Granted, most foods suffering from sullied reputations are a challenge to cook appealingly, but that doesn't mean the items are innately bad. To the contrary, most of them are loaded with nutritional pluses. They just call for a trick or two to help them shine.
We have gathered together a collection of such tricks, designed to transform these ugly ducklings of the kitchen into culinary swans.
Let's talk liver first. Liver has a tendency to develop a grainy texture and bitter aftertaste when it is overcooked. Yet many cooks, reacting to the feel and appearance of liver when it is raw, insist on serving the meat well- done, forever encouraging its maligned reputation. But the unique structure of liver dooms this practice to failure.
Unlike a round steak or loin chop, liver is an internal organ of an animal, not a muscle, and therefore has no muscle fiber and little connective tissue holding it together. In cooking muscle meats, we heat the meat until the connective tissue tenderizes and the muscle fibers have firmed to a desired degree of doneness.
With liver, firmness is akin to toughness. Heating it past the point of browning results ultimately in a mouthful of desiccated lumps, which seem to grow bigger the more they are chewed.
If you're careful to stop the cooking while the liver is still pink, the results will be tender and mild-tasting every time. Properly cooked, liver is equally at home slathered with slabs of bacon or a refreshing splash of lemon juice.
When buying liver, choose a pale specimen. Calf and lamb livers are the mildest, but baby beef liver is a good economical choice, provided it is not too dark, which indicates that the liver is from an older animal and will therefore have a tendency toward bitterness.
To prepare liver, peel the membrane from the surface (a friendly butcher might do this for you) and slice the liver as thinly as possible, being sure that the slices are of even thickness. Cut away any internal membranes from each slice and season the slices before cooking.
Although liver can be broiled or roasted, it is most quickly and simply cooked in a hot saute pan in a thin film of olive oil, bacon fat or butter. If the liver is sliced thinly enough and the pan is hot enough, the meat will cook through in the time it takes the outsides to brown. Remove it to a plate. Make a quick pan sauce, using broth, juice or wine, and pour it over the meat seconds later.
Your only problem will be finding an appropriate alias for "liver" to keep the skeptics at bay until they take a taste.
Of all the maligned vegetables, none rank higher than those that can trace their roots back to roots. You know the culprits: beets, parsnips, turnips and rutabagas - names that force all but the most ardent vegetarians to seek asylum at the nearest fast-food refuge.
Granted, all of these vegetables possess undesirable flavor components that can range from musty to acrid if left to develop unchecked. Beets have a tendency toward earthiness, and an unpleasant spiciness is often a problem with turnips and rutabaga. But, as with liver, all of these negatives can be reversed with some understanding and a few tricks.
Roots are full of natural sugars. The problem is that when the vegetables are boiled - particularly after they are peeled - these sugars dissolve into the cooking liquid, resulting in a slightly bitter, overtly earthy vegetable, practically devoid of sweetness. The trick to bringing out the sugar is to tenderize the root using a minimum of moisture. In other words, bake it.
Baking root vegetables takes longer than boiling them, but the process is relatively carefree, and the results are greatly superior. To prepare roots for baking, simply wash them well, scrubbing off as much dirt as possible. If the vegetable has been wax-coated, as is the case with rutabaga, it will have to be peeled.
A root then can be left whole or cut into chunks. Beets should remain whole, because they will lose color through any cut surface. Very hard roots, such as rutabagas and large turnips, should be cut into chunks to speed up baking.
It is also helpful to blanch these vegetables for a few minutes before baking, especially when roasting them along with other winter vegetables, such as squash and potatoes, which have a shorter baking time.
In addition to increasing sweetness, baking will diminish the sulfury aroma of kohlrabi and the peppery kick of turnips and rutabaga, which many diners find too sharp.
Brussels sprouts? Well, we all are aware of the sulfur smell and the burning rubber-tire aftertaste, but the reason for this is the way in which they are typically cooked, rather than in the sprouts themselves.
All cabbage-family vegetables, of which Brussels sprouts and kale are a member, have a tendency to emit sulfur fumes when heated. The sulfur is contained in the protein of the vegetable and it is released when this protein breaks down.
Traditionally, the way around the phenomenon has been to continue cooking the cabbage until all of the sulfur has evaporated. Unfortunately, by that time, so have all the nutrients, flavor and texture in the vegetable. The resulting food may not be offensive, but neither has it much to recommend it.
The trick is to cook Brussels sprouts in milk, which contains proteins that will lengthen the time before the sulfur in the vegetable is released. Then
serve the sprouts in a cloak of sweet ricotta cheese and garlic to complement their natural assertiveness.
