Recipes and Lore About Our Most Important Sacred Food
Since history began, “liver has ranked above all other offal as one of the most prized culinary delights. Its heritage is illustrious–whether savored by young warriors after a kill or mixed with truffles and cognac for fine patés de foie gras.” So write Margaret Gin and Jana Allen, authors of Innards and Other Variety Meats (San Francisco, 1974).
Practically every cuisine has liver specialties. Some cultures place such a high value on liver that human hands can’t touch it. Special sticks must move it. The Li-Chi, a handbook of rituals published during China’s Han era (202B.C. to 220A.D.), lists liver as one of the Eight Delicacies. Throughout most of recorded time humans have preferred liver over steak by a large margin, regarding it as a source of great strength and as providing almost magical curative powers.
A LONG LIST
So what makes liver so wonderful? Quite simply, it contains more nutrients, gram for gram, than any other food. In summary, liver provides:
- An excellent source of high-quality protein
- Nature’s most concentrated source of vitamin A
- All the B vitamins in abundance, particularly vitamin B12
- One of our best sources of folic acid
- A highly usable form of iron
- Trace elements such as copper, zinc and chromium; liver is our best source of copper
- An unidentified anti-fatigue factor
- CoQ10, a nutrient that is especially important for cardio-vascular function
- A good source of purines, nitrogen-containing compounds that serve as precursors for DNA and RNA.
Liver’s as-yet-unidentified anti-fatigue factor makes it a favorite with athletes and bodybuilders. The factor was described by Benjamin K. Ershoff, PhD, in a July 1951 article published in the Proceedings for the Society for Experimental Biology and Medicine.
Ershoff divided laboratory rats into three groups. The first ate a basic diet, fortified with 11 vitamins. The second ate the same diet, along with an additional supply of vitamin B complex. The third ate the original diet, but instead of vitamin B complex received 10 percent of rations as powdered liver.
A 1975 article published in Prevention magazine described the experiment as follows: “After several weeks, the animals were placed one by one into a drum of cold water from which they could not climb out. They literally were forced to sink or swim. Rats in the first group swam for an average 13.3 minutes before giving up. The second group, which had the added fortifications of B vitamins, swam for an average of 13.4 minutes. Of the last group of rats, the ones receiving liver, three swam for 63, 83 and 87 minutes. The other nine rats in this group were still swimming vigorously at the end of two hours when the test was terminated. Something in the liver had prevented them from becoming exhausted. To this day scientists have not been able to pin a label on this anti-fatigue factor.”
IS LIVER DANGEROUS?
In spite of widespread tradition and abundant scientific evidence on the health benefits of liver, conventional nutritionists and government agencies now warn against its consumption. The putative dangers of eating liver stem from two concerns–the assumption that liver contains many toxins and the high level of vitamin A that it provides.
One of the roles of the liver is to neutralize toxins (such as drugs, chemical agents and poisons); but the liver does not store toxins. Poisonous compounds that the body cannot neutralize and eliminate are likely to lodge in the fatty tissues and the nervous system. The liver is not a storage organ for toxins but it is a storage organ for many important nutrients (vitamins A, D, E, K, B12 and folic acid, and minerals such as copper and iron). These nutrients provide the body with some of the tools it needs to get rid of toxins.
Of course, we should consume liver from healthy animals–cattle, lamb, buffalo, hogs, chickens, turkeys, ducks and geese. The best choice is liver from animals that spend their lives outdoors and on pasture. If such a premier food is not available, the next choice is organic chicken, beef and calves liver. If supermarket liver is your only option, the best choice is calves liver, as in the U.S. beef cattle do spend their first months on pasture. Beef liver is more problematical as beef cattle are finished in feed lots. Livers from conventionally raised chicken and hogs are not recommended.
As for concerns about vitamin A, these stem from studies in which moderate doses of synthetic vitamin A were found to cause problems and even contribute to birth defects. But natural vitamin A found in liver is an extremely important nutrient for human health and does not cause problems except in extremely large amounts.
According to the authoritative Merck Manual, acute vitamin A poisoning can occur in children after taking a single dose of synthetic vitamin A in the range of 300,000 IU or a daily dosage of 60,000 IU for a few weeks. The Manual cites two fatalities from acute vitamin A poisoning in children, which manifests as increased intracranial pressure and vomiting. For the vast majority, however, recovery after discontinuation is “spontaneous, with no residual damage.”
