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- Dish type
- Main course
- Stew and casserole
The rich flavour of liver in a cream and wine sauce goes perfectly with earthy mushrooms – here shiitake, button and brown cap are used. Serve with rice or noodles and a green salad.
36 people made this
- 300 g (10½ oz) lamb's liver, trimmed
- 1 tbsp sunflower oil
- 10 g (¼ oz) butter
- 2 onions, chopped
- 75 g (2½ oz) shiitake mushrooms, sliced
- 150 g (5½ oz) brown cap mushrooms, quartered or sliced
- 200 g (7 oz) button mushrooms, quartered or sliced
- 3 garlic cloves, chopped
- 1 tbsp plain flour
- 360 ml (12 fl oz) dry white wine
- 200 ml (7 fl oz) beef or veal stock, preferably home-made
- 2 tbsp chopped fresh oregano
- large pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
- 1 tbsp Dijon mustard
- 3 tbsp créme fraîche
- salt and pepper
- chopped fresh oregano and/or parsley to garnish (optional)
MethodPrep:10min ›Cook:20min ›Ready in:30min
- Rinse the liver and pat it dry with kitchen paper. If it is not already sliced, cut it into thin slices.
- Heat the oil in a non-stick frying pan. Place the liver in the pan and brown quickly over a very high heat for 2 minutes, turning the slices once. The liver will not be cooked through at this point. Remove from the pan and set aside.
- Add the butter to the pan and reduce the heat to moderate. When the butter has melted, add the onions and cook, stirring frequently, for about 5 minutes or until they are softened.
- Add all the mushrooms and the garlic and mix well, then cook for 5 minutes. Keep the heat high so the mushrooms brown rather than stew in their juices.
- Sprinkle the mushrooms with the flour and cook, stirring, for 1–2 minutes, then slowly pour in the wine and stock, stirring all the time. Add the oregano and nutmeg and simmer, stirring, for 3–4 minutes or until the sauce reduces and thickens.
- Reduce the heat to low and stir in the mustard and créme fraîche. Return the liver to the pan and cook gently for 3–4 minutes. Season to taste. Spoon the liver Stroganoff onto warmed plates, sprinkle with oregano and/or parsley and serve immediately.
Reviews & ratingsAverage global rating:(2)
Reviews in English (2)
This was very tasty and moorish. a couple of rashers of smokey bacon would have gone nice with it, but was nice as it was-11 Jul 2009
Lovely tasting dish, I never had lambs liver used pigs. Very economical dish that the whole family loved.-07 Jul 2014
Liver and Bacon Casserole Recipe the Kids Will Love
I learned this recipe for liver and bacon casserole years ago, and it really is a most wonderful dish because it&aposs easy to prepare, contains cheap ingredients, and is palatable to kids, as well as grownups. It&aposs a great way to get children to eat liver if they are a bit fussy.
This casserole is a very inexpensive family meal, which means that if your family lives on a budget, this recipe could easily become a staple. You&aposll rest easy knowing that your kids are getting plenty of iron and vitamins A and C, as well as protein and zinc.
Old Fashioned Slow Cooked Liver, Bacon and Onions
Old Fashioned Slow Cooked Liver, Bacon and Onions. Meltingly soft, tender pieces of liver cooked in delicious onion gravy with the bonus of bacon thrown in too! This recipe is so flexible, we've added options for you to cook this on the stovetop, slow cooker or oven, pressure cooker, multi cooker, Instantpot too!
Old Fashioned Slow Cooked Liver, Bacon, and Onions! Love it or hate it?! As a child, I hated it. Now I'm all grown up, this happens to be one of my favorite meals. It is strange how our taste changes over time.
My Welsh grandmother used to make this when I was a child and I would always enjoy the mashed potato, dipping it in the gravy which came with the liver, bacon, and onions, but alas, at the end of the meal, my plate was pretty clean, apart from the slices of liver.
Sometimes, I can remember trying it hide the liver under my mashed potato when she wasn't looking. Of course, she always found out.
This recipe for slow-cooked liver, bacon, and onions is pretty close to what my grandmother used to make, with the exception that I have added garlic and tomato puree, both of those things she didn't like. I guess the wartime generation didn't really care for garlic!
When I think back to when my grandmother was born, it was in the late 1800s, so meals were pretty budget-friendly, (garlic would have been classed as an exotic item I expect!), hearty and full of flavor.
This liver, bacon and onions recipe certainly delivers on flavor, comforting you with every bite.
I have used pigs' liver in this recipe. My grandmother used lambs liver, but I personally find that a little stronger in flavor, and also it does seem to be 'chewier'. Pigs liver is softer to the bite and doesn't have that strong offal taste you get.
The bacon in this recipe is a fabulous addition. Bacon adds another dimension to this dish, and yes, I have left the fat on, just like my grandmother used to. She would often cook using bacon drippings!
Here, I've served this with a lovely creamy cheesy mashed potato, and for the vegetables, I've simply steamed some carrots and broccoli.
We also have a basic mashed potato recipe without cheese for those of you who aren't sure how to make it.
You can, of course, choose whatever vegetables your family enjoys, and why not follow your dinner with our lovely Traditional English Tea Loaf recipe. It'll certainly fill you with nostalgia if you remember the days of your grandmother's baking!
I know not everyone has a slow cooker, so I've given some directions if you wish to cook in the oven or stove top.
My grandmother always started off her liver, bacon, and onions on the stove top then transferred to the oven.
The photos you see in this recipe are from cooking it in the slow cooker.
The liver is incredibly tender and soft. It really does melt in your mouth. The gravy has heaps of flavor, and that alone if you have any left over is worth saving in a bag and freezing. You could warm it up and use it for another meal with sausages and mashed potatoes! It is a delicious gravy!
