Undercooked liver causes food poisoning…

Sleb chef Raymond Blanc – one of the good guys in a very mixed, and often low-grade, bag – has had one of his restaurants fall foul of the Environmental Health food police by serving lamb’s liver too undercooked, thereby poisoning a couple of diners.

The main problem seems to be that restaurants normally undercook all meats drastically,** and Blanc’s own recommendation is that lamb’s liver is cooked for no more than 30 seconds per side. That’s not just pink, it’s raw. And, if it’s come out of the fridge, it’ll still be cold inside unless sliced wafer-thin.

**The normal claim as, indeed, made by Blanc in this instance, is that customers demand it that way, though I seriously doubt anyone has ever asked them – customers not sending food back does not equate to demanding it that way.

My perception is that they don’t have a great deal of say in the matter – order a well-done steak in an upscale restaurant and you’re likely to get some version of rare if, that is, you don’t get the opinionated chef at your table giving you grief – I wonder who these pricks think pays their wages, if not the customer?

So, rather than comply with the law, lamb’s liver has been taken off the menu.

Since I can no longer afford to eat in such stratospherically-priced establishments, that bothers me not at all, but where does that leave the average home cook who, like me, likes their liver pink? I don’t believe we have a problem unless we subscribe to M. Blanc’s wrong-headed idea that barely warm = cooked adequately.

Restaurants routinely serve meat and offal seared on the outside, raw inside but, at home we have more control – and arguably more sense. I’ve been cooking lamb’s liver pink for most of my adult life, and have never had a problem, because it’s thoroughly cooked. Pink inside and thoroughly cooked are NOT mutually exclusive concepts.

The crucial difference, with liver is the difference between just slightly pink, at which point it will still be tender and tasty, but hot and safe to eat, and running with blood, which is what the likes of Blanc call pink, and which lays customers low. It’s not simply the length of time for which it’s cooked that matters – and 30 seconds a side is absurd – it’s the temperature of the pan, and that’s critical. I cook my liver hot, but not too fast.

It should be sliced about 8mm thick, be a uniform thickness,** at room temperature, and lightly dusted with seasoned flour. Put enough oil into a hot frying pan to just cover the bottom, and when hot (test it with a corner of a slice of liver – if it immediately sizzles and spits, it’s hot enough), add the liver.

**I prefer to buy my liver in the piece, and slice it myself, but for some years now I’ve not been able to as, apparently, it’s delivered to butchers already sliced and, in my experience, that mostly means randomly hacked up, not in neat, uniform, slices. This will certainly be the case if you buy from a supermarket, as their meat prep people appear to have the knife skills of blind plumbers.

Anyway, as soon as blood starts to bead on the top surface, turn it. Repeat until the blood stops, then remove from the pan, and serve. At this point the liver will be still pink within, but it will also be thoroughly hot, and there will be no blood oozing onto the plate. Before serving r

This method has served me well for almost 50 years, and I have never had a moment’s illness as a result, nor has anyone I’ve cooked it for, simply because the liver is allowed to become thoroughly heated through during cooking.

Food safety regulations stipulate that the liver must be held at 70C for 2 minutes to ensure that any pathogens are killed off – frankly, and I’m with Blanc on this, if I took time out to stick a thermometer probe into it for 2 minutes, it would be ruined as the trick is to keep turning it as it bleeds, until it stops. Don’t worry about tiny dewdrops of blood – residual heat will take care of that.

Of course, the law applies to restaurants, not home kitchens, but it still pays to cook meat and offal well – and cooked well is not synonymous with over-cooked, whatever the overpaid prima-donnas of the cheffy world might think. It’s high time most of these people reconnected with the real world – haul them down from their (self-perceived), Olympian heights and send the buggers out, for a few weeks a year, to work in a greasy spoon, see how they get on trying to feed hairy-arsed truckers meat that almost still has a pulse!

But getting back to lamb’s liver, it is possible for it to be free of any trace of pink, and still be perfectly edible, but it needs very precise timing, as the time span between “not pink” and “dry and leathery” is brief. The best way to do this, I think, other than from experience, is to cook it as above, clap a lid on the pan, remove it from the heat and let it sit for a few minutes. That should do the trick.

