Culinary awareness happens in stages…
For Anthony Bourdain it was when, as a teenager on an ocean liner heading towards France, he found himself in what I assume a first class dining room, being served a soup. What struck him was that soup was cold. But it was also velvety thick and within the depths of the spoonfuls of the soft beige velvet of its subtle flavors, he was moved beyond anything he had ever experienced. And so, a plate of Vissychoise brought about an end to Anthony’s culinary chaste and eventualy led him to become one of Americas great gastronomic gurus.
Though my first culinary awakening did not happen on anything as romantic as an ocean liner, I do remember it clearly. With a mom who thought Macaroni was exotic, and therefor to be avoided, I grew up well nourished, with a somewhat limited, narrow understanding of food and its abundant varieties. For example, I never tasted mushrooms until I was in my teens. My mothers repertoire for preparing seafood was fish fingers, without mayonaise… shocking revelations for a self respecting foodie, I know.
So, with my pocket money, which was not much,
I would raid the deli counter of the small nearby supermarket
in search of all things deemed ‘exotic’.
So, with my pocket money, which was not much, I would raid the deli counter of the small nearby supermarket in search of all things deemed ‘exotic’. Plump black mushrooms, lying drowned and perfectly motionless beneath ominously looking black liquid. Soft cheeses stained with the blue green evidence of irriversible varicose veins and the unfortunate fragrance similar to the stockings my grandmother would put into the laundry basket after church. Packets of vacuumed ham, sliced so thinly, when held up to the sun, one could use them to watch an eclipse.
This is how my true culinary journey started.
But one day I did have very first, gastronomic epiphany. As usual, my purchase at the deli counter consisted of a lone plastic packet contained a single slice or a slither of something looking sad and lonely. Thinking back I am surprised they even went to the trouble of weighing it.
This time, I left the supermarket armed with a thin wet plastic bag containing a small soft, oval shaped ball. Waiting to get home was completely out of the question, so just there, in the parking lot, I popped the tiny ball into my mouth.
It felt like a thousand years
of culinary experiences were
unfolding in the corners of my mouth.
The first sensation was how surprisingly salty it was. But then the sensation of what I can only describe as essence of sea filled my mouth. It felt like a thousand years of culinary experiences was unfolding in the corners of my mouth. In an instant I was no longer in the parking lot of the local Pick n Pay, but basking in the warm glow of the Mediterranean Sea. Sand coloured visions of camels, dates, anchovies, ruined temples and trays of flatbreads tumbled vicariously through my head. But the lasting impression was the salty mineral filled goodness of the sea. The sea, oh the sea… I had its essence trapped right there in my mouth.
Never had I so been moved by a single bite. It was so delicious, so exotic, so moving, like consuming some forbidden fruit that would, at once, reveal all the worlds most guarded, most seductive pleasures. I could not believe I could buy such a sensational, almost erotic pleasure over a counter at the local Pick n Pay.
If you had not guessed it by now, I had discovered the culinary pleasure of an olive and in so doing, quite unexpectedly, and quite unprepared, lost my chastity that day in that parking lot.
The next culinary leap took place many years later whilst dining alone at a restaurant attached to a hotel I was staying at whilst on business. The epiphany was not nearly as sensational or dramatic as the one which took place in the parking lot, but it was nonetheless noteworthy.
Thanks to my taste buds being confined to a Macaroni-less childhood, I had developed plenty of daring when it came to ordering for myself from a menu. I would always go for something I had never had or even heard of before. This time it was pate. It arrived with slices of almost see through toast, a silver colored dish containing three curled and crinkled bits of butter and next to that, another curiously small dish containing the tiniest amount of jelly, I had ever seen.
What that jelly was I couldn’t tell, but it was definitely a preserve of sorts. Perhaps it was strawberry or raspberry, perhaps redcurrant. I spread the butter thinly on the cold crispy toast, carefuly layerd a veneer of the pate and added a layer of the red preserve. The effect was absolutely sensational. The sweet of the preserves cut beautifully through the smooth, slightly salty, slightly smokey pate. It was one of those culinary experiences you remember a lifetime. I ordered that pate every time I took my place for dinner that week.
In time gone by, I have tried to recreate it several times and though I have got a close clone, it is that red preserve which has eluded me over the years.
I use strawberry jam as substitute, and its a great deal less subtle than whatever that red jelly was, but it has a similar, almost explosive effect. I subsequently discovered through writing this post, that fig is a favorite preserve to pair with pate. And so is pear.
SO here is the recipe for an excellent pate.
Liver Pate in less than 20 mins.
250g of chicken livers, at room temperature, cleaned of any green spots, washed and dried
a bay leaf
a pinch of dried thyme
a pinch of nutmeg
1/3 – 1/2 a cup of cream
2 tablespoons of unsalted butter
1 teaspoon of vegetable oil
Salt and pepper
Heat the butter and oil rapidly and turn down the heat to medium high when the butter has stopped foaming
Add the livers in such a way that they do not touch one another
Add the bayleaf, thyme and nutmeg
Cook over medium heat for 7-10 minutes turning once.
You want them just beyond pink, so don’t let them stiffen too much.
[To test the correct level of doneness, bring the tip your forefinger and thumb together. Now feel the flesh between your thumb and your forefinger - thats roughly what you want to feel when prodding the livers.]
At this stage you can add a tablespoon of brandy and set it alight, then shake the pan vigorously until the flames subside. This step however is optional though it does add more dimension to the final result.
Remove the livers, but keep any liquid remaining in the pan.
If you like, deglaze the pan with a quarter cup of red wine, which you could boil down until there is just about a tablespoon left. Or simply add the cream by itself and bring to a boil whilst stirring until the mix is evenly colored. If any liquid has seeped out of the rested livers, add them to the simmering cream. Why not…
Let the cream simmer for a minute or so, then remove from the heat and let it cool slightly.
Place the livers in the blender and add the cream mix.
Blend thoroughly until the mix is silky smooth and the consistency of a thick runny porridge. Yes I know the color is rather unappetizing. If its too thick add a tablespoon or two of cream or butter. Don’t fret if the pate seems overly thin. It will set once it has been chilled.
Taste and adjust seasoning. It should be just slightly salty with a vague hint of thyme and nutmeg.
Though traditionaly served cold, you can have it whilst it is still warm, but not hot. Spread it on thin toast and top it with a thin layer of preserves. A good quality strawberry jam works well, but fig really works a charm.
If you feel like turning it into something a little more Downton Abbey, could make these into canape’s by adding a thin slice of pear and a slither of gruyere cheese topped with a dot of fig preserves. Though truth be known, my dear, pate is not particularly English… even less so, a cheese with a ghastly unpronounceable French name…