Even if you haven't seen The Revenant, yet another Oscar-nominated movie in which the protagonist is left for dead (this time after a bear mauling instead of a Martian dust storm), you may have heard the buzz about Leonardo DiCaprio and the raw bison liver he ate in his role as frontiersman Hugh Glass. DiCaprio explains that the fake liver, a sort of red gelatinous pancake, didn't look authentic. So he bit into the real deal — and judging from his reaction, it wasn't very tasty.
Liver and other organ meats go by many different names: There's offal (pronounced awful, and defined by Merriam-Webster as "the waste or by-product of a process"); "variety meats," a term that came of age during World War II, when the government was encouraging Americans to eat less popular cuts; and the charming Italian phrase quinto quarto or "fifth quarter."
Whatever moniker you want to use, though, brains are definitely not as popular as butts. "In the U.S., we have become accustomed to only eating certain parts of the animal," notes Anya Fernald, co-founder of Belcampo Meat Co. and author of the upcoming cookbook Home Cooked (April 2016, Ten Speed Press). "A premium has been placed on pricy middle meats, such as rib eyes and sirloins, or stew/marinating meats, such as shoulder or shank."
But offal doesn't have to be offputting — in fact, we'd argue it can be quite delicious, indeed. Here are three reasons you should eat liver like Leo (well, maybe not exactly).
1. It's rich in nutrients.
Liver is one of the most nutrient-dense foods you can eat. High in protein and low in fat and carbs, it's a concentrated source of amino acids (the kind your body doesn't make on its own), vitamin B-12, vitamin A, zinc, iron, and selenium. "It's wonderful for athletes or anyone with an active lifestyle since it increases strength and endurance, and it's great for combating fatigue," says Fernald.
Like with all meat, knowing where your liver comes from is key. "Since toxicity in animals accumulates in bones and organs, the most important thing to note when sourcing is to make sure the liver comes from healthy, pastured animals," explains Fernald. She adds, "If you don't know the farm where it's from, definitely source organic certified." Ilona Oppenheim, author of another new cookbook, Savor: Rustic Recipes Inspired by Forest, Field, and Farm (April 2016, Artisan Books), advocates eating grass-fed meat: "The benefits cannot be overestimated. Research has shown that livestock that lives and grazes in pastures produces healthier meat."
2. It's more mindful than eating steak.
There's a reason nose-to-tail eating is a trend — and it's not because everyone in Brooklyn is doing it. Eating the whole animal, including the offal bits, is more ethical than only eating the prime cuts. "When a conventional butcher shop, restaurant, or grocery store orders only select pieces of the animal, huge amounts of highly nutritious offal, such as liver, go to secondary uses like pet food," explains Fernald. That's food that someone else might very well want.
Then there's the argument for honoring the life of the animal. "If we’re going to condone the killing of animals, the least we can do is eat all of the resulting meat," writes Jonathan Bloom, author of American Wasteland and the blog wastedfood.com.
Finally, from an economic perspective, liver is a whole lot cheaper than a filet or a sirloin. According to the USDA, grass-fed beef liver costs, on average, $6.68 per pound compared to $40.18 for filet.
3. It's delicious (if you cook it right).
I grew up eating liverwurst sandwiches and I haven't met a pâté I don't like, so the idea of eating liver isn't as unappealing to me as it is to many people. But I get that it can be an acquired taste. If you're squeamish about giving it a try, I suggest trying chicken liver, which has a milder flavor than beef (or bison, I imagine). Starting with pâté — either a chunky, country-style version, or a smoother, creamier style — is also a good way to ease into your offal exploration; the addition of herbs, spices, butter, and cream ameliorates the intensity of the liver flavor. Both Fernald and Oppenheim, by the way, have recipes for pâté in their cookbooks.
If you want to get a bit more adventurous, Fernald suggests searing it medium-rare. The key with liver and other organ meats is not to overcook them — and brown butter doesn't hurt.