Americans of a certain age know of pâté
only as part of the phrase "pâté de foie gras," and so, think of it as being synonymous with $70 livers from force-fed geese
, small, flat tins marked with some variation on "Strasbourg," "liver," and "goose" sold in the gourmet section of the grocery, and/or spending vast sums of time and money in the kitchen fixing some exotic specialty over several days.
Actually, pâté just means "paste", and in French can mean anything from wet dough to dog food to hyper-turbo meatloaf with lots of spices, liquor, layers, and interior nuggets. In English, it means meat paste, either smooth or coarse, and with its fixings is a good thing to serve to guests with drinks, or as a nice little meal for self with a salad. Most people I serve it to take one bite out of courtesy, and end up eating a lot more than they thought they would.
The idea behind pâté comes from the fact that in the old days, only the nobility could hunt, making game dishes a favorite way to impress visiting swells. The only problem being, of course, that unlike walking out in the farmyard and offing a chicken, you might have a guest arriving, but no game, or lots of game and no guests in sight. Worse, the really good bits of a bird or beast -- the liver, breast, loins, and so forth -- were usually the first to rot. Plus, you might have a lot of other meat left over that was mangled by dogs or shot, and so not exactly appetizing-looking. By preserving the good bits (with wine-spirit and spices -- both very trendy at the time) and chopping up the rest (with more alcohol and spices) as a filler, and encasing the whole in some bread dough and/or fat and/or gelatin or (best of all) the skin of another birdie or beastie you could have a ready-to-eat cold meal to serve the Cardinal or whoever. "Ah, sample some of the bounty of our lands, Your Grace." "Why, don't mind if I do..." As time went on, lesser people made their own pâtès out of pork, calves, chickens...
More prosaically, it's a good way to impress the heck out of someone, or to give a truly memorable present.
First, you will spend a little time and money on this, but it needn't be a huge project. A smooth pâté can be made from scratch of chicken livers, a few grocery-store-quality herbs and spices, and a jigger of brandy in less than an hour. Secondly, since it doesn't have to be served immediately, and even improves on standing, you can cook it up to a week ahead of time. With crackers, Dijon-style mustard, and cornichon pickles, you've got a nice little snack, with a salad, it's a good hot-weather meal, and laid by in little pots, you can have instant cocktail food for people dropping by in ones and twos (say, over the holidays) that doesn't have the picked-on look of a used jar of salsa or whatever. "And I just happen to have..."
You'll need 11/2 pounds of chicken livers, or 2 of the little tubs from the supermarket, 4 large shallots, 2 12 ounce cans of jellied consomme, a mini-bottle of cognac, a clove of garlic and a pound of butter or margarine.
Slice up the shallots, and pick over the chicken livers for any bad bits (green or black spots, clinging gristle, etc.) Melt about 3 tablespoons of butter -- you can add a spoon of olive oil if you wish -- in a fry pan. Add the livers and shallots, and chase them around the pan until everything is nicely browned, but not burned. Shake on salt, pepper, pinch of nutmeg (if you're of that persuasion). Cut the heat. Add the minibottle (or a jigger) of cognac. If you want to show off your cooking skills, you can warm the brandy and then light it while it's on the livers, otherwise, it's not all that necessary. (Don't add more booze than this, though, you want it to cohere.) Chase the mixture around so it's nice and evenly brandied, and dump everything into a blender. Pour about a third of the can of jellied consomme into the fry pan and scrape off all the brown bits off the pan with your spoon. It will boil off down to almost nothing: that's what you want. Put this in the blender. Put the top on the blender and blend and scrape until it's this weird meaty liquid and perfectly smooth. Let it cool for 30 minutes.
Now we get to the herb mixture: chervil, rosemary, thyme, tarragon, chives. Any or all of these or some mixture like "Fines Herbes" or "Herbes de Province", which you can often find ready-made, is perfectly OK, about a tablespoon in all, plus a tablespoon or so of finely minced parsley will do. If perchance, you've got fresh herbs available, by all means use them -- you're going for about 2 or 3 tablespoons of greeny-smelling stuff, with enough fresh to look nice when it's done. Put this in the blender along with a clove of garlic and 2 sticks of butter. Turn the blender back on and blend it like mad until it's all mixed in and perfectly smooth. Scrape into a small bread pan, or some little pots (custard cups, Asian teacups, ceramic preserves jars...) Let cool again in the fridge, maybe an hour or two. Pour a little melted butter or some the rest of the can of jellied consomme (you might go into the second can here) on top of the pâté to cover completely. Refrigerate overnight before using.
If your friendly local chive plant sets flowers, you can pour the aspic right over a chive flower laid on top (a red clover flower will do in a pinch... wash thoroughly), and have a flower-in-amber effect that will look as if it's a lot more expensive than it is. (You can also eat the flower, if you want to appear REALLY suave.) Another nice inclusion mixed into the body of the pâté are green peppercorns, which you can find pickled in a jar, here and there, and aren't as aggressive as black ones would be when you bite them. Just fold them in after you've blended in the herb-butter, and stir so they're nicely mixed in. If you decide to give this away as a present, it's a nice idea to buy a jar of Dijon-style mustard and some cornichons to give away with it. If well-handled, your fish ^H^H^H^H, ah, lucky recipient, will come away with the idea that you spent vast sums to a chef, or at least are really great in the kitchen. (I won't tell.)