When it comes to enjoying offal, I have found that one either does or does not at all. There is no middle ground. I have always been a lover of liver and kidneys, gizzards, hearts, sweetbreads and tongues for that matter. I grew up on chopped chicken liver, and always considered pan-fried chicken livers a treat. I still do.
If you share my view, youre going to love this pasta, which pairs a humble, inexpensive ingredient with a seasonal luxury item: the morel mushroom.
Morels are the springtime wild mushroom, but unless you are an expert forager and know how to pick your own, they dont come cheap. Still, a mere half-pound of them is a most delicious indulgence. Morels slowly stewed with olive oil, garlic and herbs make a fine simple supper with a loaf of crusty bread. They can also be used in almost any meaty braise, lending it a deep woodsy flavor.
Here morels join with chicken livers for a creamy pasta sauce. The inspiration for this pasta comes from a traditional Tuscan chicken liver stew called cibreo that is undeniably rich with butter, cream and egg yolks, usually served on toast. It is not a dish to eat on an everyday basis, but it fills the bill nicely for a special occasion, served in small, relatively guilt-free portions.
Essentially, the livers are simmered with shallots, sherry and good homemade chicken broth, then enhanced with a bit of high-fat magic. The resulting ultra-creamy sauce is stunning. After spooning it liberally over the pasta, I like to add a sprinkling of parsley, tarragon and chives and a few thin ribbons of prosciutto.
If you cant get wild morels, use an assortment of cultivated mushrooms, like cremini, oyster mushrooms, King trumpets or shiitake. (To give them a bit of wild mushroom flavor, soak just a few dried morels or porcini in warm water. When they have softened, chop them very finely and stir into the sauce.)
And for those of you who arent liver lovers, heres a little good news: You can also skip the livers and make this pasta with mushrooms only.
Creamy Chicken Liver Pasta
with Wild Morels
1/2 pound wild morels (or other mushrooms)
1 pound chicken livers
All-purpose flour, for dusting
Salt and pepper
Pinch of cayenne
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 tablespoons butter
2 large shallots, finely diced
1/4 cup dry sherry
2 to 3 cups chicken stock (or mushroom stock)
1/2 cup crème fraiche
1 pound pappardelle or other pasta
4 egg yolks
3 tablespoons lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon grated lemon zest
2 teaspoons chopped fresh tarragon
2 tablespoons chopped parsley
1 tablespoon finely cut chives
2 ounces thinly sliced prosciutto, cut into 1/2-inch ribbons (optional)
CUT stems from mushrooms (reserve for making mushroom stock, if desired) and cut them top to bottom into halves or quarters. If they seem sandy, swish them very briefly in a bowl of warm water and blot on kitchen towels, then set aside. Put a large pot of water on to boil for the pasta.
TRIM chicken livers. Cut each liver into 2 lobes, discarding any veiny bits, then cut livers into 1-inch pieces. Put about 1 cup flour in a low bowl and add 1 teaspoon salt, a generous amount of black pepper and a pinch of cayenne. Dip liver chunks in flour mixture, then set them aside in one layer on a baking sheet.
HEAT olive oil in a wide skillet over medium-high heat. Quickly brown liver pieces on all sides, then remove them from the pan and blot on paper towels.
ADD butter and shallots to pan and cook, stirring frequently, until shallots are softened and beginning to brown, about 2 minutes. Add mushrooms, season generously with salt and pepper and cook them together with the shallots for about 5 minutes, until they are somewhat soft.
ADD sherry and cook for a minute or so, then add 2 cups chicken stock. Bring to a simmer and add previously browned liver. Cook for about 5 minutes. It should look quite saucy. Add more chicken stock, if necessary. Taste and adjust seasoning. Stir in creme fraiche and turn off heat.
BOIL pasta until al dente and drain. While pasta is cooking, beat egg yolks, lemon juice and lemon zest together in a small bowl. Pour egg mixture slowly into chicken liver sauce, then stir for a minute or so over low heat until slightly thickened, being careful not to curdle egg.
DIVIDE pasta among bowls and spoon sauce over. Mix tarragon, parsley and chives together and sprinkle over each serving. Scatter prosciutto ribbons on top, if using, and serve immediately.
Yield: 6 servings.