In adults, according to the Merck Manual, vitamin A toxicity has been reported in Arctic explorers who developed drowsiness, irritability, headaches and vomiting, with subsequent peeling of the skin, within a few hours of ingesting several million units of vitamin A from polar bear or seal liver. Again, these symptoms clear up with discontinuation of the vitamin A-rich food. Other than this unusual example, however, only vitamin A from megavitamin tablets containing vitamin A when taken for a long time has induced acute toxicity, that is, 100,000 IU synthetic vitamin A per day taken for many months.
Thus, unless you are an Arctic explorer, it is very difficult to develop vitamin A toxicity from liver. The putative toxic dose of 100,000 IU per day is contained in two-and-one-half 100-gram servings of duck liver or about three 100-gram servings of beef liver. From the work of Weston Price, we can assume that the amount in primitive diets was about 50,000 IU per day.
As for liver for pregnant women, a study carried out in Rome, Italy, found no congenital malformations among 120 infants exposed to more than 50,000 IU of vitamin A per day (Teratology, Jan 1999 59(1):1-2). A study from Switzerland looked at blood levels of vitamin A in pregnant women and found that a dose of 30,000 IU per day resulted in blood levels that had no association with birth defects (International Journal of Vitamin and Nutrition Research 1998 68(6):411-6). Textbooks on nutrition written before the Second World War recommended that pregnant women eat liver frequently, yet today pregnant women are told to avoid this extremely nutritious food. Don’t eat beef liver, cautions Organic Style magazine in a February 2005 article on diets for pregnant women, “. . . it has high levels of retinol, a vitamin-A derivative that can cause birth defects.”
A good recommendation for liver is one 100-gram serving of beef, lamb, bison or duck liver (about 4 ounces) once or twice a week, providing about 50,000 IU vitamin A per serving. Chicken liver, which is lower in vitamin A, may be consumed more frequently. If you experience headaches or joint pains at this level, cut back until the symptoms go away.
Eating Raw Liver. . .Good Heavens!
Eating raw liver is definitely not a Standard American Dietary (SAD) practice! So why in the world would a sane person even consider eating their liver raw? Most of the reasons are anecdotal with the primary one being that people who do consistently report how good it makes them feel.
- Southern hunters have a tradition of eating the liver of their freshly killed deer as a “manly” thing to do.
- In Argentina, cowboys eat liver (and meat) raw or very lightly cooked.
- People who grew up on farms tell of eating the liver freshly warm from the animal and only lightly cooking it (and all the organs and glands)
- Weston Price reported on the consumption of raw liver among African hunter-gatherer tribes. Liver was considered so sacred that they never touched it with their hands, only with their spears. They ate it both raw and cooked.
- The physician Max Gerson used raw liver juice, extracted with a special juicer that pressed out the liquid, in his original healing protocol with pancreatic cancer patients. His daughter, Charlotte Gerson, later dropped this part of the protocol because of the unavailability of fresh clean liver without bacterial contamination. Now a crude liver extract injection or desiccated liver tablets are used in the current protocol. However, Dr. Nicholas Gonzalez, a New York doctor who treats cancer holistically, insists that all his patients eat raw liver.
The How-to-do-it of Eating Raw Liver
This takes some getting used to! There are two basic methods. One calls for freezing the liver for 14 days in large chunks. (Fourteen days will ensure the elimination of pathogens and parasites.) You can then grate the liver on the small holes of a grater and add it to milk or juice, or even hot cereal. A teaspoon or two of grated raw liver can be added to baby’s egg yolk, or even to mashed vegetables.
The second method turns liver into pills! Cut fresh liver into pea-sized pieces and freeze for 14 days. Swallow like vitamin pills.
For both methods, the liver should be of the highest quality available and very fresh.
RECIPES FROM AROUND THE WORLD
You don’t find recipes for liver in many modern cookbooks but scan the internet and you will find liver recipes from cuisines around the world.
A wonderful site that features medieval European recipes is florilegium.org, where participants provide translations and comments on recipes in old cookbooks. Here we learn that long before the anti-cholesterol campaign, Europeans made liver into dumplings, terrines, sausages and “puddings,” and used it as a filling in meat pies and pasties. (According to one contributor, an outstanding example of a liver-filled pasty includes chicken livers, hearts, gizzards and sour cherries.)
