The next best thing
March 2, 2013 § 1 Comment
To say that I did not always possess a full sense of pâté’s charms would be understating things. My understanding of pâté, until I left the small Georgia town I grew up in, was as something corner gas stations sold at $2.99 a pound, advertised in black block letters on roadside signs along with fishing bait and chewing tobacco. My mother claimed pâté was vile stuff, and, let’s be clear, I always listened to my mother. Pâté was one of those things you didn’t want to get too close to, to whose mention the only appropriate response was ew, one of those things you knew people ate but weren’t at all sure why.
It was many years later, post-schooling, that I came to appreciate pâtés hooks of taste and texture— musky, complex, almost surreally sensual. During one several-year period of excess I can only interpret as an attempt to make amends for my previous errors of judgement, I rarely passed over a menu listing for pâté without summoning it to the table. It might have been a chicken liver mousse, a terrine of duck, or rough-hewn pâté de campagne, itself a study in pork—whatever it was, it seemed an offense to ignore it.
And then a few years after that, I stopped eating meat. I waved pâté off, goodbye dear friend, and I never tried to fill the void.
Let me say first that I never been a great fan of vegetable-stuffs masquerading as meatstuffs. But I have always, ever, been a tremendous fan of vegetables as vegetables. And it’s my thinking that vegetarian cooking, applied to without apology, doesn’t ask or want for anything.
There are some things vegetables simply cannot be, and one of those is liver. Or rabbit, or pork, or whatever else your pâté is of. But I have come to think that it’s not at all fair that meatstuffs alone should lay claim to pâté and all its implications—intense richness, creaminess sometimes, a powerful depth of flavor. At least, this was my thinking when, a couple of years ago, I needed something to bring to a picnic, quick, something that could make friends with cheese and crackers and wine and wouldn’t make a fuss transported in a backpack. Until then, vegetable pâté seemed to me a reminiscence of 70s counterculture, hold the sun-dried tomatoes, and Mollie Katzen’s Moosewood Cookbook (copyright 1977), in which she offers, without any apparent irony, a vegetable pâté of green beans, walnuts, mayonnaise and hard-boiled eggs that “really does taste like chopped liver.” I owe a debt to Mollie Katzen for helping to rescue me from processed food-lifery and I will always have a space on my shelf for her books, but I have never been tempted to try that recipe.
The day of the picnic, though, I was short on time and trying to escape a guilt complex, inevitable if I’d chosen to show up empty-handed. It was March, just barely spring. I thought of cheese, but my new vegan boyfriend wouldn’t have been able to share it. I thought of salumi, more wistfully, but neither of us would have been able to enjoy it. In a flash of masochism I thought of pâté and cursed my dietary decisions. But then I thought of pâté again, or at least, everything I’d expect in pâté, channeled through vegetables. I’m sure my most relentless snob died right then. But we cook rashly when pressed. I caramelized onions, simmered lentils, pounded walnuts, soaked a few porcini mushrooms and tumbled everything into the food processor with a splash of ume plum vinegar in a frantic dash for something extra, then another. I would be lying if I said every one of my impulse creations turned out nearly so well. It was primally earthy, a little smoky, woodsy, supremely creamy, with a curiously bright finish. T. and I arrived to the party late, two rounds of triple cream cheese and a bottle of wildflower honey deep, and the experiment, which I introduced as lentil-walnut pâté, nearly vanished nonetheless. It was even better the next day.
I’m writing about it now because that picnic happened just about two years ago, and I can no longer count how many times I’ve made some variation of it or another. It still doesn’t taste like liver pâté. But I think it’s as good.
1/3 cup brown lentils
2 sprigs thyme or rosemary
1 medium yellow onion, diced
1 clove garlic, smashed with the flat side of a knife and minced
1 tablespoon medium-dry sherry
8 ounces cremini mushrooms, chopped
1/2 cup walnuts or pecans
1 1/2 teaspoons balsamic vinegar
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1 teaspoon medium-grain sea salt
In a small, heavy saucepan, simmer lentils in water to cover by 1 inch until tender, about 20 minutes. When they are just tender, remove from heat, add thyme sprigs and 1/4 teaspoon salt, stir, then cover and rest for at least 30 minutes.
Heat a large, heavy skillet over medium heat until warm. Add 1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil, onion, and 1/4 teaspoon salt, and saute until translucent, 7-8 minutes. Add garlic and cook a few minutes longer. Add mushrooms and 1/4 teaspoon salt, toss to coat with the oil, cover partly and cook until mushrooms have released their liquid and reduced in volume, about 10 minutes. Remove lid and cook until most remaining liquid evaporates. Add sherry, and cook until it just glosses the bottom of the pan, about 1 minute. Remove skillet from heat and set aside, covered.
In another heavy-bottomed skillet or saucepan, toast pecans over low-medium heat until fragrant, about 5-7 minutes. Transfer to a bowl to cool, then chop.
Process pecans in the bowl of a food processor until finely ground. Add mushrooms and onions and process until just combined. Drain lentils, reserving cooking liquid for another use, and add to mushrooms and pecans along with remaining olive oil, salt, and black pepper. Process until smooth, 2-3 minutes. Add vinegar and pulse just until combined. Serve with whole-grain crackers or rye toasts, garnished with additional thyme, if desired.
Yield: 1 1/4 cups