The Iron Maiden was born from the collision of several needs. I needed a sandwich for the Sandwich Party. I needed a meal rich in iron. And I needed — needed — chicken livers.
Both the Iron Maiden and the Black Velvet Elvis are proudly sponsored by The Fella, who listened thoughtfully to my rambling sandwich plans and then surprised me by returning home one night with everything necessary to make them both. This is doubly appreciated: Having recently boasted of my returning strength, I was of course immediately struck down. I spent the next two days hobbling around like a crone bereft of her cane. A trip to the market was decidedly not in the cards.
The Iron Maiden is simplicity itself once you’ve made the chicken liver mousse (or bought it, I suppose — I’ve never had storebought chopped liver, since it’s such a snap to make at home.) Spread a piece of rye-krisp or other crispy flatbread thickly with chicken liver mousse. (I’ve given my recipe below.) Top with a generous tangle of watercress, well washed and dried. Finish it with a dusting of kosher salt, fresh-ground black pepper, and a squeeze of lemon.
Eat it outside, where a few errant crumbs and fallen leaves of watercress won’t bother anyone. Oh, you can’t go outside? That’s a shame, but won’t hamper you: hold your plate under your chin and take a big bite.
The richness of the mousse contrasts with the simple, even austere, flatbread. The clean, peppery bite of watercress keeps it all fresh and light. Take another bite. Ahhhhhhhh. You can practically feel the iron rushing into your bloodstream, can’t you?
The Iron Maiden boasts a big dose of heme iron from the chicken livers, and the watercress packs both non-heme iron and vitamin C, which helps boost the body’s absorption of iron, but has considerably less oxalic acid (which hampers iron absorption) than spinach or chard.
Once again, you can see the Iron Maiden tartine photo set by clicking through the photo above. I don’t have any shots of the making of the mousse, though; it was too frankly biological a process to photograph well, even by my low standards.
chicken liver mousse
20 oz. chicken livers, rinsed, well drained, and trimmed of the nasty bits*
1 tsp butter, plus 2 TBS cold butter (or more: up to 8 TBS if you like a decadently rich liver mousse)
1 tsp olive oil
1 large onion, roughly chopped
2-4 cloves garlic, peeled and sliced
1 small glass red wine, or 3 TBS brandy, or both
nutmeg, ground clove, rosemary, oregano, chili powder or cayenne
salt, black pepper
Pat dry the trimmed livers and sprinkle liberally with salt. In large frying pan, heat butter until it foams and subsides; add oil and heat through. Add livers and cook over medium-high heat until they’re nice and dark: deep mahogany over soft brown. Really sear them. (Unless your pan is quite large, you’ll need to cook livers in two batches; don’t crowd them in the pan, or they’ll steam, not sear.) Turn the livers, and add onions, garlic, chili powder, oregano, and rosemary. Cook until the onion softens slightly. Don’t worry if the onions and garlic start to brown.
Remove pan from heat. Add a generous grating of nutmeg and a pinch of clove. Add wine or brandy (or a mixture — I like a half-glass of red wine and a dash of brandy) and return to medium-high heat. Scrape pan to loosen all the dark bits of crusty goodness cooked onto the bottom. Lower heat and cook off liquid until a thick glaze of wine coats the bottom of the pan. Remove from heat and let cool.
Scrape everything — livers, onions, and every drop of rich winey glaze — into a food processor and process until fine. Add cold butter in chunks, process briefly, and add black pepper and other seasonings to taste. I usually need to add more salt at this time, and now is the time to add fresh rosemary if you’re using it. Another splash of brandy — less than a spoonful — will brighten the flavor, too. Remember that food served chilled need bolder seasoning than warm dishes, so amp it up a bit.
Pack tightly into a bowl or jar, cover tightly, and refrigerate.
Remove from fridge at least 30 minutes before serving. If you’d rather try it as a cocktail spread than a sandwich, you might serve it with crackers or French bread, sliced apple, dried cherries or cranberries, and grapes.
*i.e., connective tissue. Those of you who think the entire liver is the nasty bit can skip this entry.