If you like liver, hate it pink but also loathe it leathery, and can’t ber doing with the buggeration,** then fried lamb’s liver is probably not your best choice. You might want to consider switching to pig’s liver which, while not great fried, is excellent stewed, as it responds very well to long, slow cooking.

**Not really buggeration, just a matter of getting used to it, but hey, people’s ideas of buggeration vary.

I tend to cut it into strips, put it in a colander and scald it, this makes the blood congeal somewhat and lessens the escape into the sauce,** then cook it slowly in a herby tomato-based sauce for an hour or so. It also has the advantage of being dirt cheap, £1 a kilo at the moment at Tesco.

**You could soak it in salted water for a while if the idea of blood bothers you but, if it does, why are you eating liver?

Why so cheap? No-one buys it would be my guess (though charging a fiver a kilo would make it more attractive – it’s perfectly possible to put people off by charging too little). I think people have simply got out of the habit of eating the wobblier parts of animals, plus the fact that no amount of packaging is going to disguise the fact that what you have is a blood-soaked hunk of something previously living, and people can be such god-awful wimps!

The problem is supermarkets and their packaging, which has divorced whole generations from the idea that the shrink-wrapped hunk of protein was once alive, and probably happy. For a given value of happy, anyway – cows are quite staggeringly dim. An entire herd will come and gawp at you over the fence more or less indefinitely, presumably in the hope that at some point before the heat-death of the universe, or milking time, whichever comes first, you might do something interesting.

And they have never understood that a backpacker carrying a huge pack is not actually their owner with a nice bale of hay, not even if they get to lick it, and suck the straps – they will still follow you in hope that several kilos of nylon fabric will metamorphose into a bale of sweet meadow grass, no matter that it never has before.

To be honest, there is some offal I won’t eat, simply because, well, it’s just yucky – sweetbreads for instance, or tripe. My father loved honeycomb tripe simply poached and served with lashing of malt vinegar and raw onions, but I find the texture of tripe nauseating and, yes, I have tried to eat it, in the traditional way, casseroled in the French manner, and simply cut into strips and fried, and I can’t.

Another form of offal I do like, though, is ox kidney. I have no idea what it’s like treated like lamb’s kidneys, and fried, a tad robust, I suspect as it has an intense flavour, but it makes fantastic soup  the downside being that it’s hard to come by, not least because a lot of it goes to the catering industry – ox kidney is what you get in steak and kidney pies, and puddings. You won’t find it in supermarkets, that’s for sure, not even Waitrose. I do have a source, but as delivery costs a tenner, I need to order other meat to make it worthwhile, and at the moment I don’t have the freezer space.

Kidney soup will make an appearance in the winter, though, of that I’m certain. It’s just too good not to.

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2 thoughts on “Undercooked liver causes food poisoning…

  1. well, I was brought up eating sheeps brains on toast for saturday tea, and uncooked cold tripe (honeycomb and thick seam for preference) with vinegar and a salad for sunday tea and I survived…try to get brains nowadays and you are obviously a nutter! I always hated liver though, but liked heart in sandwiches, and of course black puddings. Chitterlings (pigs intestines) were another thing I didnt like either, but cow heel and pigs trotters were on the menu.
    I think the worst thing though was eating pigeon……my dad had racing ones and if they were no good well……………
    Sometimes I feel really old (I’m only 55) as no-one nowadays seems to eat stuff like this anymore

    • A few weeks ago I fancied a roast cow’s heart – you can only buy the buggers sliced now! Ditto sheep’s, at least round here anyway. Still, if I get the urge to make haggis, it’s on the agenda, I know where to go. Can’t get lungs for love nor money though. Oh well, they’re not in commercial haggis anyway so it’s not just me.

      Black pudding – in the guise of home-made Morcilla – is in the freezer.

      Brains, of course, where banned when BSE appeared. You can still buy brains imported from Holland, apparently. Dunno where, though.

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