How many of us, I wonder, approach liver with trepidation because we remember the dry, leathery lamb's fry we were served as kids? Hardly a kind introduction. There's no question, though, that with careful selection and sensitive cooking, liver offers ample rewards for the diner.
I can't say I remember being overly fond of the strong flavour of fried calf's liver as a kid, but my mum cooked it beautifully. One of my favourite dishes of hers was a beef consommé with small dumplings made with minced calf's liver bound with egg and breadcrumbs, flavoured with nutmeg, parsley and pepper and poached in the broth - delicious.
Later I grew to love pan-fried livers with onions. This was mostly in Italian or French restaurants - they seemed to best understand the need to cook livers quickly and serve them pink so they were tender and the juices rosy.
My dad remembers his mother cooking the livers of freshly shot hare. They'd be cooked briskly in a pan so they were still pink inside and needing no more than a little butter, salt and pepper. So special. This leads me to one of the other most crucial points regarding liver in the kitchen: its provenance.
Whether it's from a calf, a chicken, a duck, a lamb, a pig or a monkfish, it's crucial that the liver is not only as fresh as possible but also of the highest quality. I believe the best-tasting livers come from animals that have led a healthy and stress-free life. When I can, I seek out free-range duck or chicken livers from a specialist poultry supplier, and I buy calf's liver from my trusted Italian butcher, so I know the quality is assured.
Very fresh liver will have a firm springy texture and the colour will vary from bright deep red to pale brown, depending on the diet of the animal (liver from a milk-fed calf, for example, should be pale red). Avoid liver that's dull or grey or that smells bad. Because liver is an organ and not a muscle it deteriorates faster than other meat, so, ideally, cook it the day you buy it and keep it on a covered plate in the fridge until you do.
In poultry, the liver is attached to the gall bladder; this is normally removed prior to sale but occasionally one will slip through. If you buy a liver with any of the gall bladder still attached, remove it, taking care not to burst the gall bladder. Sometimes, if the livers haven't been well handled, the bile from the gall bladders can leave the livers with a green-yellow tinge and a bitter taste, rendering them inedible.
Pork, calf's and lamb's livers are all covered by a fine membrane that must be removed before cooking. The easiest way to do this is to make a small incision along the membrane and peel it off with your fingers. Then turn the liver over and cut away the valves and tubes with a small sharp knife.
Calf's liver is best sliced thinly and quickly pan-fried or grilled. You can ask your butcher to prepare and slice it for you. A light dusting of flour gives a nice crust when fried in a mixture of olive oil and butter. If you're including onions, start them well ahead and cook them slowly so that they have time to soften thoroughly and turn golden brown. Remove them from the pan and turn up the heat before starting to cook your livers.
Liver is beautiful finished with something sweet and sharp to contrast with its iron flavour and richness: a few drops of excellent balsamic vinegar, for instance, or aged sherry vinegar, a compote of red fruit or something even a little tart like pickled morello cherries. It also goes well with bitter things: wilted radicchio, say, or braised cime di rapa finished with a fruity extra-virgin olive oil.
A good introduction for guests who aren't especially fond of liver is a country-style terrine of chicken livers with pork and veal mince or a duck liver parfait (or pâté). Sydney chef Damien Pignolet has an excellent recipe for duck liver parfait in his book French. Duck livers are certainly my preference for this sort of dish, but chicken livers can also be very good. The livers are marinated in brandy, thyme and fresh bay leaves then sautéed in butter, with care being taken to cook them until they are just rosy and pink. Once cooled, they're blended to a smooth consistency (the cooling here is an important step; blending livers while they're still warm can produce a bitter taste), whisked with softened butter, crème fraîche, salt and finely ground white pepper and chilled to set. Served with toasted brioche or crusty white bread, it's a great way to start any dinner party - or a lifelong love affair with liver.