Growing up, I loved chopped liver. But for health reasons, I don’t eat it anymore. Except I allow myself one splurge. At our temple’s annual Chanukah Mart, my personal tradition is to get a chopped liver sandwich on rye. Ah! heaven. Sadly, this past year there was no Chanukah Mart. My once-a-year sandwich tradition has been interrupted. But I’m OK missing that traditional chopped liver because I have discovered something even better – vegetarian chopped liver with lentils.
I won’t swear that the taste is exactly like that of “real” chopped liver, but this Vegetarian Chopped Liver with Lentils is darn close. Plus, it gets better with age. After 1-2 days in the refrigerator, the flavors meld and taste more “meaty.”
The basic recipe comes from my friend Deborah, of pear ginger jam fame. Like that recipe, this one is also from her family. In the past I had tasted mock chopped liver made from green beans and had not been impressed. The lentil version, however, does get my “Jewish girl who likes deli” seal of approval.
The ingredients are simple. Here’s what the original recipe calls for:
The only ingredient I added (not pictured above) was soy sauce, for umami.
Along with the four others (sweet, salty, sour, and bitter), umami is a basic flavor. There is no direct translation of that Japanese term – the closest English words are savory, meaty, or broth-like. Discovered in the early 20th Century, umami gives a rich, full, meaty taste to foods and provides a mouthfeel or sensation on the tongue that some have likened to what we feel when we eat fat. Some foods have umami naturally – seafood, seaweed, many cheeses and some mushrooms. Tomatoes have high levels of umami too. And you can add it to foods with condiments including MSG, Accent, or soy sauce. I chose soy sauce because it was on hand and it incorporated easily.
Deborah’s family recipe has that bubbe feel – calling for “enough oil to moisten the spread.” Needless to say, I’ve provided more detail. But you should feel free to improvise. After all, that’s what Deborah’s foremothers did. I did it too when I added the soy sauce.
I like this recipe because it is so forgiving. You can keep tasting it and adjust to your own taste. As you’ll see in my note about salt, I add a bit once I spread the mock chopped liver on a cracker or bread, because that small addition really bumps up the taste for me. Plus, it allows me to use less salt before mixing, a benefit now that I’m watching my salt intake. You could also add more ground walnuts and more (or less) soy sauce. Make it with the ingredients specified, let it sit refrigerated for an hour or two and then decide if you want to tinker.
Tips for Making (& Eating) Vegetarian Chopped Liver with Lentils
- Cooking the lentils – The water must be at a rolling boil before and just after you add the lentils. It should cover the lentils after you add them and during the entire time they cook. Check the lentils after they are partially cooked. If water has evaporated to the point where does not cover them, add some more (boiling) water.
- Cooking the onions – Start by heating the pan and then heat the oil before adding the onions. That allows the onion to cook in the oil, but not absorb it as much as it would if you had added onion to room temperature oil in a cold pan. I judge whether the oil is sufficiently heated by adding a tiny bit of onion once I think the oil is the right temperature . If small bubbles form around the edges of the onion, the oil is hot enough.
- Cooking the eggs – Traditionally, chopped liver includes chopped hard boiled eggs. Using scrambled eggs instead allows you to use the same pan as for the onions and takes less time.
- Processing the ingredients – Use the pulse function on the food processor to gain more control, rather than simply processing the ingredients.
Don’t allow the brown color to put you off. Just remember – presentation is everything. Vegetarian Chopped Liver with Lentils spread may not be so pretty on its own. However, you can make it mouthwatering with a few simple touches.
Vegetarian Chopped Liver with Lentils
An easy and delicious alternative to meat-based chopped liver, this spread has just a few ingredients. Use it as an appetizer with crackers or slices of baguette, or spread it as a filling on a sandwich.
- 1 cup brown lentils (dried)
- 1 medium-large onion approximately 5.5 oz/120 g
- 3-4 tablespoons oil, preferably olive
- 2 large eggs
- 1 cup walnut halves and pieces, finely ground 4 oz/120 g
- kosher or sea salt and freshly ground pepper
- 1-2 teaspoons soy sauce
Bring 2 & 1/2 cups of water to a rolling boil in a medium sized pot. Add lentils, lower heat to medium and cook, covered, for about 20-30 minutes, until lentils are soft but still have their shape. Mid-way through cooking, check the lentils. If the water does not still cover them, add more boiling water. Drain them with a colander, let them cool slightly, and add them to a food processor.
Heat a medium sized pan. Then add 3-4 tablespoons of oil and let it get hot but not smoking. Add the onion and sauté for about 7 minutes, stirring frequently, until onion is transparent and beginning to brown on the edges. When done, cool the chopped onion down a bit, then add it to the food processor and pulse until the lentils and onions are well-combined.
Lightly scramble the two eggs in the pan just used for the onions. Let them cool a bit, then add the eggs, ground walnuts, soy sauce, salt and pepper and pulse until the mixture is again well-combined. If it is not easily spreadable, add a bit more oil and pulse again. Taste and adjust seasonings.
Refrigerate for at least one hour, then serve with crackers or slices of bread. Also delicious as a sandwich spread.
This spread is delicious with tomato, which adds extra umami and is a traditional accompaniment to chopped liver.
I like to sprinkle flaked sea salt or kosher salt on the top. That gives the spread an extra punch and allows me to use less salt on the first go round (when the salt is processed into the mixture.) Speaking of the salt mixed in, start small, with about 1/2 teaspoon and add more to taste. One can always add more, but if you add too much in the beginning, there is no easy fix.