If you enjoy eating liver, try our Creamy Garlic Chicken Livers, bacon, and mushrooms recipe. It's great served on some hot buttered toast for brunch or supper and takes just minutes to make!
So let's get straight to the recipe and see how we make our Old Fashioned slow cooked Liver, Bacon and Onions. Please enjoy!
Useful Information About Lamb&aposs Liver
Facts which will hopefully help make liver more appealing as a foodstuff:
It is often the very idea of eating liver, of any type, which puts people off doing so. Even many hardened meat eaters will consider liver and other offal to be throwaway parts of the carcass, or only fit for consumption by other animals, such as pet dogs or cats. As for the appearance of raw liver, this can often be the final nail in the liver recipe&aposs coffin!
Fried Lamb’s Liver
Fried mutton or goat liver, commonly known as “liver fry,” is very popular in Nepal and parts of southern India. In addition to being a super nutritious food — liver is a good source for protein, folic acid and iron — fried liver goes really well with just about anything. Serve it with rice or bread, or if you want something that’s not bacon or sausage for brunch to go with eggs and some greens.
To begin, mix turmeric and cold water in a bowl and immerse the liver into the bowl. Liver has a peculiar smell to it, so soaking it in turmeric will help lessen the smell. Soak for about half hour before washing it in cold water a couple of times. Use a strainer to drain it, or you can also pat them dry with a kitchen paper.
Slice the liver into long, thin strips and then cut them into ½-inch pieces.
In a pan, heat the oil and throw in the sichuan peppercorns, followed by ginger and garlic. Just as the ginger/garlic start turning golden brown, add the liver pieces to the pan and give it a good stir. Cook for about 10 minutes in medium heat — you will notice that the liver will start turning brown, but not entirely dry. Be careful — overcooking liver will make them taste rubbery, so make sure you are cooking on medium heat.
Add salt, cumin and coriander and stir to mix well and cook for about 3-5 minutes. Add 1/4 cup of water and continue to cook on medium heat for about 5-6 minutes until the water evaporates entirely. Be brave, sprinkle that chili powder and give it a stir.
Transfer the liver to a serving bowl, add the lemon juice and mix it with a spoon. Garnish will some chives. You are done here.
Liver, potato and bacon sauté
Bring a medium pan of water to the boil, add potatoes and cook for 12min or until tender. Drain well and leave to steam dry for a few minutes.
Heat oil and 25g (1oz) butter in a large non-stick frying pan. Add potatoes and fry, turning occasionally, until golden and crisp. Lift potatoes into a bowl set aside.
To the empty pan, add the bacon and fry until golden and crisp. Add to the potato bowl.
Meanwhile, mix flour and mustard powder on a plate with some seasoning. Dip the lamb&rsquos liver pieces into the flour mixture to coat, then tap off excess.
Fry liver in the empty pan for 2-3min until golden and crisp.
Meanwhile, heat remaining butter in a separate large frying pan over a low-medium heat. Crack in the eggs and fry until whites are set but yolks are still runny.
Add potatoes and bacon to liver pan. Toss through parsley, spring onions and lemon juice. Check seasoning. Divide among 4 plates and top each with a fried egg. Serve.
The Borscht Belt
According to Maksim Syrnikov, who has spent the past two decades studying traditional Russian cuisine, there is a reason that there is no agreement on the ingredients of a solyanka, a classic and very controversial Russian dish. Solyanka is generally understood to contain cabbage and maybe some meat, but even that’s in dispute: Is the cabbage soured in brine, or braised? Can you make solyanka with fish? And what is a solyanka, anyway? Is it a casserole, as Muscovites claim, or, as Petersburgers argue, a soup?
Apparently, it can be all of the above. Moreover, it is unclear whether the dish’s name comes from the word sol, meaning “salt,” or whether it has a different etymology. “Back in the day—say, for a holiday—everyone in the village would bring out whatever they had in the house, put it all in one big pan, and then bake it in the oven,” Syrnikov says, explaining another theory. “Which is why some people think the dish was originally known as selyanka, not solyanka, from the word selo”—which means village. Syrnikov—whose preferred version of solyanka comprises layers of shredded, smoked, and boiled beef alternating with braised sour cabbage, all doused in beef stock—is a short, plump man in his forties with the ruddy face of a benevolent village matron. When he cooks, he wears a chef’s apron stretched around his belly, and his hair, long and graying, is messily bundled into a ponytail. He is extremely polite, which, for a moment or two, makes you forget that he is almost always correcting you. When he makes a point, his voice rises and breaks in excitement. Syrnikov is an exacting researcher: if he wants to discover how whitebait was fished in the northwestern Belozero region for centuries, he spends days out in the boats with the local fishermen. He was appalled when the editors of one of his cookbooks, unable to find whitebait in Moscow, substituted dried Chinese anchovies in a photograph, and he is still deeply embarrassed about it.
As a self-appointed guardian of authentic Russian fare, Syrnikov has a problem: Russians don’t hold Russian food in particularly high esteem. When they eat out, they favor more exotic cuisines, like Italian or Japanese. The tendency to find foreign food more desirable is a prejudice that goes back centuries—to a time when the Russian aristocracy spoke French, not Russian—and it was exacerbated by the humiliating end of the Cold War and Russia’s subsequent opening to the West. Russian food is pooh-poohed as unhealthy and unsophisticated.
