Chopped liver is a staple on many a Jewish family’s Hanukkah table, but why not try something different this year? I’d like to suggest a delicious alternative borrowed from China’s Muslims.
This savory dish is a classic in northern China and usually consists of thin shreds of lamb or beef flash-fried with lots of green onions and rich soy sauce. Over the years, I have adapted this traditional Muslim dish into something my family loves with a passion, substituting lots of fresh chicken livers for the meat. The result: a meal that makes my Chinese brother-in-law’s eyes roll back into his head with ecstasy.
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And pretty much the same thing happens to me, truth be told, because this is one of those perfect Chinese dishes in which flavors and textures bounce off one another like magic. A savory, lightly garlicky sauce binds the sweetness and silkiness of the scallions with the livers’ gentle bitterness and sublime softness. In fact, this is why I use the livers instead of lamb or beef: That extra depth and tangy undertone make the complex flavors even more intriguing. Plus, whenever my brother-in-law shows up, I know that I’ll have to put Chinese liver ‘n’ onions on the menu if I want to keep peace in the house and a smile on the face of our houseguest.
I’ll let you in on a few secrets that will guarantee you tender, juicy chunks of liver peeking out between the silky strands of green onion. First and foremost, the livers and the green onions have to be very fresh and of excellent quality, as they are the undisputed stars of this show.
Second, the livers have to be prepped correctly to remove both the stringy fibers that connect them to the chicken’s structure, and the bile and blood that can so easily overwhelm the livers’ delicate flavor. And finally, the proper application of the traditional Chinese principle of “fire and timing” (huŏhòu 火候) determines how much heat is applied at what stage and for how long, so that you too will be able to revel in this delectable classic.
Chicken Livers With Green Onions
Cōngbào jīgān 蔥暴雞肝
Serves 4 to 6
1 pound very fresh organic chicken livers
Plain rice wine (Taiwanese Mijiu recommended), as needed for marinade, plus two tablespoons
3 or more tablespoons cornstarch
12 or so very fresh green onions, cleaned well and trimmed
2 to 3 cloves fresh garlic
½ cup fresh peanut or vegetable oil
1½ tablespoons regular soy sauce
2 tablespoons sugar
1. Rinse the chicken livers in a colander under cool tap water and shake off most of the water. Working on one set of livers at a time, place the set on a cutting board and remove any surface fat. Gently grasp the cleaner of the two lobes and use a sharp knife to lightly scrape against the fibers connecting it to the other lobe or lobes, to separate them and to remove as much of the tough strings as possible. Then, gently scrape the fibers on the other end and discard the connective tissues. Cut the liver into even pieces, anywhere from 4 to 6 petals per set, and place them in a medium work bowl. Repeat with the rest of the livers until all of them have been cleaned.
2. Pour just enough rice wine over the livers to barely cover them, and then gently swirl the bowl around to distribute the wine. Allow the livers to marinate for about an hour to leach out the bile and blood, and then place the livers back in the colander and rinse them once more under cool tap water. Lightly pat them dry with a paper towel, place them in a clean work bowl, and toss them with just enough cornstarch so that they are all coated with a powdery surface, as this will protect the tender flesh from the searing heat of the wok.
3. While the livers are marinating, slice the green onions into 1-inch lengths, and then cut the white ends vertically in half so that they will be able to cook evenly and quickly. Peel the garlic cloves, remove the hard ends and any green shoots, and then chop them coarsely.
4. Heat a wok over high heat until hot and then pour in all of the oil; this step will help prevent the livers from sticking to the hot iron of the wok. When the oil starts to shimmer, add a handful of the coated livers to the hot oil and fry them on one side until golden, then flip them over and fry the other side. Remove the fried livers to a serving platter and repeat with the rest of the livers until all have been fried. If you have a lot of oil left in the wok, pour off all but about 2 tablespoons.
5. Add the whites of the green onions and the garlic to the hot oil and fry them for a few seconds to release their fragrance. Toss in the fried chicken livers, soy sauce, 2 tablespoons rice wine and the sugar, and keep tossing them until most of the liquid has been evaporated and the livers are cooked through; taste and adjust the seasoning as desired. Add the onion greens and toss again. When the greens are just barely cooked and still a bit crunchy, scoop everything out onto a serving platter and serve hot.
Top photo: Chinese Muslim-style chicken livers and green onions. Credit: Carolyn Phillips