Proust had his madeleines. I have chopped liver.
Few foods trigger such strong childhood memories as the chopped liver my grandmother made when I was growing up. The recipe had long been in the family, ferried over by her mother on steerage passage from Kiev. Our family lacks any sentimentality, much less culinary history, so the exact recipe has been lost to the ages. It’s easy enough to re-create, though, since it was a basic concoction mixed by Jewish mamas for generations: Sauté chicken livers and onions in schmaltz (rendered chicken fat), run it through a meat grinder, and season with salt and pepper. Grandma often folded in chopped hard-cooked eggs. Then she packed it into a rinsed-out margarine tub and delivered it to us with a loaf of rye bread.
I took to chopped liver right away, loving its rich, gamy quality (though as a preschooler, I misheard the name and called the stuff “chopped litter,” a moniker Grandma happily adopted). I can almost certainly say I was the only kid at Loma Portal Elementary who hoarded sandwiches of chopped liver on rye, withholding them from lunchroom black market swaps (not that my classmates were clamoring for them). To this day, I love any kind of pate, from humble chopped liver to fancy pate de foie gras.
Chopped liver–affectionately called Jewish pate–is a type of forcemeat, which is a broad category that covers any finely ground mixture of meat, poultry, or even fish with spices and other ingredients. Forcemeats are used either to stuff other items, such as sausage casing or ravioli, or served on their own. They’re part of a time-honored tradition of using off-cuts (offal), including organ meats like liver. Although forcemeats can use expensive ingredients like foie gras, they typically employ cheap items like chicken livers, which you can pick up for less than $2.50 a pound at the supermarket.
Forcemeats usually are made with copious amounts of fat, which makes them rich and luscious, as well as caloric, and insanely high in saturated fat. Modern home cooks have made some changes when it comes to chopped liver–swapping schmaltz for canola oil, for example. I’ve made some other modifications to Grandma’s chopped liver, like using a food processor instead of a meat grinder, which gives it a finer quality, and employing a mix of liver and chicken thigh meat to trim the saturated fat. I’ve also added a touch of brandy and toasted walnuts to lend it some French flair. But the result is still redolent with the flavor I first grew to love and offers liver’s impressive nutritional benefits (lots of vitamin A, plenty of iron).
A modern version for a grown-up girl . . . but I still wouldn’t trade it for anything.
A longtime editor, writer, and recipe developer, Alison Ashton is a Cordon Bleu-trained chef. She has worked as a features editor for a national wire service and as senior food editor for a top food magazine. Her work has appeared in Cooking Light, Vegetarian Times, and Natural Health.