Among the many things that annoy Syrnikov is the fact that a good number of the despised Russian dishes aren’t even Russian. “I did an informal survey of eighteen- to twenty-five-year-olds in Moscow and St. Petersburg, and asked them, ‘Name some traditional Russian dishes,’ ” Syrnikov told me. “What they named was horrible: borscht, which is Ukrainian, and potatoes, which are an American plant. In the middle of the eighteenth century, there were riots because people didn’t want to grow potatoes.” He insists that real Russian food contained no potatoes, no tomatoes, few beets, and little meat. Instead, there were a lot of grains, fish, and dairy, as well as honey, cucumbers, turnips, cabbage, apples, and the produce of Russia’s vast forests—mushrooms and berries. Because of the climate, little of this was eaten fresh it was salted, pickled, or dried for the long winter. Most of Russia ate this way until the twentieth century.
By exploring the Russian food that existed before potatoes, Syrnikov hopes to help Russians reacquaint themselves with the country’s agrarian roots, torn up during seven decades of Soviet rule, and to convince them that their national cuisine can be just as flavorful as anything they might find in a sushi bar. He spends his time travelling through the countryside in search of old recipes, trying them himself, and blogging about his experiences. He has written four books, including an encyclopedia of Russian cuisine and a cookbook that ties food to the fasts and feasts of the Russian Orthodox calendar. He makes frequent television appearances and conducts master classes all over the country, instructing everyone from restaurant chefs to hobby cooks in the ways of the Russian peasant kitchen. Often, he is brought in as a consultant on projects to make a restaurant authentically Russian. Recently, he hatched a plan for a user-generated database of folk recipes. “My idea is to send out a call across all of Russia,” he told me. “If you have a grandmother who makes shanishki”—disk-shaped pastries—“that aren’t made in any other village, but your grandmother still knows how to make them, go immediately, and take a picture of them, write down the recipe. To me, it’s absolutely obvious that, if we don’t wake up and find out from these old women and set it down on paper, in twenty years we won’t have anyone to ask. Russian culture will lose a very significant part of itself.”
A traditional Russian kitchen starts with a pech, a huge brick oven with many winding vents designed to retain the heat from a wood fire. A pech was once the centerpiece of traditional peasant homes: it took up about a quarter of the available living space. It heated and ventilated the house it dried food children and the elderly slept on ledges built into it. When the oven cooled, it even served as a bath: family members climbed inside and doused themselves with buckets of water heated in the oven. From a culinary point of view, it was also ideal for the peasant cook: stoke the oven with a cord of wood in the morning, put in an iron pot of solyanka, and, while you worked in the field, the slowly decreasing temperature of the oven would take care of the rest—a pre-modern Crock-Pot. This is why the central Russian method of preparing food is tomlenie, which is loosely translated as braising.
On a bright, chilly day last August, Syrnikov was working at a pech that he had helped construct, in the kitchen of a restaurant called Golden Rus, in Chelyabinsk, an industrial city just east of the Ural Mountains. Golden Rus is part of an entertainment complex called Galactica, whose owners had decided to rebrand the restaurant as a bastion of pure Russian fare. Syrnikov had been brought in as a consultant after a partner in the Galactica venture picked up his book “Real Russian Food.” Now Syrnikov, who lives in St. Petersburg, was finishing a two-week stint at Galactica, helping with the preparation of a trial banquet. The menu consisted of twenty-nine dishes, most of them unknown to the average Russian.
The process of turning Galactica into a showcase for Russian cuisine, however, had been complicated by the fact that a pech is hard to come by these days. In the Soviet era, the stove’s immense size proved ill suited to urban life styles and to communal apartments. A pech also consumes a great deal of wood, and Russia’s forests have thinned significantly. Moreover, a true pechnik, or oven builder, is hard to find: what was once a common trade is now a rare hobby. The man hired by Galactica did not have the expertise to include a heat-conserving labyrinth of vents, and he built the chimney toward the front of the oven, rather than over the fire. This arrangement used less wood and kept heat in longer, but all the food came out tasting smoked. Still, the oven’s three little compartments provided enough room for a frequent rotation of pans and traditional cast-iron pots—fat-bellied, with narrow bottoms—and its warm roof, about a foot below the kitchen’s ceiling, became a favorite for the three young chefs in the kitchen: Anatoly, with his blond mullet Serezha, who had two gold incisors and a Russian Navy tattoo on his hand and quiet, lanky Sasha. They worked twenty-four-hour shifts, sometimes consecutively. Periodically, one of them would climb down from the top of the pech, ruffling his hair and rubbing his eyes.
On the morning of the banquet, Aleksander Ladeischikov, the tanned and dandyish co-owner of Galactica, visited the kitchen. Syrnikov had just lifted a suckling pig, milk-white and puckered, from a vat of marinade: a bottle of vodka, water, and lemon. (Lemons, he explained, came to ancient Russia by way of Byzantium.) “He didn’t have a very long life,” Syrnikov said, laughing, as he rubbed the piglet with paprika, salt, sage, and sugar. Ladeischikov gave a rueful smile. “Oh, I can’t even look at it!” he said. “And then I’ll have to eat this poor child!”
Ladeischikov walked proprietarily through the kitchen in white boat shoes and a white Yachting Class Club T-shirt stretched tight under a seersucker blazer. He peered inside the oven and smiled at everyone encouragingly. Then he noticed some cigarette butts in a makeshift trash can. “Who’s been smoking in here?” he asked, and looked at the three young cooks. “Guys, guys, let’s get this straight right now: we’re not going to smoke in the kitchen. Clear?” The boys shuffled their feet and carried on mincing and stirring. Ladeischikov’s upbeat charm returned. “I have some friends, who are also chefs, who want to come see what you’re doing here,” he announced. “I told them they could come watch.”
