Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Day 181 - Country Pâté, French Onion Soup, Pan-Seared Steak with Red-Wine Shallot Sauce, and Crème Brûlée

Welcome to La Fête Française!! aka French Feast!!

As I mentioned in my Sixth Tally, I planned a special, French-themed dinner tonight in honor of the pâté terrine I received as a thank-you gift from the amazingly generous David T. Tonight's group of four included David, our mutual friends Neil and Brian, and myself. David, as I've already mentioned here, is a super-talented hyphenate (actor-singer-composer-filmmaker-long distance runner) and Neil and Brian are ex-actors and super-talented musical theatre writers (last season's The Story of My Life and more!).

You would think that theatre might have dominated the conversation, but tonight, food was the main attraction!

Country Pâté (p. 280)

I have been strategizing for months how I can make this pâté without springing for the terrine. I'd even asked The Martha Stewart Show to lend me one of theirs, since I live down the street from the studio and could have picked it up and returned it in a mere two days. Meanwhile, David saved me from grovelling any more than I already had. It's a beautiful, blue Le Creuset special, with a tight-fitting lid with a steam escape hole.

Let me be straight here - making this pâté is the opposite of easy. Purchasing the ingredients alone is a feat. For instance, fatback? The guys at the Fairway deli counter didn't even know what it was. And the guy at the butcher counter sold me "salt pork" insisting it was fatback. I took him at his word, but it turns out that salt pork is a heavily salted version of fatback, which left me with a very salty pâté. If you must use salt pork for fatback, I suggest you not add those two teaspoons of salt (as I unfortunately did).

Luckily, Fairway is very well-stocked, so finding the veal shoulder, chicken livers, pork loin, ham, and thinly sliced bacon was not an issue. Dicing meat, though, is a pain. And dicing it into 1/4 inch cubes is nigh impossible. Maybe if I had frozen the meat, I could have gotten a more precise dice, but refrigerated meat is slack, and I was maybe getting a 1/2 inch dice, at best. This led to some complications along the grinding part of the journey. The blade in the grinder kept getting layered with sinew and the meat stopped feeding through. I had to take apart the grinder attachment a few times, clean off the blade, and restart, which compromised the temperature of the meat and the grinder parts (they should all be cold for the best result). Ultimately, everything was ground, but I wonder if I had been diced it smaller, would I have had an even better result?

The ingredients came together in what seemed like a good consistency, i.e. a base of ground meat with chunks of this and that scattered throughout. A quick, pan-fried taste revealed a heavy saltiness, but great flavor. Now it was time to fill the terrine.

But first, we line it with bacon! Can you imagine? I'd already experienced barding when I wrapped a pork loin in pancetta, but this seemed particularly naughty, given that there was already a bunch of fatback in there. (FYI, fatback looks like bacon, but with a much higher ratio of fat to meat.)

I asked the Fairway deli guy to slice my bacon really thin, and I ended up with a TON of bacon. I'd asked for a pound and a half, as directed in the book (1 1/4- 1 1/2 lbs), but when I saw the bacon mounding under the slicer, I stopped him at a pound. And that ended up being roughly twice more than I used. Perhaps my bacon was sliced overly thinly, but if you are able to get your bacon sliced to order, you will not need nearly as much as Martha indicates.

So I lined the terrine with bacon, pressed the meat mixture into it, flipped the bacon over the top to cover it, popped the lid on, and cooked that sucker.

The next step was one I was really looking forward to: you cut a piece of cardboard to fit inside the terrine, line it with foil, rest it on top of the just-cooked pâté, and weigh it down with cans to compress the pâté. In Martha's description of this, she suggests that as the pâté gets compressed, excess fat will spill over the sides of the terrine. Alas, no excess fat spilled out. In fact, it didn't seem as if the compression made that much of an impact.

I will say that I noticed that the pâté "tightened up" as it cooked - when it was done, there was a small gap between the perimeter of the pâté and the terrine. Not to mention, the top of the meat was well below the top of the terrine, so there would have to have been a few cups of excess fat to create any spillover....

Blah blah blah... Cut to: a great-looking pâté! And an almost great-tasting one. There is an amazingly authentic pâté flavor here, and I can't even tell you why! Is it the shallots? The fatback? The veal? The pork? The ham, bacon, raisins, egg, port, cognac, allspice, nutmeg? Interestingly, there's a relatively small amount of liver in there. If you had fed me this pâté and asked me to guess the ingredients, I would have only been able to put my finger on liver and pistachios (and only because I can see them) - the rest would be a mystery. But this recipe is completely legit!

I served this traditionally, with grainy Dijon mustard, cornichons, and toasted baguette slices. As you can see in the picture below, I repurposed the terrine as a serving dish for the bread. Wow, there are so many things you can do with a pâté terrine! :-)

Even though the pâté was clearly overly salty, it was roundly praised for its flavor. And Brian noted that there's just something special about a pâté - it's an event, in and of itself. I guess I'm going to have to make a few more of these....

Jeff: B (I should have done some research about fatback and salt pork - I might have been able to avoid the extra salt. Also, points off for lazy dicing...)
Martha: A- (More information about fatback would have been great... Also, why all that bacon?)

French Onion Soup (p. 53)

Who doesn't love French Onion Soup? It's so warm and comforting and familiar.

