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Pate: Decadent But Not Difficult

<strong>Tap Your Inner Charcutier:</strong> 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 /
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).

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.

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Julie O'Hara