is also something that can be very controversial: vegetarians have told me that this is the last meat thing they miss, and others, including my partner, will not touch it. It is also laborious, so I wanted to make it when enough liver-eaters would be with me to share a decent quantity – something stymied by the pandemic. Finally, that moment came, punctured by a few anti-organ-meat comments from my partner.
The history of chopped liver is quite interesting. The dish originates in the Middle Ages with goose liver – which was often consumed as a byproduct of rendering schmaltz (fat, traditionally from poultry). Though preparing liver to be kosher requires salting and broiling to eliminate blood, Jews quickly developed a taste for the rich organ. A preparation of liver chopped with onions and salt quickly became popular in medieval and early modern Jewish communities, and spread in two directions. One was into France, where it became foie gras. (Yes, it has a Jewish origin!) The other was to Eastern European Jewish communities, where the dish became popular with calf and chicken livers. Eggs and more onions were added, usually to stretch the costly and strongly flavored liver. The dish has remained popular in Jewish communities ever since, though after World War II there was some decline, just like with organ meat generally.
Chopped liver is often used as a shibboleth for authenticity or tradition. In my own experience, consuming it is sometimes seen as a sign of upholding some sort of “real” Jewish culture. Others cite it as an example of a dish lost in assimilation (whatever assimilation means), just like herring and p’tcha. I suspect that some of this attachment has to do with the way “chopped liver” is used as a Jewish symbol in Hollywood. Never mind that this narrative of dishes being abandoned is, in some ways, artificial – though it has happened for a few things.
Not everyone has to like chopped liver – it is an acquired taste. That said, I do quite enjoy it. I enjoy the deep, earthy flavor good liver has – and the way that these flavors can be accentuated by a tart rye bread, a soft challah, or crunchy matzah. Then again, I have eaten chopped liver since I was a child. Not everyone has – and if someone decides they do not like it, well then, there is more for me.
I break the tradition in this recipe in two ways. One is that I use oil instead of schmaltz for a lighter final product – though many recipes nowadays use oil too. Oil was expensive into the 19th century, so many of our ancestors would probably think of an oil-based chopped liver as more luxuriant than schmaltz – which was much more common in Eastern Europe. (The schmaltz from a large goose could last a family several months.) The other change I embrace is how I blend the final product. Though the tradition is to chop it by hand, I use the food processor for a smoother – and more quickly produced – final product. Technology can aid us in deliciousness. Be careful when making it, because liver is easy to overcook. After three and a half minutes on each side, I check the livers every thirty seconds until they are finished cooking.
If you have not had it before, I strongly recommend that you try it from someone else before you cook it. Liver is a laborious thing to prepare, and if you do not like it, you will have saved yourself the effort of preparing it (as outlined in steps 3 through 4). Delis in Ashkenazi Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods often have very good liver to try. Feel free to ask in the comments if you want a recommendation for a particular area – I have recommendations in New York City, Toronto, Philadelphia, Washington DC, and Chicago.
Based on the recipe by Faye Levy
1 lb chicken livers
3 tablespoons sunflower oil
1 yellow onion, chopped
1 white onion, chopped
2 garlic cloves, peeled
Table salt and freshly cracked black pepper
Parsley to garnish
- Boil the eggs for ten minutes. Drain and set aside to cool.
- Turn on your oven or broiler to a high setting.
- Wash the livers under running water until the dark liquid is mostly gone. Pat dry. Then, cut off the green bits and the black bits from the liver – this takes a bit of work. These bits are a bit softer and different in texture from the rest of the liver. Place the livers in a bowl and toss with a few generous sprinkles of kosher salt. The salt draws out the blood.
- Place the livers on a foil-covered sheet and spread them out. Broil for 3 ½ minutes on each side, or until dark with no pink on the outside and with a smoother, more solid texture on the outside of the liver. Remove from oven and set aside to cool.
- Heat a skillet or saucepan, and then add the oil. Then, add the onions and garlic. Cook, stirring regularly, for 20 minutes, or until the onions are a rich brown color and have a sweet smell and very smooth, soft texture. Remove from heat and let cool slightly.
- While the onions are cooling, peel the hard boiled eggs and mash with a fork into coarse crumbles.
- In a food processor, puree the livers and onions together to your preferred consistency – my family enjoys a smooth chopped liver.
- Pour the liver mixture into a bowl. Add the salt and black pepper to taste – I usually add twice as much salt as pepper. Then, mix in with the crumbled eggs.
- Garnish with chopped parsley. Serve on your chosen vehicle for chopped liver. The liver keeps in the fridge for about four days.
Thank you to Ziva Freiman for participating in User Acceptance Testing for this recipe.