Small, Good Things: Organizing Principles

By Joe Dizney

I believe it not only matters what we eat, but how we eat, and by extension how we consume — how we shop, how we conserve, recycle or waste; how we share — how we fit into the larger physical, social and spiritual organism of life on this earth.

With thinkers of every stripe sounding alarm bells about the cumulative effects of mindless consumption (rf.: Naomi Klein on the environment and economy; Dan Barber and Mark Bittman vis-a-vis food, farming and consuming), it’s disingenuous to avoid the fact that we are at some paradigmatic tipping point.

What has this got to do with chicken liver? (Vegetarians, no disrespect intended. Some of my best friends are vegetarians. I am not.)

This red meat reverie was prompted by a visit to the Marbled Meat Shop on Route 9 and a perusal of the upright freezer. (I treat a good meat market with the same reverence I would a good bookstore, with both unfortunately becoming about as hard to find.) What have we here? Beef kidney, liver, heart, tongue! Lamb parts — a head even. What treasures!

A confession: In an earlier existence I dallied with membership in an “eating club” called the Offal Truth, which consisted of monthly jaunts around metropolitan New York in search of shall-we-say truly visceral eating experiences: haggis on Burns’ Day, tête de veau in a theater district boîte, a particularly memorable excursion for barbecued sweetbreads at a Kosher-Uzbecki restaurant in Queens.

Offal is defined literally and etymologically as “off-fall,” the bits that fall away when the beast is butchered — decidedly not awful.

My South Louisiana upbringing was saturated with early exposure to delicacies like hog’s head cheese, boudin (white and black, the black being better known as blood sausage) and “dirty rice” — delicious but containing God-knows-what and who cares? — and inured me to food prejudices and aversions that seem to be “normal” (whatever that is) in other cultures.

Seasonal boucheries along Bayou Lafourche and the Mississippi consisted of the communal slaughter and complete processing of a mature pig, and I remember them as familial/social celebrations — equal parts charcuterie and sacrament — in which no part was wasted and the only thing remaining was bones.

That’s a far distance from the shrink-wrapped, uniformly pink, hormonally pumped, USDA-approved “choice cuts” available in most supermarkets where the label is the only signifier that you’re getting beef, pork or lamb.

This is also what is most encouraging about seeing places like Marbled Meat Shop in Philipstown and Barb’s Butchery in Beacon spring up nearby: a local, on-the-ground commitment to quality, craft and the ecology of consumption.

I am not proselytizing for an all-offal diet nor even advocating the carnivorous life. I am trying to make the point that if we are going to eat meat, we also have a responsibility to do it mindfully, respectfully and economically.

Calamarata with chicken livers (photo by J. Dizney)

Calamarata with chicken livers (photo by J. Dizney)

First, that means eating less meat overall and, to the best of our means, to consume livestock raised and processed humanely and in conditions that are conscious of the ecological impact of the process.

Which brings me back to chicken livers. That same freezer contained a trove of one-pound packs of said livers, an innocuous and familiar cut (Remember rumaki? Chopped liver anyone?) and consequently what we might consider your basic “gateway” offal.

Nutritionally, liver contains more protein by weight than white meat chicken. This plus is admittedly offset by a considerably higher percentage of dietary cholesterol.

This recipe is offered mainly as it presents a surprising combination of ingredients that somehow come together to make a dish more complex and subtly comforting and tasty than a mere description would suggest. Anecdotally, in the Small, Good Things Test Kitchen™ my tasters commented that had they not known what they were eating, they never would have suspected the combination — this while requesting second helpings, always a good sign.

Based on a recipe by Florence Fabricant, I substituted calamarata, a short, large-diameter tube pasta (available at Adams Fair Acre Farms) in place of tagliolini or strands. I specified olive paste as per the original recipe but were I to make an adjustment based on tasters’ comments, a half cup or so of roughly chopped, good quality black olives would substitute and supply additional textural interest. The recipe mashed or pureed slightly would also make an excellent topping for crostini. Halve this recipe for a crostini appetizer course.

Calamarata With Chicken Livers, Fennel and Black Olives

30-45 minutes; serves 4-6 as a main course

1 pound chicken livers, cleaned

4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

3 shallots, diced small

1 cup chopped fennel

½ teaspoon red pepper flakes

½ teaspoon chopped dried rosemary (or 1 tablespoon fresh)

2 tablespoons tomato paste

3 to 4 tablespoons black olive paste

Salt and pepper

16 ounces dried calamarata (or other large, short, tube-shaped pasta)

2 tablespoons chopped flat-leaf parsley

Grated Parmigiano-Reggiano

Heat and salt a large pot of water for the pasta. Pat the livers dry with paper towels and chop into rough ¾-inch pieces. Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Sauté shallots and fennel over medium heat to soften slightly (5 to 6 minutes). Add the liver, pepper flakes and rosemary; continue to sauté until liver loses its redness (3 to 4 minutes).

Stir in tomato paste. Cook 7 to 8 minutes to thicken sauce slightly. Stir in the olive paste. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Keep sauce warm on low heat.

Add pasta to the boiling water and cook per package directions. Add ½ cup water from the pasta pot to the sauce.

Drain the pasta (reserving another cup of the pasta water). Dump the sauce into the pasta pot and add pasta when drained. Keep pasta and sauce on a low heat for about a minute, stirring to incorporate sauce and allow pasta to absorb some of the liquid, adding pasta water if necessary to keep it from getting too dry. Before serving, stir in chopped parsley. Turn into a large serving bowl or serve from the pot. Pass freshly grated cheese at the table.

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