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.