Here are some recipes that bring out the best in these foods we love to hate:
BRUSSELS SPROUTS WITH RICOTTA CREAM
1 pound Brussels sprouts
1 teaspoon olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 clove garlic, minced
1 cup milk
3/4 cup ricotta cheese
Trim the stems and the loose leaves from the Brussels sprouts. Use the point of a paring knife to make a deep cross-cut into the base of any large
In a heavy sauce pan, over moderate heat cook the trimmed Brussels sprouts in the olive oil for 1 minute, stirring constantly. Add salt and pepper and garlic and stir to combine. Add the milk, stir once, cover the pan and cook for 5 to 7 minutes, until the Brussels sprouts are barely tender, stirring occasionally.
Remove the Brussels sprouts with a slotted spoon to a serving bowl and keep warm. Reduce the milk remaining in the pan to about 1/4 cup. Remove from the heat. Stir in the ricotta cheese until the mixture is smooth. Pour the ricotta cream over the Brussels sprouts and toss to coat. Makes four servings.
KALE WITH SAUSAGE AND APPLE
1/2 pound sliced Italian sausage
1/4 cup chopped onion
1 cup chicken broth
1 pound kale leaves, stemmed and washed
1 large Granny Smith apple, peeled, seeded and diced
2 tablespoons butter
1/2 cup apple cider
1 tablespoon brown sugar
In a large deep skillet or Dutch oven, brown the sausage with the onion over moderate heat. Add the chicken broth and bring to a boil. Add the kale, cover and simmer over moderate heat for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Drain.
Meanwhile, cook the apple in the butter until softened. Add the apple cider and cook until reduced to 1/4 cup of liquid. Add the sugar and cook until the sugar melts. Toss with the warm cooked kale and sausage. Season with salt and pepper and serve. Makes four servings.
BAKED RUTABAGA AND SWEET POTATO
1 pound peeled rutabaga, cut into small chunks
1 onion, thinly sliced
2 cloves garlic, minced
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 1/2 pounds, peeled sweet potato, in bite-size chunks
Blanch the rutabaga in plenty of boiling water for 3 minutes. Drain well.
In a skillet, cook the onion and garlic in the olive oil until softened and season liberally with salt and pepper. Spread 1/3 of this mixture over the bottom of a 2-quart casserole. Top with half the sweet potatoes and half the rutabaga, followed by another 1/3 of the onion mixture, the remaining sweet potatoes and rutabaga and the rest of the onion along with any seasonings or oil clinging to the skillet.
Cover and bake at 350 degrees for 1 hour, until the vegetables are soft and their flavors blended. Makes four to five servings.
ROASTED TURNIPS WITH GINGER
1 pound turnips, peeled and cut like french fries
2 teaspoons sesame oil
1 teaspoon ground ginger
Blanch the turnips in several quarts of boiling water for 3 minutes, until al dente. Drain well and toss in a roasting pan with the sesame oil, ginger,
salt and pepper and roast at 375 degrees for 40 minutes, turning 3 to 4 times. Makes four servings.
CALF'S LIVER WITH LEMON
3/4 pound calf's liver, trimmed of all membranes
4 scallions (white part only), finely chopped
1 lemon, halved and seeds removed
Slice liver into thin slices, between 1/8 and 1/4 inch thick. Season slices on both sides with salt and pepper. In a large skillet, saute scallions in 2 tablespoons of the olive oil until softened.
Add liver and saute for 1 to 2 minutes per side, until well-browned. Transfer liver to a warm platter.
Add the remaining 1 tablespoon of olive oil, the garlic and lemon juice to the pan and pour juices over the liver slices. Makes four servings.
Though carrot and zucchini are by far the most common vegetables to add to cake, anything you can shred or puree is fair game. Even soft green leafy vegetables, such as spinach and chard, work well.
SPINACH LOAF CAKE
2 packages (10 ounces each) frozen chopped spinach, defrosted
1 cup sugar
1 cup light brown sugar
2 cups peanut oil
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
3 cups flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
3 tablespoons finely grated orange zest
1 3/4 cup walnut pieces
Squeeze all excess moisture from the spinach and set aside.
Beat the eggs with both sugars on high speed until fluffy. In a steady stream, slowly add the oil and then the vanilla while the mixture is continuously beaten.
Meanwhile, sift the flour with the salt, cinnamon, baking soda and baking powder. Mix in the orange zest. Beat the dry ingredients alternately with the spinach into the batter. Add the walnuts with the last addition of dry ingredients.
Divide the mixture between 2 greased and floured loaf pans, measuring 9 by 5 by 3 inches. Bake in a 325-degree preheated oven for 1 hour and 15 minutes or until a tester placed into the center of each cake comes out clean. Unmold while still warm and cool completely on a wire rack. Makes two cakes, enough for 14 to 16 servings.