Pate: Decadent But Not Difficult Though it's often overlooked by budget-savvy gourmets, pate is perfect holiday food. It's easy, indulgent and versatile enough for every taste. And it doesn't have to have anything to do with foie gras.
NPR logo Pate: Decadent But Not Difficult

Pate: Decadent But Not Difficult

Julie O'Hara for NPR
Three containers of pate, with slices of toast and knives for spreading
Julie O'Hara for NPR

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Tap Your Inner Charcutier: A loaf pan is lined with lacy caul fat — the membrane that encases a pig's intestines — and packed with ground, seasoned meat for pate de campagne (recipe below). Julie O'Hara for NPR hide caption

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Julie O'Hara for NPR

Tap Your Inner Charcutier: A loaf pan is lined with lacy caul fat — the membrane that encases a pig's intestines — and packed with ground, seasoned meat for pate de campagne (recipe below).

Julie O'Hara for NPR

About The Author

Julie O'Hara is a freelance writer and recipe developer in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. She has written for National Geographic Traveler, Vegetarian Times and Self, and is a contributing editor for Shape magazine. You can read her food blog, A Mingling of Tastes, or visit her Web site,

Just in time for the holidays, I have good news: Pates are not difficult. Unless you're sculpting layers of puff pastry into the shape of the Eiffel Tower, making a traditional country pate fit to bring pork lovers to their knees requires little more than patience.

To paraphrase Anthony Bourdain, if you've made meatloaf, you're one small step (and one quick trip to the butcher) away from making pate.

Pate takes many forms, accommodating personal preference, ingredient availability and culinary creativity. And it needn't have anything to do with foie gras, the deliberately fattened livers of geese or ducks. Just one of many varieties, pate de foie gras is a smooth loaf made of at least 80 percent liver and perhaps the occasional black truffle.

Pate doesn't have to involve liver of any kind. If you do opt to include it, however, it adds a meaty richness to a mixture of ground meat and fat.

The word pate means paste in French and, when an accent is placed over the "e," refers to a highly seasoned preparation of ground meat. During the Middle Ages in France, the art of pate took off, with cooks presenting their "meat pastes" in elaborately designed pastry crusts. Not unlike today's elite chefs, these meat experts, known as charcutiers, were compelled to present dazzling feasts that doubled as entertainment.

Whatever ingredients you choose, pate may be smooth or coarse, presented as a thick spread or molded into a loaf. It may be flavored with a few traditional seasonings, such as allspice, parsley and brandy, or studded with additions such as nuts or dried fruit. And though it's hardly French culinary tradition, pate may include no meat at all. Instead of animal fat, ground nuts make a thick, creamy binder for vegetarian ingredients.

How to choose? If you own a meat grinder or have ever cured bacon, you may want to try your hand at pate de campagne, or country pate. It's the so-much-better-than-meatloaf, rustic mixture of ground pork shoulder, pork fat and pork or chicken liver wrapped in a lacy net of caul fat and baked in a water bath. Your loaf will be moist yet light in texture, perfect for slicing thickly and eating on toast with mustard and tiny pickled gherkins called cornichons.

The ingredients for pate de campagne vary endlessly. Many recipes call for pork liver, which may be difficult to come by. Widely available and inexpensive organic chicken liver may be used instead. You will need to visit a butcher, perhaps calling in advance, for the caul fat, a weblike membrane that encases the pig's intestines. Working with it is easy and will quickly get you in touch with your inner charcutier. Caul fat provides a lining for the loaf pan, adds moisture to the pate and insulates it from the oven's dry heat.

If you'd rather have a refined pate that doesn't involve multiple types of pork fat, try an airy, compulsively spreadable chicken liver mousse. The livers are sauteed with pears and shallots, and blitzed to a smooth puree in a food processor. Folding whipped cream into the liver mixture aerates it and provides a cool, creamy counterpoint to the meaty flavor.

