Farmers' Market Report: Beef Liver from Heartland Meats

"Doesn't look nearly as horrifying as I'd expected."

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By David Hammond

About three years ago, I dined at a white tablecloth restaurant with a thirtysomething woman and a twentysomething man. Neither had eaten beef or calves' liver. Ever. So I ordered some. When my liver arrived, the woman wryly remarked, "It doesn't look nearly as horrifying as I'd expected."

Taking a bite, she liked the liver; the man, however, took one bite and recoiled, saying "too iron-y." Indeed, liver contains much iron, which is why it's traditionally recommended for young women. Still, though we have three daughters, we almost never prepared liver at home. The kids made funny faces whenever I mentioned it…and we had health concerns. The liver filters blood, so we were concerned that, perhaps, this organ might act as a repository for toxins consumed or injected into factory-farmed animals.

We had no such concerns with some liver we bought last weekend from John Sondgeroth of Heartland Meats at the Oak Park Farmers' Market. Heartland offers beef from Piedmontese cattle that have not been fed growth hormones or antibiotics, so there's less of that nasty stuff to collect in the liver.

Sondgeroth sells beef liver, not calves' liver, because he raises his cattle to full weight before harvesting. "People sometimes get angry," Sondgeroth told us, "when I tell them we don't sell calves liver. 'Well, can't you make some?' they ask. Of course, I can't."

If Sondgeroth harvests the liver when the cattle are young, he has to harvest the whole animal, and selling veal is not part of his business model.

"I don't think you can even buy calves' liver at supermarkets anymore," Sondgeroth speculated. So I checked. Whole Foods in River Forest had beef liver, but no calves' liver. Same at Trader Joe's. Neither Jewel nor Pete's Fresh picked up the phone when I called, but I'm guessing neither calves liver nor customer service are part of their business model.

Carolyn and I ate liver regularly when we were kids. Liver is full of nutrients besides iron, but perhaps most importantly, it was inexpensive, as was halibut and veal, now both premium products. Liver, however, has never been a premium product. When we lived in a commune on the south side, we'd go to the South Water Street market and buy whole cow's livers, ranging up to like 10 pounds or more. Sitting on the kitchen table, the whole liver looked like a giant magenta sea creature. It cost around twenty-five cents per pound. Liver (except for goose or duck liver: foie gras) has never been very expensive.

The Heartland beef liver is $8/pound, which is much less than many other cuts of meat offered by Sondgeroth, which I'm guessing reflects its continuing, relative lack of popularity.

Sondgeroth cuts the liver into thin slices, which makes pan-frying very easy. He gave me a recipe named "Liver Dish (For Those Who Think They Hate Liver)," which involves melting butter and sautéing onion with white wine, lemon juice and nutmeg. An egg yolk is added to this sauce, which is then poured over pan-seared liver chunks. Sondgeroth has recipes on hand for liver as well as the many other cuts of meat he offers.

The classic preparation for liver is with onions and bacon, and that's usually the way I had it as a kid. At old school places like George's (145 S. Oak Park Ave, Oak Park), liver is still on the menu, and there I like it Greek-style, with oregano and lemon.

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David Hammond  

Posted: June 16th, 2016 10:44 PM

Liver does seem "risky," Scott, especially when it's on the plate, looking like its great, big organ-y self. In pate, though, people don't seem to think twice.

David Gulbransen  

Posted: June 16th, 2016 5:43 PM

I am *not* a fan of liver, even from Heartland. But the overall quality of their meat is *excellent* and I'm so glad they are a part of the Farmer's Market!

Scott J. Frankel  

Posted: June 15th, 2016 3:42 PM

The other day I took a risk on a liver and onions taco at Las Comales. It was delicious!

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