In writing about a stew of grilled lamb meatballs with grilled and coal-roasted vegetables in the 2011 highlights round-up, I rather surprised myself by spontaneously asserting that "the possibilities of ground meat are vast and enticing." Right up to the moment I wrote that, I wouldn't have considered myself the biggest fan of decentralized animal flesh, but it didn't take much thought to come up with an impressive list of dishes both down-home and haute-monde that feature that humble ingredient.
My mother made a great meat loaf when I was a kid, nothing fancy (and I shudder to think that it might have involved cream of mushroom soup...), but entirely delectable under its lacquered exterior of well browned ketchup. Recalling autumn or winter evenings, coming in from the woods, the soccer field, the hockey rink, to a supper of Mom's meat loaf, baked potato, and baked squash--plenty of butter on the last two--still brings me an upwelling of warmth, emotion, and a deep, primal satisfaction. And then fried meat loaf sandwiches from the leftovers, the edges crisped in the fry pan, on bakery bread with butter and ketchup, my god!, I still can't think of anything I'd rather eat.
The hamburger can be regrettable fast food, or the platform for cheffish excursions into wretched excess, but I think it achieves its ideal form in the homemade burger sculpted from freshly ground chuck, liberally seasoned, cooked medium rare over the coals on in a heavy skillet, parked on a quality bun and garnished to taste. This is a classic American sandwich, and the French chefs, bless their hearts, just don't get it. A great burger doesn't require foie gras, truffles, or other "luxury" adulterations.
One of my all-time favorite meals is based on chopped beef, that isn't even cooked: steak tartare with grilled sourdough, a stack of crisp, salty frites, a glass of bordeaux--excuse me, I'm getting a little drooly.... That's been my birthday dinner the last two years, lest anyone suspect that I overstate my enthusiasm for it.
And now, if the French don't quite comprehend the essence of le hamburger, that's not to say that they're total slackers when it comes to working with cooked ground or chopped meat. You take pretty much anyone who has traveled in France, and say the word paté or terrine, and then just wait for that groan of remembered ecstasy to start, as their eyes roll back in their heads as they recall that slice of paté de campagne from the unassuming traiteur in that little village, unwrapped on a roadside bench beside a vineyard in, let's say, Beaujolais, smeared on a piece of baguette and with the first unctuous, savory, melting taste--sacré bleu! how did they do that?
|Cold cut supper: homemade chicken liver mousse, store-bought La Quercia speck, Spanish chorizo|
A good paté doesn't seem like it should be so hard to make, but it requires a balance of richness, meatiness, texture, salt, and spice that can be extremely difficult to achieve. I suspect that many home cooks have balked at the amount of fat frequently called for in paté recipes, and so cut back, and regretted it. In addition to the fat mixed in to the forcemeat, the baking dish is often lined with fatback or caul fat--you can practically hear your arteries clanking like rusty heating pipes just reading the recipes. The fortunate corollary (not coronary) to that fact is that you don't need half a pound of paté per person to have a satisfying meal, rounded out with bread, salad, a glass of wine.
I haven't made an exhaustive study of this branch of charcuterie, but I've dabbled in it over the years, and I recently came up with a really nice version, one that I'll use as a template for future patés. This one was based on pork, three kinds: shoulder, belly, and bacon. I added chicken livers for that distinctly paté-like texture. Good bread crumbs soaked in reduced cider also contributed to texture and flavor. Chestnuts and dried apples made up the seasonal garnish. Last time I checked, those excellent Iowa chestnuts were still available at Seward Co-op.
This is best made a couple of days to a week ahead. Weighting the paté after the baking changes the texture in a desirably Gallic way. I made this in a 750 ml (about 3-cup) Pyrex rectangular baking dish; the mixture filled it pretty much to the top, which turned out okay, but you might want to use a slightly larger vessel.
Pork Paté with Chestnuts and Dried Apples
1/4 cup applejack or calvados (apple brandy)
8 rounds of dried apple, about 1/8-inch thick
3/4 cup sweet apple cider reduced to 1/4 cup
1/3 cup dried breadcrumbs from an excellent loaf, sourdough whole wheat or the like
12 chestnuts, roasted and peeled
1 large or 2 small shallots minced, about 1/2 cup
1 large clove garlic, minced
1 ounce bacon, chopped fine
Soak the apples in the brandy, covered, for several hours or overnight. Soak the breadcrumbs in the reduced cider. Cook the bacon in a medium skillet over medium low heat until some fat starts to render; add the shallot and cook gently till translucent; add the garlic, remove the pan from the heat, and add the contents to the soaked breadcrumbs. Add any unabsorbed brandy from the dried apples to the pan, swirl around to rinse, and add this to the bread, etc.
8 ounces pork shoulder
4 ounces pork belly (or very fatty shoulder)
4 ounces chicken livers.
2 egg yolks
1/2 teaspoon salt
Ground black pepper
2 pinches quatre-épices
I use the meat grinder attachment for my KitchenAid mixer: Grind the shoulder and belly twice through the coarse blade. Then grind one-third of the meat again through the fine blade; also grind the chicken livers with the fine blade. Add the egg yolks, salt and a few grinds of pepper, quatre-épices, along with the bread mixture, to the meat and mix very well.
Let this mixture macerate for 4 to 6 hours, or overnight. Butter a mold. Place a one-inch layer of meat in the bottom, and lay half the apple slices on top. Cover with a thin layer of meat, and add the chestnuts, pressing them into the meat. Add another thin layer of meat, the rest of the apples, then the rest of the meat. Place two bay leaves on top, and a few sprigs of thyme, if you like.
Bake in a bain marie (water bath), covered, at 325 for 45 to 60 minutes, until liquid is bubbling vigorously in the baking dish and the meat is quite firm to the touch. Carefully remove the bain marie from the oven, and let the paté cool in it for about 30 minutes. Placing a weight on the paté will give it a denser texture, like the classic French version. A piece of heavy cardboard cut to fit just inside your baking dish, wrapped in plastic wrap, with a couple cans of soup for weight, will work fine. Refrigerate unde weight for a day or two before serving.
Text and photos copyright 2012 by Brett Laidlaw