After Ladeischikov left, Syrnikov called to the head chef, a wry, wiry woman in her forties named Rita, and asked for some buckwheat kasha—a kind of porridge. It would be mixed with chopped hard-boiled eggs as stuffing for the pig. Meanwhile, Anatoly and Serezha were preparing another kasha, made with semolina, known as Guryevskaya kasha. It was named for Count Dmitry Guryev, the Russian Minister of Finance during the Napoleonic Wars, who is said to have purchased the serf who invented the dish and installed him as the head chef at his own residence. Guryevskaya kasha consists of layers of semolina porridge alternating with layers of the chewy, caramelized film that forms on the surface of milk as it bakes in the oven. It is baked, then topped with nuts, dried fruit, and macedoine—a light syrup with skinned grapes that is a French import—and finally sprinkled with sugar and brûléed.
In the pech, a black iron pot bristled with fish tails. It would eventually become an ukha, a clear fish soup customarily made with three types of fish. In a different compartment were the tel’noe, a kind of fish cake made with cubes of salmon and perch, and mixed with raw egg and chopped onions. The patties had been arranged in a cast-iron skillet and covered with a mixture of sour cream and rassol, or pickle juice, a common way to add flavor in a climate where not many flavorful things grow. Soon, three small, fat carp would join them. In the neighboring compartment, a goose and a duck, their wings wrapped in foil, were turning a deep Cognac color.
Tucked in the back, near the coals, was a pan of grechniki, a buckwheat cake that is cut into squares—like brownies—and served with shchi, Russia’s traditional cabbage soup. Syrnikov considers shchi the most Russian food of all. Cabbage was a vital source of nutrients in a harsh climate that could support few fruits or vegetables. It was gathered in the fall, soured in brine, and stowed away for the winter in ice cellars. Shchi is made by chopping this soured cabbage, putting it into a cast-iron pot, and leaving it in the oven for hours. This breaks down the sugars in the cabbage, resulting in a sweet-and-sour taste similar to that of sauerkraut. A stock—fish, meat, or mushroom—is added after the cabbage has braised for a day.
“I don’t dance on the head of a pin unless I’m really drunk.”
Sutochnye shchi, or day-old shchi, gets its name from this process and can be found on the menu of almost every Russian restaurant in Moscow. These days, it is usually made more quickly, with sour cabbage tossed into the soup at the last minute to boil, but Syrnikov had braised his cabbage the day before. Shchi is very filling, and was central to the Russian peasant diet. Furthermore, the long cooking time became a characteristic aspect of the nineteenth-century culture of the traktir, the roadside inns that crop up so often in the writings of Chekhov and Gogol. When a coach driver stopped at an inn, he would have with him a pot of braised sour cabbage prepared in the pech of a previous inn. This would be mixed with a stock prepared at the new inn, and, while the driver ate and slept, a new batch of cabbage wilted in the pech for the next leg of the journey.
Syrnikov did not have a hungry childhood, but his parents did. His mother was born in Leningrad in December, 1941, at the start of the Germans’ siege of the city, in which more than half a million residents died of starvation and disease. “Throughout my childhood, they told me about what they ate during the siege,” Syrnikov recalled one day, as we sat in an upscale Italian restaurant in Chelyabinsk. “They told me how they boiled carpenter’s glue, and how the food warehouses burned down during the first days of the siege. My grandmother would go to the spot where they had stood—many people went and dug the earth where the sugar silo was. And then they would bring this earth home, wash it, and make syrup out of it.”
Before Syrnikov’s mother’s family came to the city, they lived in the countryside by Lake Seliger, between Moscow and St. Petersburg. Peasants for generations, they lost their land in the forced collectivization of the nineteen-twenties and thirties, when the Soviet Union’s plans for colossal communal farms obliterated existing agricultural communities and led to food shortages that claimed millions of lives. The field where Syrnikov’s great-grandfather grew rye is now abandoned, but Syrnikov, who has built a dacha nearby, takes walks there with his six-year-old son. His father’s side of the family, meanwhile, included a long line of cheese-makers, from whom his last name derives (syr is Russian for “cheese”). His paternal grandfather was arrested in the thirties and shuttled around the Gulag for nearly twenty years. Syrnikov is bitterly conscious of the miseries endured by the Russian people in the twentieth century. “My great-grandfather had eight children, and I am the only great-grandchild,” he says. “Can you imagine?”
Perhaps because of an acute sense of what his family lost to the Soviet regime, Syrnikov has made it his life’s work to reclaim the past. He refers to regions and cities by their pre-Revolutionary names, and to tsars as gosudar’, or lord. He is extremely devout, observing most Orthodox fasts and ignoring secular holidays. Nonetheless, his upbringing was in some ways typically Soviet. He served in the Soviet Navy in the early nineteen-eighties—Navy Day is the only secular holiday he acknowledges—and at university he studied the quintessentially Soviet subject of “culturology,” which attempted to examine the basis of culture scientifically. But by the time Syrnikov graduated, in 1991, the Soviet Union was on the verge of collapse, and in the economic chaos that ensued he worked various odd jobs to support himself.
Syrnikov began to travel around the country, sleeping on boats or in tents, exploring what remained of Russia’s peasant culture. There wasn’t much. Thanks to decades of inefficient collective farming, vital expertise had been lost, and Russian agriculture has not yet fully recovered. The culinary traditions of the peasants had likewise fallen into obscurity, as had the intricate fusion of Russian and French cuisines favored by the bourgeoisie and the aristocracy. In their place, the country’s diet was dominated by the bible of the Soviet kitchen, “The Book on Delicious and Healthy Food,” which was published in 1939. Through countless editions in the following decades, it helped Soviet cooks adapt to the growing dearth of the most basic produce. But it is also the source of the bland, greasy things that are commonly thought of as Russian food.
