Chicken Liver Pâté

Before ringing in the New Year, I’ve decided to revisit all those resolutions I made for 2008 and squeeze a few in while I still can.

On the list was, “Make chicken liver pâté.”

I’m embarrassed to say where I got the recipe, but let’s just say it was from a television cook, who is not a chef, and who now has a daytime talk show. The recipe is so simple that it has been in my head for about two years without me having ever written it down or looked it up.

Because I’m not about to feed a party of 50 people, I cut the recipe more than in half. But I didn’t want to cut it too far lest the ingredients become out of whack. Wherever I wind up on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day, I’ll be toting along a ceramic dish of pâté and a crusty baguette.

The recipe was so easy and all the ingredients were extremely easy to find, including the chicken livers, which I got from the grocery store that has a butcher on site and a well-stocked meat section. It’s the kind of market where you can buy lamb’s kidneys, cow stomach, veal tongue, and of course, chicken livers. Three-quarters of a pound only cost $1.16.

Having never worked with chicken livers before, I took seriously the instructions to rinse, pat dry, and trim them very well. The photo shows how they look before being trimmed. Though they were very well cleaned when I opened them, I liberally removed any remaining bits of membrane, specks of blood, fat, and what not.

Chicken Liver Pâté
Chicken livers, about 2 pounds for a large party, or a minimum of a half pound
Butter, about 1 stick per pound of chicken livers
Spanish onion sliced, about 1 huge onion (softball sized) for every 2 pounds of livers
Thyme, about 1 sprig per half pound of chicken livers
1 bay leaf (this was not in the original recipe, but I decided to add it anyway)
salt and black pepper
optional: a few leaves of parsley

Over low heat, melt the butter and add the onions, sweating slowly and gently, and after a few minutes, add the bay leaf and thyme sprigs. Partially cover the pot and let the onions cook very slowly until fully wilted, translucent, and almost breaking down, about 20 minutes, stirring a few times, but not too often.

Meanwhile, rinse and pat dry the chicken livers. Trim all the shit off them. All of it.

Cut the livers if they are big into pieces about the size of a single clove of garlic. Add the livers to the pan and turn the up the fire to medium-low. (Another way to do this is to move the onions to the edges of the pan and add the livers into the center hot spot where they can cook a little faster without browning the onions.)

Add a pinch or two of salt and a good pinch of black pepper, preferably fresh-cracked. Continue to cook gently (if using parsley, add a few leaves during this final cooking process) until the livers change color fully on the outside but are still slightly pink in the center, maybe 10-15 minutes or so. Their color will be grayish brown. It’s kind of ugly.

When the livers are cooked (the photo shows them at the halfway point), close the fire and let them cool for a few minutes. Then move them into a food processor and grind them, slowly at first. Finally, grind them for a few flashes on high so that the mixture is almost smooth but still has a hint of meatiness to it.

Serve immediately with crusty bread, cornichons, melba toast, crudités, olives; or refrigerate as follows:

Cut a circle of wax paper to fit the top of the dish you plan to use for the pâté. Ramekins or other ceramic dishes work well. Spoon the pâté into the ramekins and if you like, lay a single parsley leaf directly in the center. Set the wax paper circle directly onto the pâté and press it down, as if making a skin to cover all the pâté. Cover a second time with plastic wrap or foil and refrigerate.

Depth of Flavor

I read an interview in New York Magazine with Christina Tosi, pastry chef at Momofuku, not long ago, who mentioned that one of her secret ingredients in baking is milk powder. It adds real depth of flavor, she said.

And last week, my friend and I were talking about his odd habit of eating unsweetened spicy peanut butter melted over mixed steamed vegetables. It’s not unlike Thai peanut sauce, but it definitely lacks some depth of flavor, which his wife and I realized came down to one missing key ingredient: fish sauce (a squeeze of lime would help, too).

It got me thinking about other little dashes of this and pinches of that, the secrets to creating depth of flavor. Soy sauce is another good example. Anchovies, which I used in a small quantity in a very simple soup yesterday (the rest was just fava beans, garlic, rosemary, tomato paste, and chicken stock), created the taste illusion of a meaty fish stew without me having to add big fishes.

