Once at a family gathering, my relatives and I met in the living room for a midday snack. A spread with vegetables and crackers was arranged in a spiral on a white platter, the colors fanning out in a rainbow. My cousin Megan was the first to dig in, sampling a bit of the spread on a crunchy cracker. Her brows furrowed as she chewed.
"This is so good," she exclaimed. "What is this?"
"Liver," my cousin Danny replied.
Megan yelped and threw the remaining cracker across the room as she cringed in horror. "Liver? I just ate liver?"
This was Megan's introduction to pate.
Pate is a word that may elicit disgust or salivation, often depending on the listener's attitude toward liver. Yet not all pate is made from liver; it can be created with a wide variety of meats and vegetables, even cheeses. And like other exotic innards that we often shy away from, liver can provide a richness in flavor unrivaled by most other common ingredients.
When I hear the word pate, I picture a man with a slice of lightly toasted baguette lathered with a dollop of creamy spread atop his white-gloved hand. For me, any type of pate is an elegant treat reserved for restaurants. Until recently, I never considered making my own. Actually, pates are simple to put together and provide a savory flavor difficult to find elsewhere.
Before I tried making pates in my home kitchen, I learned a little more about them on a visit to Kaz An Nou, a cozy French-Caribbean restaurant in Brooklyn. Near the end of the meal, as we scooped up the final bites on our plates and the restaurant began to clear out, owner Sebastien Aubert visited our table and began chatting with my friend in French. I tried to make my way into the conversation — in English — by asking Aubert how he made his pate en croute. His eyes lit up and he sat down next to me.
"Well, you know, there are three kinds of pate," he told me, leaning in, his thick French accent molding his words. "There's country pate, the pate with a layer of fat on top and the pate with jelly. We use the country pate."
Pate, I learned, is very much like meatloaf. It generally includes fat, meat and spice, cooked most often in porcelain, dough or skin. Sometimes the mixture is cooked with a weight on top to create a creamier, denser dish. The term terrine is interchangeable with pate, as technically terrine is an abbreviation of pate en terrine (pate cooked in porcelain). There are various kinds of forcemeat (meat emulsified with fat) that change the consistency of the pate. As Aubert said, there are pates with a layer of fat or aspic, or the coarser country-style pates.
Many people are familiar with the French delicacy pate de foie gras, pate of goose liver. There is an ongoing debate over the treatment of the fowl intended for foie gras, however, and its production and sale are banned in Israel, Turkey and California. Yet, eating goose liver is a culinary tradition dating back to ancient Egypt. It was adapted by Europeans in the 15th century when the sale of uncooked pork products was banned. In response to the need to preserve meats, charcutiers began creating several precooked and dried dishes such as pates, head cheese and sausages.
Pate de foie gras, now thought of as an essential French dish, was allegedly first introduced to the French palate in a real estate trade. In 1788, the governor of Alsace supposedly exchanged with King Louis XVI pate de foie gras for land. As the story goes, the king loved the dish so much he introduced it to the rest of the country.
Cooking liver may seem intimidating, if not unappetizing, but it's worth it. Liver is full of nutrients, including vitamin A, iron and protein. And in pates, the use of fat, most often in the form of butter or cheese, provides the thick spread with a decadence and richness fit for a special occasion.
Making pate also might seem overwhelming, but I whipped up a batch of smoked trout pate while on the phone with my mother and watching TV. (Talk about easy cooking). Two of the other pates I made, mushroom and chicken liver, each used one pan and one blender. Best of all, there are a variety of ways to incorporate the traditions of pate without using ingredients that would make cousin Megan scream.
From The Food52 Cookbook (HarperCollins 2011), a friend told me I had to try this recipe and she was right. It's delicious. The addition of lemon, Parmesan, anchovy and caper give this pate a complex flavor. For a looser, more mousselike spread, don't let all the liquid evaporate from the pan. You can always adjust the consistency as you buzz it in the food processor by drizzling in olive oil, water or even wine as you mix in the food processor.
Trim any sinew from the livers and dry them well with paper towels.
In a large skillet, melt the butter and olive oil over medium-high heat. Saute the shallots, garlic, anchovies, capers and sage until the shallots are lightly browned, 6 minutes or so.
Season the chicken livers with salt and pepper and add them to the pan. Cook over high heat until browned, then add 1/3 cup of the wine and keep stirring with a wooden spoon, breaking up the livers as they start to cook through. When the wine is absorbed, add the remaining 1/3 cup and repeat the process.
Remove from the heat and transfer the mixture to a food processor. Process until quite smooth, then add the lemon zest and Parmesan and process again. Taste and add salt or pepper as needed. Serve warm or at room temperature, spread on grilled country bread.
1 package (6-8 ounces) flatbread crackers or Melba toasts
Flat leaf parsley as garnish
Whir cream cheese, horseradish, Worcestershire sauce, pepper and lemon juice in a food processor until smooth. Break trout into large chunks into cream cheese mixture and pulse until trout is still chunky but incorporated into cream cheese (about 12 short bursts).
Either line a bowl with plastic wrap and fill with pate or find a suitable jar to serve and store it in and simply fill the container without plastic wrap. If serving outside the can, turn the mold over from the bowl onto a plate, removing the plastic, and serve with flatbread crackers or Melba toasts. Garnish with a sprig of flat leaf parsley.
Add the truffle butter and oil to a pan on medium-high heat. Add the mushrooms and garlic and cook until mushrooms are soft. Discard extra mushroom liquid, toss in chives and cool the mixture.
While mushrooms are cooling, combine lemon juice, ricotta cheese and cream cheese in a blender or food processor. Add cooled mushrooms and chives and blend together until desired consistency. (I prefer small mushroom chunks, not entirely smooth). Season to taste. I recommend liberal salt and fresh pepper.
Can in an airtight container and refrigerate. Serve with extra chives on top as garnish.
From Sebastien Aubert, owner of Kaz An Nou restaurant in Brooklyn, this recipe for pate en croute incorporates several premade products, making it a simple but rich and decadent appetizer. The colder the puff pastry, the flakier it will become in the oven. All other ingredients should be room temperature.
2 rounds puff pasty about 4 inches wide, cut from pastry sheet
3 thin, 2-inch slices of brie
1 teaspoon herbes de Provence
1 large egg, lightly beaten with a splash of water
*Available online or at specialty food stores
Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
Crumble pate into small chunks. Add the rum and truffle oil and stir to combine. Place a round of puff pastry in a ramekin or atop a sheet of aluminum foil covered with nonstick spray.
Place the pate mixture in the center of the puff pastry. Add the slices of brie atop the pate and sprinkle with the herbes de Provence. Close the pate with another round of puff pastry, sealing it together with a fork or your fingers, pressing along the edges. This is the most important step, as you want the puff pastry to act as a steamer for the pate and brie.
Then, brush the top of the puff pastry with prepared egg wash (egg beaten with a splash of water). Place the pastry in the oven for about 15 minutes, or until slightly browned. Serve hot.