These days, few Russians have eaten the simple foods with folksy names that were once staples of the Russian table, such as kulebyaka (a huge pastry stuffed with fish, mushrooms, rice, and crêpes) and mazyunya (a fudgelike mixture of turnip flour and autumnal spices). Yet Syrnikov found that old women in the remote corners of the empire still remembered such things. Their mothers had made these dishes before the Revolution and had managed to pass on the recipes.
Syrnikov fleshed out his discoveries by hunting down pre-Revolutionary texts, accumulating an impressive library of culinary literature. (The oldest item in his collection is a Russian cookbook from 1790.) He also looked for clues in the Russian literary canon. In Nikolai Gogol’s “Dead Souls,” Chichikov eats nyanya, which, Gogol notes, is a “famous dish, served with shchi, consists of a lamb’s stomach stuffed with buckwheat, brain and legs.” Syrnikov decided to re-create the dish, which he calls Russian haggis. He procured and cleaned a lamb’s stomach (“Not a very pleasant or easy task”), and then stuffed it with lamb shank and liver, fried onions, hard-boiled eggs, and buckwheat kasha. He sewed up the stomach with white thread, and, after it was baked and photographed for his blog and his books, ate it with shchi, just like Chichikov.
“Who, other than me, is making nyanya in Russia right now?” Syrnikov says. The same can be said of other literary dishes. He soaks and preserves cloudberries, an orange raspberry that grows in the north of the country and is a peasant delicacy that Pushkin is reputed to have asked for on his deathbed. He has re-created the recipe for sayki, buns made from a dense wheat dough which, in Dostoyevsky’s “Notes from the House of the Dead,” are handed out to prisoners.
The result of Syrnikov’s twenty-four years of investigation is outlined in his lushly illustrated books. They read like the description of an utterly foreign cuisine. This is because, while Syrnikov was recovering techniques and flavors from before the Revolution, the rest of the country was being propelled into the globalized world of the twenty-first century. The new urban élite has the leisure to think about food, and is able to travel widely. In response to this, restaurants in Moscow and St. Petersburg have begun to focus more on the quality of the food they serve. In big cities, you don’t have to be an oligarch to get a grass-fed steak or chicken sous vide or an Old-Fashioned. Farmers’ markets are suddenly in vogue, and, last August, a food festival in Moscow attracted thirteen thousand people, despite the twenty-dollar admission fee and the fact that it was peak vacation time, which meant that the city was largely empty.
The festival’s organizer, Aleksei Zimin, edits a food magazine and owns a restaurant—Ragout—that wouldn’t be out of place in the West Village. He praises Syrnikov for restoring regional differences in a country that experienced decades of upheaval. For the most part, though, he sees Syrnikov’s project as quirky and anachronistic. “For me, food is alive—it’s what is here, now,” Zimin says. “Syrnikov is an archivist. There are people who spend years searching for something that was lost, like the fountain of youth, thinking that if they find it they will find some kind of truth in life.”
Others contend that the food in Syrnikov’s cookbooks is simply impractical for a modern life style. “You have to feed people according to contemporary standards of nutrition, and Russian food doesn’t meet these standards,” says Victor Michaelson, who leads the Slow Food movement in Russia, and describes himself as Syrnikov’s “antagonist.” “First of all, Russia was an agrarian country, where most people lived in villages. This means work outside, which, given the difficulty of the labor and the harshness of the climate, burned a colossal amount of calories and demanded a solid, peasant figure. But life has changed. Modern life means a low weight, fewer calories. Eating like a Russian peasant is no good for an urban life style. It’s good for an archeological restaurant.” Michaelson, whose slim figure presents an obvious contrast to Syrnikov’s, paused and added, “If you need proof, look at Maksim, and look at me.”
The first time I met Syrnikov, in Moscow, a Russian television crew was about to film him as he made samogon—Russian moonshine. He had arrived that morning from St. Petersburg, carrying a twenty-litre jug of malted rye and a metal box—a still that his friend, an engineer at a dairy factory, had welded for him. “I don’t like store-bought vodka,” Syrnikov said, pausing to clarify that, while it is illegal to sell moonshine in Russia, it is perfectly legal to make it. He usually makes samogon from rye, the grain that grows best in Russia, but sometimes he experiments with things like rowanberries—hard, red berries common in the country’s forests. After the first frost, he gathers thirty or forty kilos of them, naturally frozen on the trees. After pressing out the juice, he ferments it for two months, and then distills it. “And what you get is a completely unique beverage,” Syrnikov says. “Unfortunately, it’s hard to make a lot of it. Maybe about two litres of this heavenly drink.”
The Russian fondness for drink was noted early. Travelling through Muscovy in 1476, the Venetian diplomat Ambrosio Contarini wrote, “They are great drunkards and are exceedingly boastful of it, disdaining those who do not drink.” Contarini, however, did not mention vodka. At the time, distilled spirits were a rarity still being introduced by Hanseatic traders through the Baltic. Contarini reported that Russians drank a much milder beverage: “They have no wines, but use a drink from honey which they make with hop leaves.” Syrnikov occasionally makes this drink, known in English as mead and in Russian as myod (which is also the word for “honey”), flavoring a mixture of boiled honey, water, and yeast with hops and homemade cherry juice. The result is bitter, tart, and only mildly alcoholic.
Distilled liquor was initially tightly regulated in Russia. It is said that the first Moscow tavern allowed to serve it was exclusively reserved for the oprichniki, Ivan the Terrible’s secret police. But eventually it was made all over the country, in a process much like the one that Syrnikov was going to show the TV crew. For a long time, vodka was similar to whiskey: it tasted and smelled strongly of the grains used to make it, and was called “bread wine.” Until the twentieth century, only bread wine infused with herbs or berries was called vodka. The crystalline, nuanceless spirit that we now know as vodka emerged in the late nineteenth century, when the monarchy monopolized alcohol production and marketed the measure as a health initiative that removed the impurities in homemade bread wine. Instead of making alcohol through fermentation, distillers used a new industrial method of synthesizing pure alcohol. To meet the centuries-old standard of forty per cent ethanol content, distillers simply diluted pure alcohol with water. The vodka historian Boris Rodionov compares the technique to making coffee by dissolving a caffeine tablet in water. “It will pick you up, clear your head, no question,” he said. “But the aroma, the taste, the things that make coffee coffee have been stripped away.”
