Finding Childhood Memories in Chopped Liver

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.

alison-thumb-frameA 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.

Chicken Pate with Brandy (Chopped Liver)

This recipe is based on chopped liver — a k a “Jewish pate” — but combines liver with skinless, boneless chicken thighs and substitutes heart-healthy canola oil for traditional chicken fat in a version that’s much lower in saturated fat than my grandma’s specialty. I’ve also added a touch of brandy and toasted walnuts to take this a little upmarket. Spending a few minutes thoroughly cleaning and trimming the chicken of excess fat and sinew ensures a smooth pate; sharp kitchen shears make quick work of this task. Serve as an appetizer with crackers, toasted rye or French bread, along with cornichons, a robust mustard and dry white wine.

chicken-pate-chopped-liver-recipe2 tablespoons canola oil, divided
1/2 cup finely chopped onion
1/2 pound chicken livers, cleaned and trimmed
1/2 pound skinless, boneless chicken thighs, trimmed and cut into 2-inch pieces
3/4 teaspoon salt, divided
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons brandy
2 tablespoons chopped toasted walnuts

Heat 1 tablespoon oil in a nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add onion; sauté 2 minutes or until tender. Sprinkle livers and chicken with 1/4 teaspoon salt. Add livers to pan and cook 2 minutes on each side or until seared on the outside and light pink on the inside (do not overcook). Transfer livers and onions to work bowl of a food processor.

Heat remaining 1 tablespoon oil in pan. Add thighs to pan and cook 2 minutes on each side or until done. Add thighs to food processor with remaining 1/2 teaspoon salt, pepper, and brandy.

Process until smooth and stir in walnuts. Spoon pate into a shallow 2-cup dish or individual ramekins. Chill at least 1 hour before serving.

Serves 6

Manchego and Nutmeg Gougeres

Gougeres (“goo-zhehr”)–little mini cheese-puffs about as light as air–are the classic nibble with Champagne. (Here, we give them a Spanish spin with manchego cheese . . . try them with a glass of cava.)

manchego-nutmeg-gougeres-recipe4 ounces (1 stick) butter, cut into small cubes
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
1 cup water
1 cup all-purpose flour
4 large eggs
1-1/2 cups (6 ounces) grated manchego cheese, divided
1/8 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.

Combine butter, salt, pepper and water in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat. Bring to a boil, stirring constantly, and remove from heat immediately.

Pour in flour and stir with a mixing spoon (mixture will be stiff) for 3-5 minutes, until the dough becomes smooth and pulls away from the sides of the pan.  Stir in eggs one by one, mixing well after each addition, then stir in 1 cup cheese and nutmeg.

Line two baking sheets with parchment paper. Transfer dough to a pastry bag and pipe 2-inch mounds 2 inches apart onto both sheets. Sprinkle remaining cheese over top and bake for 25 minutes, switching pans half way through.

Serve warm or at room temperature, or cool completely and freeze in a freezer-safe zip-top storage bag. (Reheat frozen gougeres in a 375 F oven for 5 minutes.)

Serves 18

Umami Stuffed Mushrooms

Mushrooms and Parmigiano-Reggiano are the kings of umami, amplifying one another’s flavor exponentially. Spinach and prosciutto add even more to the mix to make this hors d’oeuvre simply irresistible.


1 1/2 pounds white or cremini mushrooms (sometimes called “baby bella”)
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, divided
1 garlic clove, minced
sea salt and freshly ground pepper
1 large shallot, minced
2 ounces prosciutto, finely chopped
2 teaspoons fresh thyme, chopped
1 teaspoon fresh rosemary, chopped
1/3 cup frozen spinach, chopped (thawed, squeezed of excess water)
1/4 cup fresh Italian parsley, chopped
1/4 cup dry sherry (or dry Marsala)
1/2 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
1/4 cup panko bread crumbs

Preheat oven to 375.

Wipe mushrooms clean, carefully snap out stems and chop them finely (you should end up with roughly 1 1/2 cups of minced stems). Toss mushroom caps with garlic, 1 tablespoon olive oil and a pinch of salt and pepper.

Place mushroom caps stem-side down on cookie sheet and bake for 10 minutes. Remove from oven and reserve liquid.

While mushroom caps are cooking, heat remaining tablespoon oil in a medium sauté pan over medium high heat. Add shallots, minced mushroom caps, prosciutto, thyme and rosemary and sauté until the shallots have softened and mushrooms have released their liquid, 6-8 minutes.

Add spinach, pour in sherry and scrape up any bits stuck to the bottom of the pan. Cook until liquid has evaporated, 2-3 minutes, and turn off heat. Season to taste with salt and pepper and stir in parsley, panko crumbs and cheese. Pour any liquid from the mushroom caps into the stuffing mixture (it’s umami-rich).

Stuff about 1 teaspoon into each mushroom cap and arrange stuffing-side up on cookie sheet. Return to oven for 10-15 minutes, until golden and warmed through.

Serves 8

Recipe by Jacqueline Church