Ancient cookbooks even describe the use of liver to thicken sauces, apparently by pressing raw puréed liver through a fine strainer and adding it to sauce that was then carefully heated but not boiled. (During Lent, fish livers served to thicken sauces!) As long as the liver flavor does not overpower the flavor of the sauce, this could be a good way to get liver into your family without them ever knowing it!
A liver recipe from a 1529 Spanish cookbook goes like this: “Take onions and cut them very small, like fingers, and fry them gently with fatty bacon; and then take the liver of a kid or a lamb or a goat and cut them into slices the size of a half walnut, and fry it gently with the onion until the liver loses its color; then take a crustless piece of toasted bread soaked in white vinegar and grind it well, and dissolve it with sweet white wine; and then strain it through a woolen cloth; and then cast it over the onion and the liver, all together in the casserole; and cast in ground cinnamon; and cook until it is well thickened and when it is cooked, prepare dishes.”
A great, high-cholesterol liver dish from an ancient Middle Eastern cookbook has been translated by Betty Cook. Note the inclusion of wonderful spices, not normally associated with liver.
14 ounces chicken livers
14 ounces chicken gizzards
1/2 teaspoon salt
8 egg yolks
1 1/2 teaspoon coriander
1 1/2 teaspoon cumin
3/4 teaspoon pepper
1 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
2 tablespoons sesame oil for frying
1/4 cup lemon juice
Bring 3 cups water to a boil with 1/8 teaspoon salt, add gizzards and simmer 50 minutes. Near the end of this time, bring another 3 cups water and 1/8 teaspoon salt to a boil and cook livers in it 3 minutes. Drain both, cut into 1/2-inch by 1/2-inch pieces, put into a bowl and mix with egg yolks and spices. Heat oil and fry the mixture about 4 minutes, sprinkle with lemon juice and serve.
The website foodiesite.com provides this intriguing recipe for liver paté from Scandinavia. Unlike the French versions, Scandinavian patés don’t usually contain alcohol or garlic and they have a smoother texture.
300 g calf’s liver or pig’s liver
300 g lean pork meat, such as pork fillet
300 g pork fat
1 onion, finely chopped
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons unbleached white flour
300 ml milk
pinch ground cloves
pinch ground all spice
sea salt and freshly ground pepper
Note: 300 grams is slightly less than 3/4 pound and 300 ml is 1 1/4 cups.
Dice the liver, lean pork meat and fat into small pieces. Set aside 75 g of the pork fat and place it in an oven dish in a low oven. Cook the fat until it has melted down. Lightly grease the sides and base of the paté container. A standard loaf tin works well.
Preheat an oven to 350°F. Mince the onion, liver, pork and remaining pork fat through a mincer (meat grinder) 3-4 times until smooth.
Melt butter in a saucepan over a moderate heat. Add the flour to the butter and cook it for a couple of minutes. Slowly add the milk while stirring until you have a thick smooth sauce. Add the minced liver mixture and stir it until well combined. Remove the pan from the heat and allow it to cool slightly. Mix in the egg, ground cloves, all spice and a little salt and pepper.
Pour the paté mixture into the greased loaf pan, place in a baking pan and fill the pan 3/4 high with hot water. Place the paté on the center shelf in the pre-heated oven and cook for 1 1/2 hours. To test for doneness, insert a thin knife or skewer into the center of the paté. When the paté is ready, it should come out clear. (The center of the paté should reach at least 170°F. If you have a meat thermometer use this to test if it is ready).
Remove the paté from the oven when cooked and leave it to cool in the container. When cooled, turn the paté out onto a plate and serve it as part of a smorgasbord or use it for smorresbrod (open sandwiches) or as a starter or canapé. Mustard, cress, gherkins, grapes and chutney all make good accompaniments
FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE
A delicious liver recipe from Russia is found at ruscuisine.com.
Liver with Sour Cream
2 1/2 pounds liver (calf, pork or beef), sliced
2 onions, chopped
1 cup sour cream
4 tablespoons butter
2 cup beef stock
2 tablespoons dill, freshly chopped
2 tablespoons unbleached white flour
sea salt and pepper to taste
Wash, pat dry, and sprinkle each piece of liver with salt and pepper. Dredge in flour, fry on each side in butter and remove. Sauté the onions until golden brown and then layer both liver and onions in a deep pot. Deglaze the pan with beef stock, stir well and add the sour cream, stir, then add to the liver and onions. Mix well and cover. Cook slowly over low-heat for 20 minutes. Uncover, stir well, re-cover and cook for another 10 minutes. Remove liver from pot, arrange on individual plates and pour sauce over the slices. Sprinkle with the dill. This is very good when served with boiled or fried potatoes or rice.