Preparing for the TV crew, Syrnikov put the metal tank filled with the malt on the stove and screwed on a metal cylinder containing the cooling coil. Then he attached two pieces of green hose, one to supply cold water to the coil, which would cause the evaporating samogon to condense, and one to flush the water back out. But there was a problem. A third tube, through which the samogon was to flow into a waiting bottle, was missing, as was the rubber seal needed to keep the hot malt from bubbling up into the cooling chamber. Without these parts, the whole process could go wrong. That morning, Syrnikov had searched nearby gas stations and car-repair shops for a piece of hose to use instead, to no avail. He decided to risk it.
“Damn those dugout Martinis!”
When the television crew arrived, Syrnikov put on a traditional embroidered linen peasant shirt that he tends to wear on such occasions, and explained the intricacies of preparing malt and distilling it into samogon. First, he had soaked the grains of rye in warm water, drying them when they showed signs of sprouting, and then heating them until they did. Sprouting increases the sugar content of the grain, and more sugar means more alcohol. When the sprout was nearly the length of the grain, Syrnikov had rubbed handfuls of the rye between his palms to remove the chaff and the sprouts. Then he dried it, milled it, mixed it with yeast and water, and added some dried peas, which speed up fermentation because they have colonies of yeast on their surface. In about five days, Syrnikov had twenty litres of cloudy braga, or malt—enough to distill about two litres of samogon.
This malting technique is centuries old and subject to all sorts of variants. As Syrnikov poured the milky malt into the metal hulk of the still, he told the story of an old man he’d seen one spring in a village in the Vologda region, in the northwest, once the heartland of ancient, pre-imperial Russia. “This grandfather makes it the way they made it two hundred years ago in that village,” Syrnikov said. “In spring, snow melts and you get a big puddle. So he takes a bucket of rye and tosses it in the puddle and leaves it. In two or three days, the rye sprouts. And when it sprouts he scoops it back out with the bucket and dries it in his oven.”
Behind Syrnikov, the still sat awkwardly on the stove. It wasn’t heating up fast enough. After a discussion of whether to turn on a second burner, Syrnikov decided to leave things as they were. He talked about a recent expedition to Belozero to fish for whitebait. The small fish were a crucial part of the Russian peasant diet during Church fasts. In the nineteenth century, the region had been a major exporter of whitebait to Britain. An hour passed. The crew was getting impatient. The cameraman mentioned how eager he was to have a taste. Suddenly, the room began to smell of bread. Someone noticed the first clear drops of samogon.
Fried Lambs’ Brains
When the folks at Cathay Pacific asked me to cook, style and photograph fried lambs’ brains for an upcoming edition of Discovery, their in-flight magazine, I was somewhat nervous. And that was before they disclosed that the accompanying article would be written by Umberto Bombana, the head chef at 8 1/2 Otto e Mezzo Bombana, the only Italian restaurant outside of Italy to hold 3 Michelin stars.
So not only had I agreed to cook something I had never cooked or eaten before, I had to prepare and style the dish based on something a 3 star Michelin chef considered to be his favourite dish. Sure! Easy peasy!
Before I accepted the assignment, I had to make some calls to ensure that I could source lambs’ brains in Zurich. The two main butchers in Zurich city quickly and bluntly declined my request to place a special order for lambs’ brains. Brains are very difficult, they both said, although they couldn’t explain in clear terms what the difficulty was.
My last and final option, which in hindsight should have been my first call, was the butcher I visit nearly every Friday at the farmers’ markets at Bürkliplatz. Perhaps it was my poor German which made him feel sorry for this foreigner who sounded quite desperate to buy a part of an animal which most Swiss would not want to see or eat (I asked for Lammgehirn when it is actually called Lammhirn). Or perhaps he was simply surprised to receive such an unusual order. But I was instantly relieved when he confirmed that he could provide me with some lambs’ brains, except that he could not guarantee how many because that depended on how many lambs would be slaughtered in the coming week. So not only was he the butcher, he was also the farmer.
There is much comfort in knowing the source of the meat which you are eating, as well as buying from farmers and butchers who take pride in their work and produce. And for farmers, in particular, it must be reassuring when the whole part of the animal can be used, that nothing goes to waste.
I can’t say that it was easy to handle the raw lambs’ brains, but I got on with the job and I am rather proud of the outcome. In my mind, I felt that it was no different to cooking any other part of the animal, so I pretended that I was cooking chicken nuggets.
And to be honest, the process of cooking lambs’ brains is not so different, except that you have to soak the brains first in a lot of water to extract the blood (sorry for the gory details but I have spared you the step-by-step photos!!), and then poach them in boiling water to cook the brains and make them firm enough to deep-fry. Once they have been poached, you simply dip them in beaten egg and coat them in flour, before immersing them in hot oil to become golden and crispy on the outside.
In his article, Chef Umberto Bombana writes about how his favourite fried lambs’ brains is served with Roman-Style Fried Artichokes. Of course, Cathay Pacific wanted me to include artichokes in the photo, and so this photo shoot was actually comprised on two entirely new dishes for me. Thankfully, the Roman-Style Fried Artichokes was relatively easy to prepare, and you can read about that recipe in my post here.