This recipe, like the pâté, is very authentic and effective, although I'm guessing it ultimately depends on the stock. I, of course, defrosted my Basic Brown Stock, which took me a whopping 12 hours to make back in July. It's a long row to hoe for French Onion Soup, so I don't know if this will become a regular dish in my arsenal. But you can really taste those 12 hours in this soup. The brown stock doesn't taste like much by itself, without having been salted or seasoned - its flavors are waiting to be revealed. This soup is the perfect vehicle to do just that.

This recipe is quite easy to make. There's a fair amount of time spent slicing and then cooking the onions, but after that, it's pretty straightforward.

The croutons are a great touch. Mine got maybe a little too brown in the broiler, but once in the soup, they tasted just right. As for the browned cheese on top, I made the mistake of buying non-oven-proof crocks. (Why make a French Onion Soup Crock if you can't put it in the oven? Really, people...) But luckily, I had my crème brûlée torch at the ready, so I browned the cheese with that. (Phew.)

This course was another hit. The flavor rang true, and it was comfort food at its most refined.

(That's Brian, pictured with the soup.)

Jeff: A
Martha: A

Pan-Seared Steak with Red-Wine Shallot Sauce (p. 260)

This is my last Pan-Seared Steak variation, the other two being the enormously successful Mustard Cream Sauce and Balsamic Sauce. Since the red wine Martha suggests we use is Côtes-du-Rhône, I thought this fit the French bill.

The steak preparation is great, as ever. And even though I used a thermometer to judge the doneness, I think I'm starting to be able to tell by touch. They were all cooked perfectly, fyi.

As for the sauce, once again, I had the experience of it not reducing at the speed Martha says it should. I tried turning up the heat, but there was very little thickening happening, and eventually I just gave up. What I ended up with was thin and not particularly flavorful or interesting. It probably needed more salt, but I was serving so many crazily salty dishes that I was hyper-salt-sensitive at this point in the meal.

Verdict? Good steak, but the sauce didn't really add anything.

(That's Neil, pictured with the steak.)

Jeff: A- (What am I missing?)
Martha: A- (What's missing?)

P. S. I have leftover sauce and steak, and I will try to reduce the sauce down even more when I reheat it and see if I can discover what's great about this sauce.

Crème Brûlée (p. 472)

Here's a universally-beloved dessert that has never appealed to me. Have you noticed, there are creamy vanilla lovers in the world and then there are the chocolate freaks, and I'm definitely one of the latter. What's more, I prefer desserts that have a salty element (crust, nuts, etc.), and this is just sweet x 1000. But I'm going to put that aside and judge it on its own merits.

First let me say, this is not difficult at all. It's basically the same process as making custard-style ice cream. Steep a vanilla bean in heavy cream and sugar, heat, temper sugar and egg yolks with the hot cream, mix together, pour in bowls, bake in a hot water bath, cool, and serve. Oops, almost forgot the most important part: cover in sugar and brown!

Martha suggests spreading 1 1/2 tablespoons of sugar over each dish for browning, which seems to be a standard amount, but I think this is overkill. I think a better way of executing it would be to say "spread a thin layer of sugar," which in this case would probably have been closer to two teaspoons. That's not to say there was a problem with using Martha's amount. I just felt as if it was too dense of a sugar cover. I mean, the cream part is plenty sweet. It seems as if the sugar on top wants to be a nice thin crust, not a thick candy roof top.

David thought this was the best tasting crème he'd ever tasted, with a deep, vanilla flavor, and it was delicious, but we all agreed there was something "off" about the brûlée. I vote for less sugar....

(That's David, pictured with the crème brûlée.)

Jeff: A
Martha: A

Incidentally, this meal was rounded out by encore appearances of Roasted Potatoes, Vegetable Tian, and Caramelized Figs. (I think that marks the fifth time I've made those figs. Yum!)

Special Thanks

I would like to take this opportunity to thank some of my Jeff and Martha angels for their kind gifts, all of which were used to help make tonight's meal!

My heartfelt gratitude to:
  • Tracy KP for the KitchenAid Food Grinder Attachment! Tonight's pâté would not have been possible without it.
  • Tracy C for the MicroTorch! Tonight's French onion soup AND crème brûlée would not have been possible without it.
  • Annie and Charles K for the Ove Gloves. Tonight's soft, unscarred hands would not have been likely without them.
and of course
  • David T for the Pâté Terrine. Tonight's country pâté, nay, tonight's whole meal would not have happened without it.
Thank you all!

Until we eat again....


  1. Just heard about your blog through Neil & Brian's website. Love it! Seems like Martha would be much more, um...tempermental than Julia Child, so this promises to be interesting! You have a new devotee!

  2. Hi Bethany-
    Thanks and welcome! As for Martha's temperament, I can't wait to find out firsthand! My only personal experience of her so far was a conversation with her on the air on her Ask Martha radio program, and she was great.

  3. 'I love reading about your experiences cooking "with Martha", and understand some of the pitfalls (where to find someone who actually KNOWS what fatback is?), frustrations (it's supposed to be thicker!), and the comfort of having good friends who will willingly taste (and be kind about) that dish you slaved over for a half a day. Keep Cooking (and writing about it!)

  4. Ross, I love what you say about friends. I have completely overlooked their courage and generosity in the equation. Thank you so much for writing!