Make Your Own Holiday Pâté
Using veal, pork, turkey, or pheasant, you can wow your guests with an easy-to-make appetizer!
Offer a festively garnished pâté as a starter at a holiday party, and you’ll be a kitchen goddess—“You made that?”—although it’s as easy as a meatloaf. I’ve made one every November for about the last thirty years, and many in between, as cocktail party fare at home and for catering clients.
Beyond the ego gratification, it’s practical for the fete: zesty without being heavy, best made a couple of days ahead, highly portable, and ideally eaten at room temperature—meaning you don’t need to wangle precious oven space.
I learned the basics from an index card recipe collection created in the 60s by parents (including family friends) at Shady Hill School in Cambridge. Many years later, at the French Culinary Institute in Manhattan, I realized the homey recipe was a version of the traditional French country pâté that is composed of veal and pork, minus the lard-based pastry crust; bacon strips provide the needed fat plus a touch of sweet smoke.
Satisfying as it is to feel you can make a dish in your sleep, it’s always a pleasure to tweak and re-define deliciousness. When catering clients asked for a classic pâté but no pork or veal, please, I took a chance on dark-meat turkey, using Wild Turkey as the whiskey and turkey bacon to line the pan. Better than it deserved to be (I’m no fan of turkey bacon)! My ground turkey sources: store-brand at Whole Foods and Greenmarket stalwart DiPaolaTurkey Farm.
But serving turkey pâté on a holiday before a 20-pound bird? I think not. If pork and veal don’t work for you or your crowd, you can make an elegant version with ground pheasant from Quattro’s Game and Poultry Market Saturdays at Union Square: best to call ahead early in the week. Or you can grind your own duck breast—easily done in a processor. The perfect wrapping in either event is D’artagnan duck bacon.
Let’s do it!
1) Make sure you have plenty of cleared counter space. I like to cover the area with waxed paper or a couple of flexible cutting boards that go into the dishwasher; even if we’re using meat from the purest sources, it’s worth taking the extra care. I don’t work with gloves, so I also have a kitchen nailbrush that goes in the dishwasher, too.
2) Set the oven at 325 and make sure there’s a rack set in the middle of the oven. Tear off foil big enough to cover the pan after it’s filled.
3) Line a 2-pound ceramic or metal loaf pan with strips of smoked, uncured bacon. Ninam Ranch, widely available, is a good choice: the slices do not tear as you separate and arrange them—five strips the length of the pan bottom, two strips on either side, and two strips, halved, for the short end. Set the loaf pan in a slightly larger pan (I used the one that came with my toaster oven). Reserve any extra bacon in your work area. Carefully pour warm water into the larger pan—an inch is plenty.
4) Mix your flavorings: 2 TBS Irish whiskey, 2 ounces Madeira, 2 scant teaspoons salt, ½ teaspoon each cinnamon and powdered ginger, 2 pinches each of allspice and nutmeg or mace, and freshly ground black pepper to taste.
5) Measure out and set aside ½ cup pistachio meats, unroasted and unsalted, culling any bits of shell.
6) Rinse and pat dry a couple sprigs each thyme and tarragon.
7) Place ground pork and veal (or 2 alternative pounds of ground meat) in a mixing bowl. Stir in the flavorings and distribute, at the same time gently combining the meats. Stir in the pistachios.
8) Heap the mixture into the bacon-lined pan. Put reserved bacon on top, then herb sprigs. Cover the pan with foil. That’s it! Put the pâté in the oven and scrub up, taking care to wipe down the oven door. I know you know, but I couldn’t sleep if I didn’t remind you.
9) The pâté needs to bake until it reaches 160 degrees on an instant-read thermometer—about two hours. After you remove it from the oven, weight it for about an hour. I used a brick wrapped in foil—and of course the brick went through the dishwasher three times for starters and gets washed before and after every use.
10) Remove the weight. Carefully tip out the accumulated liquid around the pâté and chill it in a pint plastic container. The fat (about half) will rise and solidify, and you’ll be left with a beautiful clear gel for glazing the pâté if you want to get a little fancy. (See sidebar.)
11) Carefully invert the pâté onto fresh foil, wrap well so bacon conforms to sides, put it a zipper plastic bag, set it back in the rinsed and dried larger pan, and surround with a tray’s worth of ice cubes. When cubes have melted, it’s time to put the pâté in the refrigerator—you can discard the plastic bag.
12) Resist tasting it for 24 hours. Well wrapped, keeps for 10 days.
Nancy Weber’s novella Ad Parnassum, a mosaic-like homage to Paul Klee, has been published by Underground Voices. Her story Little Dan will appear in Between the Shores, edited by Alex Freeman and T.C. Mill for the New Smut Project (March 2015).