Mushrooms are one of the most often cited ingredients for adding depth of flavor, especially if they are sautéed for a long time or dried and rehydrated, as in the case of porcinis. Slip a cube of beef bouillon (or if you’re a professional, a spoonful of demi glace) into just about anything savory and you’ll produce a base of richness for other flavors to stand on. Vegetarians can look to miso instead.

As one of the comments in a previous post alluded to, cocoa powder can do the same thing, but not only for flavor, but color, as it does in Cincinnati chili and mole.

Another one of my favorites, which doesn’t always technically create “depth” of flavor so much as help extend the existing flavors, is breadcrumbs. I use good homemade breadcrumbs in everything from meatballs (ground pork or chicken, a lot of ricotta, a lot breadcrumbs from rosemary bread, parsley, salt, red pepper flakes), to apple strudel, to orzo salad.

When people are new to culinary stuff, a term like “depth of flavor” can be confusing. But if you give a number of examples like these, they can start to think about what characteristic all these things have in common, thereby cultivating an understanding of the meaning. I think wine tasting is the same. Until you taste the same characteristic several times in a few different wines, it’s hard to know what “tannins” are or what is meant by “structure.”

(There are some linguistic theories about how people learn language by classification, by first understanding what’s the same about a number of things – “all dogs have four legs, all dogs have fur” – and then understanding what’s different – “this thing has four legs and fur, but it also has antlers; having antlers makes it not a dog.” That’s kind of what I’m getting at here: Having multiple experiences to compare others against and find similarities between.)

Baking Day, East Coast Edition

My family and I had Baking Day, East Coast Edition yesterday. Baking Day was started by Boyfriend's mother as a day when a whole bunch of estrogen -- I mean, women gather in her kitchen to bake holiday cookies and participate in a cookie swap ensues.

Everyone brings one or two cookie or baking recipes and their special ingredients. The host buys the basics: butter, flour, sugar, eggs, salt.

Since I no longer live in San Francisco with her, I held my own Baking Day this year. It was paired down because my kitchen and apartment are small and can't handle eight hours of non-stop cookie action.

Baby Sister rolled out little Russian tea cookies dusted with powdered sugar that sort of softly pop in the mouth because they're so airy. The Eyes made raspberry linzer tarts, the recipe that called for the most meticulous handling, but so worth it in both presentation and taste. Oldest Sister made a batch of maple date bars, a variation on the cranberry oatmeal bars in the November 2008 issue of Cooking Light!). These were the least sugary and a great cookie for people who don't like overly sweet things (I drenched mine in extra maple syrup later... as I wrote that confession of my sweet tooth, a bug flew into and drowned in my hot cocoa). Mom made her famous magic crack -- I mean, magic cookie bars, a highly addictive tray of graham cracker crust, chocolate chips, chopped walnuts, toasted sweetened coconut, and sweetened condensed milk.

I contributed the chocolate orange biscotti that I made ahead of time, some candied tangerine peel for decoration, and some sugar dough so we could roll and stamp Christmas cut-out cookies, too.

Chocolate Orange Biscotti

I’m a huge fan of any cooking or baking that doesn’t send me on a trip to the grocery store to buy special ingredients. Along the same lines, I hate to use butter as an everyday ingredient. I love butter, but it’s expensive to buy and usually requires forethought, either remembering to set it out an hour before use -- who else read that New York Times article that warned butter needs to be at 65 degrees Farenheit, not 68 to be considered appropriately “at room temperature?” -- or remembering to chill it, or remembering to buy it, as I always seem to have no more than three-quarters of a stick on hand at any given time.

Butter is expensive. I like Lurpak, and it’s almost $4 now for about half pound. And I hate to buy it if I’m not going to use it, as I’d rather my butter be fresh than freezer-burned. And I hate to experiment with a new recipe with it because it’s so expensive.

Who knew biscotti recipes don’t require butter? This has been a revelation for me.

