I quit violin after fourth grade, and the thing I remember most about my lessons is getting a snack with my mom afterwards. Across from the Catholic school basement where I practiced etudes under a strict instructor, the Surrogate Hostess welcomed us with its bright windows, enormous communal tables, and glass display cases that to a child seemed to go on forever.
While I focused on the serious task of selecting the most delicious treat, my mother always chose the pâté. It came in a white ramekin with a cornichon sliced and fanned out on top. She took great pleasure in eating it; I was appalled. Neverthless I loved the tiny sour cornichon and my mouth watered at the sight of it. She’d let me pick it off, removing any of the offensive gray paste.
Somewhere near adulthood, my disgust vanished, and all that was left was a fond feeling about my mother and her chicken liver. I love pâté, almost as much as I love the pickles you get to eat with it.
Recipe: Chicken Liver Paté
It turns out that while it tastes decadent, pâté is very easy to make, and chicken livers are about the cheapest meat you can buy (I save them from whole roasting birds, and collect them in the freezer until I have enough, or buy a pint of organic livers from Paisanos in Brooklyn). This is more of a method than a recipe. It’s the sort of thing you can get a feel for and just make. You could ignore my ingredient list and just work with what you have.
- 3 Tablespoons butter, at least
- 2 small shallots, minced (substitute half an onion in a pinch)
- 1 pint chicken livers
- 3 Tablespoons Sherry, Madeira, Brandy or Bourbon
- 3 Tablespoons heavy cream, more as needed
- salt and pepper
- thyme sprigs (optional)
Put a few tablespoons butter in a skillet (I favor cast iron) and heat it confidently so the butter melts but doesn't brown. You want a good 1/8th inch of fat in that pan. Add the shallots, and stir them around for a minute or two until they begin to soften. Add livers to the pan. It can be full, but it's best if they don't touch.
Now crank up the heat to medium-high if you haven't already. You want to brown the outside of the livers, but keep them creamy and pink on the inside—if you overcook them, the pâté will taste chalky. Use a fork to lift one or two and see if they've browned, and then flip them over when they have.
When the livers are browned on both sides, and there's a nice fond on the pan, add some booze. Sherry, madeira or brandy is traditional, but bourbon is usually what I have and it tastes great. Use a spoon to scrape the fond and mix it into the liquid—which should mostly cook off in the time it takes you to do that.
Transfer everything from the pan into a food processor or blender (you can make a rustic version by mashing it with a fork if you're a luddite/in your first apartment). Add a few tablespoons of cream and plenty of salt and pepper, and puree until smooth, adding more cream as necessary to help it blend. The pâté should be a little loose and creamy—it will stiffen as it cools.
Pack the pate into a couple of ramekins or shallow jars. If you won't use it within a day, pour 1/8th–inch melted butter on top to seal it. Lay a sprig of thyme across the top (traditionally, this was to discourage flies in the days before refrigeration, but it looks and smells nice too). Refrigerate until an hour before serving (it tastes waxy when cold).
Serve at room temperature with grilled ciabatta (or whatever bread you have), dijon mustard, pickles of any kind, and jam. I like it for lunch at about 2pm with a glass of rosé, or for a solo weeknight dinner.