LIVER FROM JAPAN
The Japanese consider liver an important food for pregnant women. The following recipe is adapted from one posted at japanesefood.about.com.
1/2 pound pork liver
1 tablespoon grated ginger
1 bunch nira (Chinese chives)
2 tablespoons arrowroot powder
1 tablespoon grated ginger
2 tablespoon soy sauce
1 tablespoon sake (rice wine)
1 tablespoon water and 1 teaspoon potato starch
lard for frying
Cut liver into bite-sized pieces and marinate in a mixture of soy sauce, sake and ginger for 20 minutes. Remove liver from the sauce, pat dry and dredge in arrowroot. Heat lard in a deep pan and fry the liver pieces.Remove liver to a heated plate. Chop nira into short pieces and sauté in a frying pan. Add deep-fried liver and sauté with nira. Add the sauce used for marinating liver to the frying pan and stir well. Add the mixture of water and potato starch, stir quickly and remove from heat. Serve immediately.
Liver Comparison Chart
From: Nutrition Almanac, by John D. Kirschmann
A CURE FOR ANEMIA
Pernicious anemia is a debilitating disease caused by B12 deficiency. Until 1926, the only treatment for the disease was blood transfusions. Shortly thereafter, Drs. Whipple, Murphy and Minot received the Nobel Price for their discovery of liver therapy for the disease. Dr. William P. Murphy recalls the discovery of the therapy:
“Dr. George Whipple of the University of Rochester had demonstrated that liver caused a rapid replacement of blood in dogs made anemic by bleeding. From his idea, we proposed that liver might be useful in treating pernicious anemia, even though this anemia was totally different from the one induced in dogs.
“With these observations, it became important to prove the efficacy of liver. But in those days, getting permission to do studies was not such an easy matter. The chief physician of Peter Bent Brigham Hospital was quite skeptical, but gave me permission with the understanding that a transfusion would never be withheld from a patient who needed one.
“I started one of my patients on liver therapy. This patient, a man in his forties, was critically ill and partially comatose. In spite of his condition, I was able to explain to him that liver might be distinctly useful to him. We found that if a patient were fed half a pound of liver per day, it would take about five days to show an increase in red blood count.
“But this man seemed more ill on the fifth day. According to the policy laid down, my patient was a candidate for a transfusion. I stayed up very late that night trying to decide to give him the liver. It was a miserable night, but around midnight I noticed that his red blood cell count had increased slightly. That gave me courage to go on with the liver. When I saw his blood count go up, I went home and collapsed into bed, slept very poorly and was back at the hospital at seven o’clock the next morning.
“I approached his room with fear and trembling, and cautiously peaked around the corner to see if he was still alive. To my great surprise and relief he sat up in bed and cheerfully asked, “What time is breakfast?” His blood count was at the maximum and he not only survived but lived many years. With that success, the staff became cooperative.
“Later, patients didn’t have to choke down liver but could receive extracts and still later, vitamin B12. . .”
For those who want to prevent pernicious anemia from ever occurring, the best course of action is to eat liver once a week, as our ancestors usually did.
SOME FAVORITE WAYS TO PREPARE LIVER
Here are some suggestions from members of the Native Nutrition discussion group.