I found a few biscotti recipes, kicked the ones that called for almond extract, since I didn’t have that in the house, and found one that I tinkered with a little bit.

Process-wise, I got a little nervous after mixing the so-called dough, which was more like thick brownie batter. Biscotti recipes tell you to shape the dough into a log, but this stuff was too we to really pick up with my hands. I used a small rubber spatula to mound and spread the dough-batter into a long form. It was sticking so much that I eventually ran the spatula under a trickle of water in the sink, and then continued spreading as best as I could.

After the biscotti had done their first round of baking, they had risen and now looked much more like a “log,” which was a huge relieve. My takeaway advice about this for anyone else who never made biscotti before is, “Trust the recipe.”

The rest was easy.

Here’s the recipe I came up with, followed by the tweaks I would make in the future.

Chocolate Orange Biscotti
2 large eggs
1 egg white
3/4 cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups flour
1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
zest from one orange or tangerine
a handful (i.e., the dregs of what I didn’t eat of that bag) semisweet chocolate chunks, smashed

Whisk the eggs. Add the vanilla. Add half the sugar. Whisk some more. Add the rest of the sugar.

Separately, whisk together the dry ingredients.

Add half the dry ingredients to the wet and fold. I tried whisking here, but the powder started flying all over the place. Once it’s incorporated, go back to the whisk or switch to a wood spoon. Stir in the remaining dry ingredients.

Preheat to 350.

Use either parchment paper or a Silpat mat on a cookie sheet. Make one giant “log” by scooping the dough-batter onto the pan and, using a spoon or rubber spatula dipped in water, smearing and smudging it into place. It may resemble more of a rectangle than a log, about 12 inches by 6 inches and 1 inch thick. (Alternatively, make 2 longs that are 12 by 3 inches.)

Bake for about 20 to 25 minutes until it looks a little puffier and set.

Remove from oven and cool about 10 minutes. Lower heat to 275 or 300.

Transfer the baked “log” to a cutting board and using a bread knife or serrated knife, cut diagonally so each piece is the size you want it. I made about 20 cookies.

Return the cookies to the baking sheet and lay them cut side down. Return to the oven and bake another 10 to 15 minutes. Dip in melted chocolate or serve with hot drinks.

The next time I make this recipe, I will ditch the orange zest, as it was really more of an experimentation and didn’t totally thrill me.

Increase the sugar to one full cup.

Stop being so cheap and buy almond extract. Add 1/2 teaspoon and halve the vanilla extract.

Eliminate the chocolate powder and increase the flour by half a cup and change the chocolate chips to nuts or dried fruit, as I really prefer the non-chocolate biscotti in the first place.

Three-Ingredients Biscuits

After Thanksgiving, I turned the turkey carcass and leftovers into a soup, and when the soup started petering out, I turned those leftovers into turkey pot pie. The pot pie was just a roux to which I added some turkey soup, sans most of the broth, and about a cup of frozen green peas. I poured the whole thing into a soufflés dish and topped it with a giant biscuit.

The biscuit top came out really lovely, flaky and golden. And it was so easy that I made biscuits sans turkey pot pie last night. The recipe has only three ingredients. Here it is:

Three-Ingredients Biscuits
pancake mix or Bisquik, about 1 1/2 cups
cold butter, about a tablespoon
milk, about 1/2 cup, skim or whole

Cut the butter into the pancake mix using a fork, or two butter knives, or a pastry cutter, until the butter is in small pea-sized or smaller bits through the mix (like making pie crust). Add the milk and stir until just moist. The dough should be pretty dry but should just barely form into a ball. Use your hand to gather the dough into a ball in the bowl and firm it up.

Dust flour or extra pancake mix on a space to turn out the dough. Roll the dough gently (I use a wine bottle) until it is 3/4 to 1 inch thick. Punch out circles (I used an inverted wine glass), place on a baking sheet, and bake at 350 to 375 for about 12 minutes.

Eat warm and definitely eat the same day, as they will turn to hockey pucks tomorrow. The biscuits are very dry, but they are good with jam or dunked in a cup of tea.