For holiday entertaining, chicken liver mousse trumps any cheesy, baked concoction you may have made in the past. You can prepare it 24 hours ahead and serve it chilled, so there is no last-minute prep. But if you do want something extra-special, pipe the mousse onto crackers or mini phyllo shells and sprinkle with pomegranate seeds, fresh herbs or a tiny dot of cranberry chutney.

Even if vegetarian pates are dismissed by purists, they are a delicious addition to a holiday spread. With a nod to hummus, which is made with chickpeas and sesame seed paste, my version uses creamy black-eyed peas and buttery toasted cashews. Sauteed mushrooms and a little soy sauce are the keys to its meaty flavor and elevate it above its humble bean dip origins. For a savory and sweet version, I stir in dried currants soaked in orange juice and brandy.

Pate is delicious in any season, but its inherent richness and status in French gastronomy make it especially appropriate right now. It's the little indulgences that make the holidays feel special — getting dressed up, snacking on cookies and eggnog, splurging on a perfect gift. Even if this is not the year you serve caviar and lobster tail, pate lets you economize while preserving the holiday spirit. With its emphasis on transforming common, unappreciated ingredients into decadent fare, making pate is a small act of culinary magic.

Pate De Campagne

Julie O'Hara for NPR
Pate De Campagne
Julie O'Hara for NPR

You don't need an industrial-strength meat grinder to make pate. I use a grinding attachment on my stand mixer. The finished pate should be moist and firm with uniform color, and hold its shape when sliced. Once you try this basic version, you might opt to add chopped pistachios or roasted chestnuts, dried cranberries, or even a layer of sliced ham running through the center. Overnight marinating and chilling are required, so begin two days before you plan to serve it. You will need a meat thermometer to test for doneness. This recipe is adapted from Les Halles Cookbook (Bloomsbury 2004) by Anthony Bourdain with Jose De Meirelles and Philippe Lajaunie.

Makes 1 9-by-5-inch loaf

1 pound pork shoulder, cut into 1-inch chunks

1/2 pound pork fat, cut into 1-inch chunks

1/2 pound chicken liver, cut into 1-inch chunks

1/2 tablespoon freshly ground black pepper

Scant 1/4 teaspoon allspice

5 garlic cloves, lightly smashed

2 shallots, thinly sliced

1/2 cup brandy

1/3 cup white wine

4 sprigs flat-leaf parsley

1 tablespoon salt

1 large egg

Caul fat, to line pan and wrap pate

In a large bowl, combine the pork, pork fat, liver, pepper, allspice, garlic, shallots, brandy, wine and parsley. Cover and refrigerate overnight.

The following day, preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Add the salt to the meat mixture and pass everything through a meat grinder fitted with the coarse or medium blade. Add the egg and stir into the meat mixture with a large spoon.

Line a 9-by-5-inch loaf pan or a 2 1/2-pound terrine with a large piece of caul fat or a few smaller overlapping pieces, leaving a generous amount hanging over the sides. Transfer the meat mixture to the loaf pan, packing it tightly. Pick up the pan and drop it onto the counter a few times to remove any air pockets. Wrap the caul fat over the top of the meat, tucking and trimming as needed to form a neat package. Cover the pan with foil.

Put a large roasting pan in the oven and place the loaf pan inside. Add water to the roasting pan so it comes just over halfway up the sides of the loaf pan. Don't add so much water that it leaks into the loaf pan. Bake for 2 1/2 hours, or until the internal temperature reaches 170 degrees. To check the temperature, remove the loaf pan from the oven and stick a meat thermometer in the center. When pate is done, remove from roasting pan and cool on a rack 1 to 1 1/2 hours.

Make a 5-pound weight by wrapping another loaf pan in foil and filling it with heavy cans. If you don't have another loaf pan, wrap the cans or another heavy object in foil. Place weight on top of the pate and refrigerate overnight.

To serve, cut the pate into 1/2-inch slices. You can trim the slices to remove the outer layer of caul fat if desired. Serve chilled with baguette slices, toast triangles, mustard, cornichons or a salad dressed with extra virgin olive oil and lemon juice. Pate will keep in the refrigerator 5 to 7 days.