- Marinate slices of liver in the fridge overnight in lemon juice or water with vinegar, plus lots of garlic and bay laurel leaf. After marinating, pat dry and fry in olive oil and/or lard and/or butter until well done (really brown on the outside and slightly rose inside). (Kidneys work well with this recipe also.) The key is marinating to take away any unpleasant taste. Florabela
- The liver needs to come from a fairly young animal and be free of hormones and organically raised. Cover the liver with flour on both sides and bake with a little butter or ghee for several minutes at very low heat, otherwise it will be hard. Add a handful of sliced onion, a little vinegar and water. Increase the heat to 350 degrees for a few minutes then cook for about 20 minutes at a low heat. You can add fresh mushrooms and at the end a bit of salt. It’s usually served with noodles or rice. However any vegetable dish would work. Pia
- My favorite cooked liver recipe is to slice the liver thin (no more than 1/4th inch) then dredge it in a mixture of almond flour, salt and lots of pepper. (Almond flour is just a replacement for those who don’t eat grains.). Fry on both sides in ghee or lard. I usually cook up the whole liver at one time then either heat up the leftovers during the week, or snack on it cold. It’s a great substitute for a power bar or other on-the-go meal. Sally R
- Marinate the sliced liver in red wine vinegar and a couple teaspoons of honey for about 1 hour. Slice up 1-2 onions and fry in lots of tallow and butter for about 1/2 hour until onions are small and brown. Remove the onions and toss in the liver with a bit of the wine/honey mix. Fry quickly, turning frequently, and serve hot with onions and wine sauce and a side of kim chi. Paul B
- The key to delicious liver is lots of garlic. Use lard to sauté it, and add some olive oil when it’s closer to done. Don’t overcook it. First saute 1 onion and at least 5 cloves of garlic with plenty of herbs and spices, whatever you like. Slice the liver up nice and thin, cook for about 5 minutes and flip around once a minute. Cook some bacon at the same time and cut into small pieces to serve on top of the liver along with the onions and garlic. Chris M
- This is my mom’s delicious Jewish chopped liver recipe that “doesn’t taste like liver much at all!” Slice onion and sauté in fat until golden. Throw into a food processor. Saute 3/4 pound of chicken livers in same pan until pink inside. Let cool and put into same food processor with onions. Add 2 hardboiled eggs to food processor. Process onion, liver and eggs to a consistency you like but not too fine. Keep some lumpiness. Add salt and pepper to taste. Daphne
- Cut liver into small pieces and roll it in beaten egg then in nut flour (finely ground crispy nuts). Fry in hot coconut oil and salt and pepper to taste. It’s out of this world! Cheryl K
- An old but excellent recipe: Bake 1 pound beef or chicken livers and then chop up. Chop up 2 hard boiled eggs. Mix chopped eggs and liver with 1 medium cooked chopped onion (sautéed is fine). Mash and mix together with salt and pepper to taste. Refrigerate before eating. Robin L
- Cut liver into strips, about 3 inches long and 1/2 inch wide, and marinate in lemon juice. Pat dry. Chop up some onions and cook them in bacon fat and remove. Cook liver in the fat until almost solidly pink because once it turns brown, the liver flavor is stronger. This is delicious with a big serving of kale and butter and a pile of fermented carrots. Lisa
- Sauté onions in a little butter or coconut oil, then toss in the liver (cut into big hunks) and cook for several minutes. Process onions and liver in a food processor and process until it’s all just minced. Then combine it with a hamburger dish (casserole, spaghetti sauce, etc.). Lynn E
- Liver is delicious with a gravy or sauce. Marinate liver in lemon juice or vinegar for several hours and pat dry. Cook quickly in hot lard and set aside in a warm oven. You can make a gravy by stirring some unbleached white flour in the remaining fat and adding beef stock. Whisk until smooth and boil down a bit. You can make a clear buttery sauce by adding some wine or brandy to the fat and adding beef or chicken stock. Boil down, skimming as necessary, until it thickens a bit and then whisk in several tablespoons softened butter. Season with salt and pepper. Finally, you can make a tart sauce by sautéing capers and chopped shallots in the hot fat. (Be sure to rinse the capers well and pat dry before doing this.) Deglaze with a little white wine and add beef stock. Boil down until sauce thickens. Sally Fallon
RAW LIVER DRINK
The following raw liver drink was developed by the author and fellow WAPF member Becky Mauldin. Says Lynn, “I find that nothing works as well for giving strength when I am under stress. I am a teacher and use it when things start getting hectic at school. My husband has also found it very helpful for dealing with stress.”
1/2 – 1 ounce grassfed liver, cut into tiny chunks and frozen (it must be still frozen to blend well)
1 cup organic tomato juice
juice of 1/2 lime
dash hot sauce
1-2 raw pastured egg yolks
2-4 tablespoons fermented young coconut juice
1 tablespoon raw cream
1/4 teaspoon Concentrace mineral solution
1-2 teaspoons bee pollen (optional)
Blend everything together in a blender. You can follow with some fresh papaya if the drink gives you a livery aftertaste. You can also soak the liver chunks in sour milk or lemon juice before freezing to reduce the strong flavor.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly magazine of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Spring 2005.