• Use cold water instead of milk, but I find milk gives a better taste.
• Use low-fat butter milk instead of milk for more tang.
• Leave out the butter entirely.
• Brush the biscuits with milk or egg wash before baking for a nice golden top.
• Add a good pinch of salt to make the biscuits more savory.
• Mix in a handful of currants or raisins for a treat approximating an English scone.

Review: Raga in Brooklyn; and Food Bias

En route to Brooklyn with one vegetarian in tow, I had no idea where my friends and I would wind up eating dinner the other night. We were totally directionless, or to spin it more positively, we were up for anything.

We were headed to a party near Smith Street and Bergen. By the time we popped out of the subway, we were all pretty hungry and not in a mood to nitpick our choices (as I usually do, which may be the number one source of fights between Boyfriend and me – I like to wander and review every single option, but in the meanwhile, I get hungry to the point of cranky and then complain horrifically that there is nothing quite right to eat).

On this night, no crankiness and no wandering looking for false hope of perfect food. No. Instead, Indian restaurant with open tables. Too many free tables? Is that a bad sign? Who cares! Vegetarian options aplenty. No wait. Inexpensive. Let’s eat.

The place, Raga (142 Smith St.), was dead. Two other tables of diners were engrossed in their food, and there was no music. This was on a Saturday night, so it really wasn’t a great sign, especially in Brooklyn during holiday shopping season. But I’ll be damned: The food was pretty good. How good? I would absolutely rather go back there than take a gamble on an unknown Indian restaurant.

Later, when we got to the party, I started talking to this woman who had lived in the neighborhood for 12 years. She gave me some restaurant recommendations in the area and in Manhattan. Then I asked her if she had ever been to the Indian place down the block.

“Oh, that place? Yeah, it’s terrible.”

She said she had been there twice, once for standard Indian fare and once for some special sandwiches that they were trying out. “It’s always dead.”

Her opinion is suspicious for two reasons, though. First, the topic of food came up because she asked if Boyfriend and I cooked, and we enthusiastically said yes. She argued that too few people knew basic life skills anymore, like cooking and mending. We wholeheartedly agreed and mentioned the fact that our grocery list usually comprises produce, meat, cheese, eggs, and milk, rather than boxed foods, frozen things, and canned soups. But then as we continued talking about food, she mentioned a restaurant where she orders take-out so often that she got a free bottle of wine with her order the other night for being a loyal repeat customer. Second, she went on and one about a Manhattan Japanese restaurant that had a lovely house-made tofu, but when I mentioned a very popular Japanese restaurant less than a mile from her house where I had eaten and which also had wonderful homemade tofu, she had never heard of it.

In need of a second opinion about Raga, I asked one of the hosts of the party if he had been there. “Oh that place? It’s always dead,” he said.

“Yeah, but have you eaten there?” I asked.

“No. I mean… it’s always dead. It doesn’t look very good.”

It’s really a shame when the popular perception of an eatery colors a person’s ability to just taste the food and judge it for what it is. But it happens, and in big cities where dining out is taken very seriously, it happens a lot. Raga got 3 starts on Yelp and better ratings but from only six reviewers on CitySearch. The main complaint was service and delivery.

This exact same attitude prevails with my all-time favorite Indian restaurant: India Clay Oven in San Francisco (2436 Clement St. at 25th Ave.).

Nearly everyone I’ve talked to and most reviewers on web sites hate Clay Oven. [*Note: I haven’t lived in San Francisco since July 2007, and I’ve just now looked at Yelp and found that the reviews have improved significantly since around October 2008. My statements herein refer to the prevailing attitude that I experienced between 2003, when I first started eating there, and 2007 when I left the city.] Again, the main complaint is that the staff are rude (they are) and the delivery service is terrible (one Valentine’s Day, we waited close to two hours for delivery).

However, the food is awesome.

