Deer Liver and Onions, Want a Bite?

In the last few years a “nose to tail” attitude has taken hold among some chefs throughout the country, either in an effort to affect some cool, trendy vibe in their restaurants or they’ve honestly embraced the idea of utilizing almost every portion of an animal for their menu.

Deer Liver with Onions is a fine meal if you want a change of pace from your regular venison dishes. (Photo: Neal Lambert)

Deer Liver with Onions is a fine meal if you want a change of pace from your regular venison dishes. (Photo: Neal Lambert)

This really isn’t anything new, of course. Anyone who knows anything about farm-raised hogs, especially in the Southeast, knows that little was wasted during the all-day festivities of a hog killing. It was work, but everyone pitched in and everything was utilized: the main cuts, the chitlins, blood, feet, skin for cracklins, fat rendered for lard, and the head and other bits turned into head cheese, souse or scrapple.

Deer hunters don’t go to those extremes but some do enjoy utilizing more than the choice cuts. Known as offal, these internal organs usually find their way to the dump pile. But not everyone tosses them. Shanks, ribs and neck roasts are saved, as are other bits of venison for burger. Some even save the heart and liver. Even a few will use and eat the kidneys.

Neal Lambert of Alabama is one of the latter. He married a woman from England who was accustomed to kidney pie, so he saves those. Ditto for the hearts and liver from the deer he kills each season. I asked Lambert for some of his tips for those.

“I have found that it is important to get the animal gutted as soon as possible, and get the liver and kidneys on ice,” Lambert said. “I always have a cooler in my truck, and carry Zip-Loc bags for the liver and kidneys. As soon as you can get to a faucet, rinse as much blood as you can from the big arteries and veins that go into the liver (because) that blood will clot rapidly.”

OK, I know what you’re thinking. Ugh! Right? Well, that’s OK. Some folks blanch and wouldn’t think about saving these, much less eating them. But the heart is a muscle. Liver … we eat calf’s liver, right? (Some of us do.) And the kidneys may indeed be a unique meal. But this trio shouldn’t always get short shrift.

I asked Lambert about his prep work after getting to the kitchen.

“I don’t soak them,” he said, referring to the kidneys. “I peel off the skin, core out the arteries and veins, and cut them into small bite sized pieces. I mix them in with small bite-sized pieces of venison roast when making venison bourguignon. The kidneys give the final product a heavier, slightly liverish taste. I do know that some people soak the kidney pieces overnight in milk. They are definitely smelly; I used to work with a butcher who said the way to cook them ‘put them in a pan and fry the piss out of them’.”

Ah, well. There you go. Give ’em a try if you’re of a mind for something new. As for the hearts, remove the valves on top, trim the inside and then slice them into strips or bite-sized pieces. You can saute them in some butter and add some mushrooms and red wine, or a simple marinade of soy or Worcestershire and salt-pepper. For the liver, trim away any blood vessels; you should have a couple of nice lobes of beautiful liver to work with. Slice them with the same thickness so they’ll cook evenly.

Here is Lambert’s simple recipe for Venison Liver and Onions:

Deer liver, cleaned
Sweet onions
Marsala or Sherry

Cook your bacon. Add the sliced sweet onions and saute in the bacon fat for a few minutes until translucent. Sear the liver so the center is still pink, and then add a splash of marsala or sherry to deglaze the pan. Serve it with cabbage and mashed potatoes.