If you have tried eating fried lambs’ brains before, I would love to hear from you in the comments below!
If you are flying with Cathay Pacific or Cathay Dragon this month (June 2017), you can read the article and find my photo in their in-flight magazine, Discovery. If you are not flying, you can view the full article here or on the Discovery website.
Crumbed lamb’s brains with horseradish mayonnaise
Eating brains can be scary for some but they really are quite delicious. This is a good recipe for people who are uneasy about them – who could possibly resist a golden deep-fried morsel with a crispy crust surrounding a creamy, silky inside? The spicy horseradish mayonnaise gives an extra tangy bite.
- 50 g plain flour
- ½ tsp river salt
- freshly ground black pepper
- 2 eggs
- ½ cup milk
- 140 g panko breadcrumbs
- vegetable oil, for deep-frying
- 1 lemon, cut into cheeks
- 40 g fresh horseradish
- 2 tsp river salt
- 2 tsp hot English mustard
- 1 tbsp lemon juice, plus an extra squeeze, if needed
- 3 egg yolks
- 300 ml grapeseed oil
- 50 ml olive oil
- 2.5 litres water
- 1 brown onion, cut into quarters
- 1 large carrot, chopped into large pieces
- 1 celery stalk, chopped into large pieces
- 1 leek, white part only, washed and sliced into thick rounds
- 3 large garlic cloves, bashed
- 2 bay leaves
- ½ small bunch thyme
- 1 small handful parsley stalks
- 1 tsp black peppercorns
- 2 tbsp table salt
- 4 lamb’s brains
Oven temperatures are for conventional if using fan-forced (convection), reduce the temperature by 20˚C. | We use Australian tablespoons and cups: 1 teaspoon equals 5 ml 1 tablespoon equals 20 ml 1 cup equals 250 ml. | All herbs are fresh (unless specified) and cups are lightly packed. | All vegetables are medium size and peeled, unless specified. | All eggs are 55-60 g, unless specified.
- For the mayonnaise, grate horseradish into a bowl - ideally use a microplane, however the finest part of a normal grater will also work. Add the salt, mustard and lemon juice and combine with a whisk. Add the yolks, whisking to combine, then slowly add the oils together in a steady stream while whisking continually. Taste and add a little extra lemon juice, if necessary. Set aside. Store airtight in the fridge for up to a week.
- To poach the brains, place the water in a large shallow pot with all of the remaining poaching ingredients, except brains. Bring to the boil, lower the heat and simmer for about 15 minutes for flavours to infuse.
- Carefully lower brains into the water, turn down the heat and gently simmer for 4 minutes. Remove the brains tenderly with a slotted spoon - they will be soft and fragile - and leave them to cool on a tray. Discard the cooking liquid.
- Once brains are cool enough to handle, separate the two lobes and cut each in half, trimming away any unnecessary messy bits.
- Set up a crumbing station. Place flour on a plate and season it nicely. In a wide-ish mixing bowl, whisk together eggs and milk and place next to flour. Then, next to that on another plate, add about half the crumbs. Next to that plate, place a tray large enough to fit all of the brains.
- In small batches and using your hands, roll some of the brain pieces in the flour before gently placing them in the egg mixture. Lift out, letting any excess liquid drain off and roll about in the crumbs until they are completely covered. Place them on a tray to rest while you coat the others.
- Once they are all done, lay out the rest of the crumbs.
- Now all the brain pieces need to go back into the egg mixture and then the crumbs. Double coating gives you an extra crisp and thick crunchy bit.
- Fill a wide-based pot half-full with vegetable oil and heat to 180°C. Fry the brains in batches for about 3 minutes at which stage they should be a slightly dark golden colour. Pull them out of the oil and onto paper towel, season heavily and let them rest for a minute or so.
- Serve with the mayonnaise and a wedge of lemon.
• Lamb’s brains and fresh horseradish are not necessarily the most common of ingredients. Your butcher should be able to order the brains easily enough with a few days notice but they do usually come frozen. If you can’t find fresh horseradish I would instead use an extra tablespoon of hot mustard. I find the jarred horseradish never quite lives up to its full potential.
Photography by Benito Martin
Styling by Jerrie-Joy Redman-Lloyd
Platter by Slab and Slub from Small Spaces
Dear Mark: Does the Liver Accumulate Toxins?
Liver confuses and confounds many of us. It looks weird, gives off an odd mineral smell, and has a unique texture. We try to reconcile our horrible memories of Mom’s bone-dry renditions of the stuff with all the ethnographic literature describing how hunter-gatherers share precious slivers of the raw trembling organ immediately after a kill. We appreciate and acknowledge the superior nutrient profile of four ounces of beef liver compared to five pounds of colorful fruit even as the shrink-wrapped grass-fed lamb liver direct from the organic farm sits in the freezer untouched. And then we wonder whether it’s even safe to eat, because, you know, it’s the “filter” – the only thing standing between an onslaught of environmental toxins and our vulnerable bodies – and filters accumulate the stuff they’re meant to keep out. See colanders, coffee filters, water purifiers. Liver, then, is many a Primal eater’s Everest. Tantalizing but fraught with seeming danger. Okay, the question:
I was reading your post about organ meats. I have always heard liver was nutritionally valuable, but I hear the same thing about bread.
Maybe I am wrong, but isn’t the liver a filter? Doesn’t it filter poisons and toxins from the body? If I eat liver, am I ingesting the poisons and toxins of the animal? Seems to me there will always be residual poisons in liver. What are your thoughts on this?