In both instances, hysteria over bad service has created social pressure to also dis the food. I think a lot of people are intimidated to state unequivocally their what they genuinely like and dislike. There’s a lot of snobbery in the food world, and while there is something to be said for the person whose palate who has become endeared to high-fructose corn syrup (what would ketchup be with out it?) and partially hydrogenated palm oil, I wish more foodie people had a greater tolerance for personal taste and allowed people to say what they truly like and don’t like without criticism. A good example is chocolate. Dark chocolate is held in higher regard than milk, which is seen as somehow adulterated, but that attitude is completely hypocritical the moment you pair dark chocolate with an amaretto truffle filling, cordial cherries, or fucking acai berries (oh, it has come to that!).

I for one have been awful about this kind of thing in the past, and I hope I am learning not to criticize people for what they like.

Back to Clay Oven: The really funny thing is that the owners have three restaurants in the city. They are basically the same except for location, staff, and the name of the restaurant. The other two are regarded highly and receive generally good reviews on user-driven web sites.

To this day, I hold India Clay Oven as the bar against which I measure all other Indian dishes of similar style (northern Indian cuisine). Some of the dishes are spicy, while others are loaded with ghee in a way that makes them homey. The mint chutney is never quite the same twice but always packs a slow-burning heat. The tamarind sauce is always sweet, but never syrupy. The naan is always warm and soft. And only once have I declared, “You can make it really hot” and regretted it.

I think the problem with both Raga and Clay Oven is that the general public is not willing to overlook issues of service, atmosphere, and popularity in a trendy neighborhood, even if the food is good. Alternatively, it could very well be that I enjoy Indian food of a different style than most other Americans.

At Raga, we ordered all vegetarian dishes, and all very saucy things: saag paneer (spinach, ghee, and spices with hunks of farmer’s cheese the consistency of firm tofu), chana masala (chickpeas in a tomato-based sauce with onions), vegetable dhansak (the menu said this was Persian-style, but it is traditionally mixed vegetables in a sauce made of some kind of dal (lentils, chickpeas, etc.), and one other mixed vegetable dish, though I’m not sure which one. We had naan, basmati rice, and complimentary dal sauce.

Between four of us, we shared two plates of assorted appetizers -- one would have been plenty. I had never had banana pakora before, so that was interesting to try. It looked like an orange biscuit, and inside was a big slice of banana, softened from the whole thing being cooked. I’m going to guess the soft dough was made out of yam and flour (or yam flour) because of the color and because it was slightly sweet.

By all means, don’t pass up Raga if you love northern Indian food but have had doubts about its popularity in the past.


142 Smith St., Brooklyn

Holiday Recipes

I'm curious what recipes people make around the winter holidays. In my family, we have a few traditional foods at Thanksgiving, but not too many around Christmas and New Year's.

As children, we used to have this great but wacky concoction of pistachio pudding suspended inside a cup of red Jello -- a festively colored green and red dessert. It was a very 1950s straight-from-the-box recipe. From time to time, we still have it. It has sentimental value.

Drop a comment below, or email me your recipe if you want to share it. I'll try to post some throughout the month of December.

No-Butter Banana Bread and Cream of Tartar

One of the first things I learned how to cook was banana bread. My mother used to make quick breads all the time, especially banana bread with chocolate chips or nuts and zucchini bread with walnuts.

She has a tried-and-true recipe that requires an entire stick of butter and a lot of sugar.

I’m a big fan of any baking that does not require butter or only uses a small amount of it because, quite frankly, butter is expensive and I have a hard time remembering to buy it. Yogurt and fat-free sour cream are great healthier alternatives when I can remember to keep those on hand, too, but my favorite baking recipes are ones that use a small amount of canola oil instead.

I found a recipe for banana bread on Cooking Light’s web site last week (from 2000) that uses a small amount of vegetable oil instead of butter, but it seemed a little plain to me, so I doctored it up with a half teaspoon of vanilla extract and a half teaspoon of cinnamon. I upped the bananas from 2 medium-sized ones to 3 -- or 2 1/2 large ones. And I swapped the vegetable oil for canola.

