While strolling through the market snapping photos on Saturday, I wandered up to the Pine Mountain Ranch booth to buy some eggs when I noticed they had chicken livers and hearts. I'd been wanting to make my own chopped liver for a while, so I inquired about the chicken parts. In what is quickly becoming a trend in my life, I was told that someone had just snapped up the last of the chicken bits but they had a package of buffalo livers available. As with the lamb tongues, I rolled with the punches, bought the liver, and set home to do some research. On the walk home, I called my sister Casey and told her I'd scored some buffalo liver, to which she responded, "Is this going to be your new thing? Eating weird parts?" I guess so, Casey. I guess so.
After some straightforward Googling of "buffalo liver," "bison liver," and even "beef liver" to round out the information hunt, I found out that soaking liver is pretty much suggested across the board. Some people recommend soaking in milk, others lemon or tomato juice, and a few prefer wine or another alcohol. This is really doing two things: The acids in the milk/juice/booze help tenderize the meat, and they tone down the strong flavor that liver can carry with it, especially if the liver comes from an older animal. I knew the livers I bought were probably the best money could buy, so I wasn't really worried about masking any off flavors, but I chose to marinate in red wine to be on the safe side (also, wine is rarely a bad idea). On another note, liver can be difficult to slice, but my friendly ranchers packaged the buffalo pre-sliced so I didn't have to worry about it. Perfect slices of even width made my job pretty easy.
A few hours of marinating later, I turned my cast iron pan up to smokin' hot, and seared the livers without letting them overcook, and served them up with flash roasted (really, broiled) veggies and some quinoa pilaf (which is just quinoa cooked in water with oregano, garlic powder, thyme, salt and pepper, and a skosh of tomato paste). I was pleasantly surprised! Yes, it tastes like liver, but the first taste on the tip of my tongue was of a really good steak - likely due to the caramelization of the searing...
(SCIENTIST SISTER EDIT: If you are talking about caramelization, it can't be caramelization of the meat. You might be able to get away with caramelizing the residual sugars of the wine in your marinade but you will never caramelize liver because caramelization refers exclusively to the decomposition of sugar with applied heat. In the case of a fatty meat, the browning and goodness that comes with searing is a complex mixture of reactions known collectively as the Maillard reaction which requires sugars, amino acids, and heat. And specifically, the reaction most likely occurring in your lean liver is decomposition of myoglobin, the protein that makes up muscle. Right! Thanks, Casey!)I topped off the liver and veggies with a balsamic vinegar reduction, which basically entails boiling some balsamic vinegar until it reduces to a thick, delicious sauce that perfectly complemented the meat. Livers are really good for you, super lean with all of the good vitamins and nutrients, but when you're eating organ meats you really want to make sure you're getting the best quality, organic animal possible. Hormones and anitbiotics can concentrate in places like the liver, giving you a concentrated shot of all the nasty stuff. Luckily, they're about the cheapest meat sold at the farmers' market, so treat yourself to the best organic, pasture-raised liver you can buy from someone you trust. It won't put you out more than a couple of bucks.
Pine Mountain Ranch raises some might fine bison, all grass-fed and loved. My friend Nate asked me if I felt odd about eating buffalo, given that less than a century ago they were all but extinct. The truth of the matter is that most of the bison rehabilitation efforts have been due to the increased demand for buffalo/bison meat. In his book, Renewing America's Food Traditions: Saving and Savoring the Continent's Most Endangered Foods, conservation scientist Gary Paul Nabhan argues that by creating a culinary market for many of the endangered species of North America, the buffalo included, actions may be taken by private and public organizations to increase the population and establish safe havens for them. The owner of Pine Mountain Ranch, Alan Rousseau, has said of the buffalo: "Because of their majesty, and their place in history as a symbol of America, I have set a personal goal to return Buffalo to the wild, by way of a state or national park. This way, more of the public can be educated on the Buffalo, and hopefully be as inspired as I am by these magnificent creatures, which are as much a part of this great country as the Bald Eagle."
Perhaps more than most ranchers, Pine Mountain makes a point of using the whole animal - which is why I could find livers, hearts, feet, and tongues at the Portland farmers' market. Reducing waste, valuing the whole animal, and respecting the integrity of the species are reasons to feel good about eating those "weird parts" of the animals, while supporting local ranchers and their goals of rehabilitating and respecting the land and its sensitive ecology.
Plus, it's really tasty.