To call the liver a simple filter is incorrect. If we want to maintain the metaphor, it’s more like a chemical processing plant. The liver receives shipments, determines what they contain, and reacts accordingly. It converts protein to glucose, converts glucose to glycogen, manufactures triglycerides, among many other tasks, but its best-known responsibility is to render toxins inert and shuttle them out to be expelled – usually in the urine via the kidney. It doesn’t just hang on to toxins, as if the liver is somehow separate from the body and immune to contamination. The liver is part of the body! If your liver contains large amounts of toxins, so do you!
Okay, so we’ve established that the liver is a processing plant by design, rather than a physical filter whose express purpose is to accumulate toxins, but what about animals raised in industrial, intensive operations? The liver from a pasture-raised cow with a perpetually cud-filled maw can undoubtedly handle its relatively light toxic load the liver from a CAFO-cow feeding on grain and exposed to environmental pollutants is surely another matter entirely. Right? Sorta, although it’s more complicated than that.
The liver can definitely accumulate heavy metals, but it is not alone in that, nor does it always particularly excel. A 2004 study (PDF) of liver, kidney, and lean meat from cattle, sheep, and chickens randomly selected from ranches in Lahore, Pakistan, found that all three tissues accumulated significant amounts of certain metals. Let’s see how the metals were distributed throughout the various cuts of beef, since that’s what most of us are eating for liver:
Beef liver contained 52 ppm arsenic, 0.42 ppm cadmium, 2.18 ppm lead, and 31.47 ppm mercury. Beef kidney contained 47 ppm arsenic, 0.9 ppm cadmium, 2.02 ppm lead, and 50.65 ppm mercury. Beef lean meat contained 46.46 ppm arsenic, 0.33 ppm cadmium, 2.19 ppm lead, and 62.39 ppm mercury. So, liver accumulated the most arsenic (but not by much), less cadmium than kidney but more than lean meat, and significantly less mercury than kidney and especially the lean meat. All three cuts contained roughly equal levels of lead.
However, another study (PDF) on cattle raised on pasture in the vicinity of metallurgical plants (and their fallout) in the Slovak Republic found that the liver did accumulate significantly higher concentrations of lead, cadmium, copper, zinc, iron, and nickel than muscle meat. What does this tell us? Don’t eat heavy metal contaminated beef, especially liver and kidney any and all cuts of the animal will accumulate dangerous levels of heavy metals if the animal is exposed to inordinate amounts.
Another study (PDF) examined how aflatoxin, when fed to a cow, was distributed throughout the animal’s tissues, with particular emphasis on the internal organs. Researchers dosed a 160 kg calf with 52 mg aflatoxin per day for five days, then slaughtered the animal and analyzed its tissues for aflatoxin levels. Aflatoxin was found in all cuts, but it was concentrated mostly in the kidneys and, to a lesser extent, the liver. Lean muscle meat contained 12.9 ng/g aflatoxin, heart contained 16 ng/g, spleen contained 18.5 ng/g, kidney contained 145 ng/g, while the liver contained 47.1 ng/g. So, eating a 100 gram portion of liver from this calf would give you 4.6 mg aflatoxin, which is pretty high. Not enough to kill you (the LD50 for baboons is 2 mg/kg bodyweight) on the spot, but it’s probably enough to cause some problems if you make eating aflatoxin-contaminated beef liver a regular habit. Luckily, commercial cattle ranchers aren’t dosing their cattle with 52 mg aflatoxin per day, and aflatoxin doesn’t occur naturally in pasture. It’s a mold that grows on grain stored in damp, humid conditions. Corn, especially improperly-dried corn stored in tropical or sub-tropical regions, is particularly susceptible to aflatoxin.
Those are the worst-case scenarios. Either the researchers purposely dosed the test animals with massive amounts of toxins or they selected subjects from heavily-polluted areas. Most meat and liver you get comes from animals raised in comparatively cleaner (if not more humane) conditions. Not even the staunchest corn-and-candy feeding cow ranchers want their animals eating aflatoxin-contaminated corn or munching on lead-and-mercury infused feed. It would be bad for business and they monitor this type of thing.
Still, people worry. Just to be sure, let’s take a look at studies on toxin accumulation in the livers of free-living livestock, as opposed to livestock living in contrived conditions. One study, which looked at cadmium, lead, and mercury levels in the organs and meat of healthy horses, cattle, and pigs, found that heavy metal accumulation was generally higher in the liver but not enough to affect human health. Another examined lead and mercury residues in livers and kidneys of Canadian chickens, cows, and pigs all levels were below the official Canadian tolerance of 2 ppm for lead and 0.5 ppm for mercury. Both studies are from the mid-70s, but more recent studies looking at mercury accumulation in cattle have had similar results. Livestock, even CAFO livestock, just aren’t exposed to toxic levels of heavy metals.
Liver can accumulate toxins and heavy metals, but so can every other part of the animal. If you avoid liver because of toxins, you should probably avoid the rest of the animal, too. Besides, liver isn’t an everyday type of cut. It’s high in vitamin A and copper, high enough that eating a half pound a day is excessive and counterproductive, even without any toxins getting involved. Note that an animal only has one liver, and eating large amounts of it every day is evolutionarily novel. Traditional cultures didn’t prize liver because it was easily obtainable in large amounts, you know. It was a nutrient-dense treat, so consume it accordingly – as a weekly delicacy to be savored and enjoyed. As long as you’re avoiding animals in polluted, toxic environments (and I’m not talking CAFOs here I’m talking industrial waste and heavy metal runoff) eating contaminated food (which you should be doing anyway, even if you don’t eat liver!), liver is a safe addition to your diet. Livers from organic, pasture-raised animals are obviously going to be tastier (almost sweet, in my experience), more nutritious, and cleaner, but I think you can safely eat the occasional liver meal from conventionally raised animals, too.
How often do you eat liver? Are you worried about toxins? Did you realize the liver isn’t like a simple filter, but instead like a processing plant?