The rule of thumb with recipes is that if you change three things about any given recipe, you can claim it as your own. In other ones, I’m taking credit for this one. I won’t take credit for putting in the cream of tartar, though.

Cream of tartar is used in baking, particularly in helping to stabilize beaten egg whites, but also to activate baking soda as a rising agent. Cream of tartar is acidic, and baking soda is alkaline and needs an acid to activate it. My no-ingredients chocolate cake recipe calls for white vinegar alongside the baking soda, which has the same effect as the cream of tartar: it activates the baking soda.

Fun food fact: There are only three common foodstuffs that are alkaline: baking soda, egg whites, and milk (and probably several variations of milk and my guess is someone out there knows of at least one other uncommon alkaline food).

I couldn’t find much more information about cream of tartar except that it is a byproduct of winemaking, and its presence as a residue in ancient jugs found in Iran proves that wine has been around for 7,000 years. Who knew?

The recipe came out great. Be sure to set the bread pan on a cookie sheet to catch any overflow.

No-Butter Banana Bread
2/3 cup white sugar
1/4 cup canola oil
1/4 cup egg substitute (the equivalent of one egg)
1 large egg
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/4 teaspoons cream of tartar
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
2 1/2 to 3 ripe bananas, lightly mashed
cooking spray

Optional: add walnuts, chopped pecans, or chocolate chips, about 1/2 cup

Preheat oven to 350°.

Combine oil and sugar. Beat with a mixer until smooth. Add egg substitute, egg, and vanilla extract. Beat until smooth.

Combine dry ingredients in a bowl, stirring with a whisk. In three batches, slowly add the flour mixture to the wet mixture, stirring to incorporate. Lastly, fold in the mashed bananas. Don’t worry about over-mixing. It’s not a big deal. The worst that will happen is the banana bits will sink to the bottom.

Spoon the batter into an 8x4-inch loaf pan coated with cooking spray.

Bake at 350° on a cookie sheet for 35 to 40 minutes or until a wooden pick inserted in center comes out clean. Don’t check on the bread too often or pull it out of the oven prematurely, as any serious cooling will result in the middle of the bread collapsing. It will still taste just fine, but it will have a big old saggy center.

Cool slightly and serve warm. Freezes well. Yields 12 slices.

Sweetbreads and Chestnuts (Check and Check)

One food that I’ve been meaning to try for some time now is sweetbreads, so when I saw them on the menu at Nice Matin this weekend, I snapped up the chance.

Though the dish was described as a “fricassee” of sweetbreads, it clearly wasn’t done that way. (Similarly, Boyfriend ordered calamari “beignets,” which turned out to be simply calamari fritti.) Rather, the sweetbreads were small nuggets dusted with flour and perhaps fine breadcrumbs, cooked quickly in a pan buzzing wildly with heat and a lot of butter. They were served atop soft polenta with slow sautéed mushroom and roasted chestnuts, another food I’ve been meaning to try. That meant two check marks for me in one night. Nice.

It was listed as an appetizer, but it was actually a little heavy and would have been satisfying as a main course with a salad to start.

(I borrowed this image from Butter on the Endive blog. Gorgeous photos!)

The sweetbreads were delightful, though. The insides were soft -- I’ve been trying for days to come up with a comparison but to no avail. They are not as striated as a fresh scallop, nor as mushy as a cooked carrot, nor lacking any bite at all like pâté. Unlike a soft sausage, they had a perfectly uniform texture, even despite the fried outer layer.

Texture is a great source of joy for me in eating, and I’m thrilled to now have the unique taste of sweetbreads as a new point of reference.

The embarrassing regret I have is that I forgot to ask what animal the sweetbreads came from, as I understand both veal and lamb are common, and it was not specified on the menu.

Most of the rest of the party I was with ordered the Five Napkin Burger, which it turns out is the same Five Napkin Burger that spun off a restaurant of the same name. And oddly enough, the main complaint at Nice Matin was the same as at 5 Napkin, namely that everything was over salted. (And yes, the restaurant is "5" and the menu item is "Five." At least it's not trying to be a fricassee.)