Chicken Liver And Pear Mousse

Julie O'Hara for NPR
Chicken Liver And Pear Mousse
Julie O'Hara for NPR

Pears and pear brandy draw out the sweetness from rich, meaty chicken livers. Serve as a spread or dip, or use a pastry bag to pipe swirls of mousse onto crackers, mini phyllo shells or apple slices. You can experiment with different herbs, spices or liqueurs.

Makes about 3 1/2 cups

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 1/2 cups chopped onion

1 cup finely chopped semi-firm pear

1/2 cup chopped shallot

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 pound chicken livers, trimmed of any fat and halved

1 1/2 teaspoons fresh thyme leaves

2 tablespoons brandy

2 tablespoons pear brandy, such as Belle de Brillet (regular brandy may be substituted)

1 cup cold whipping cream

Heat the butter and olive oil in a large skillet on medium-low. Add the pear, onion and shallot, and season with salt and pepper. Cook, stirring frequently, until pear is tender. Move shallot and pear to the sides of the skillet and place the livers in the center. Season with salt and pepper, and cook until firm but still pink in the center, turning once or twice. Remove from heat and set aside to cool for 10 minutes.

Add liver mixture to a food processor. Add the thyme, brandy and pear brandy. Process until smooth. Taste for seasoning and add salt and pepper as needed. Cover and refrigerate 45 minutes or until chilled.

Add whipping cream to a large bowl and beat with an electric mixer on high speed until medium-stiff peaks form. Gently fold the cream into the liver mixture in 4 additions, taking care not to overmix and reduce the cream's volume. Taste and add salt and pepper if desired. Transfer to mason jars, ramekins or other serving dish. Chill at least 2 hours or overnight. Serve chilled. Mousse will keep in the refrigerator for about 5 days.

Vegetarian Pate With Mushrooms And Cashews

Julie O'Hara for NPR
Vegetarian Pate With Mushrooms And Cashews
Julie O'Hara for NPR

Similar in appearance to the chicken liver mousse, this nutritious veggie version has the taste of meaty mushrooms, creamy cashews, brandy and fresh herbs. If you want to add a hit of sweetness and holiday color, stir dried currants soaked in orange juice and brandy into the finished pate. I like to make half with currants and half without.

Makes about 3 1/2 cups

1 cup black-eyed peas, soaked overnight

3/4 cup raw cashews

2 tablespoons olive oil

3/4 cup chopped red onion

1/2 cup diced carrot

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

1/2 pound portobello mushrooms, roughly chopped

1/2 pound white mushrooms, roughly chopped

4 cloves garlic, chopped

3 tablespoons brandy

1 tablespoon low-sodium soy sauce

1 tablespoon chopped fresh rosemary

1/2 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves

3/4 cup dried currants soaked in 1 cup orange juice and 2 tablespoons brandy for 30 minutes (optional)

Drain beans, discarding soaking liquid, and add to a large, heavy pot. Add enough water to cover beans by 1 inch. Do not add salt, as it will slow the cooking process. Cover and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer, covered, until beans are very tender, 45 minutes to 1 hour. Drain beans.

Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Spread cashews on a baking sheet and roast 10 minutes, or until lightly browned, tossing once about halfway through.

Heat the olive oil in a large skillet on medium heat. Add the onion and carrot, and season with salt and pepper. Cook, stirring frequently, until lightly browned. Add the mushrooms and garlic, season with salt and pepper, and cook until mushrooms start to release their liquid. Increase heat to medium high and continue cooking, stirring frequently, until mushrooms are lightly browned and liquid evaporates.

Add the beans, cashews and mushroom mixture to a food processor. Add the brandy, soy sauce and herbs. Process until mixture is smooth, scraping down the sides as needed. Season with salt and pepper to taste. You should need about 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon salt.

If you are using the currants, drain them and pat dry. Transfer pate to a large bowl and stir in the currants. Transfer pate to ramekins, mason jars or other serving dish. Chill for 8 hours or overnight to allow flavors to blend. Serve chilled or at room temperature with crudites, baguette slices or crackers. Pate will keep in the refrigerator for 5 to 7 days.