When friends drop in during the holiday season, consider offering them an elegant pate. After all, a pate can be made as quickly and easily as a dip. And it's hard to find a better-loved appetizer, whether as the star of a party or as a prelude to a festive dinner.
Pate has a certain mystique, probably because of its classic cousins: baked pate, a molded meat or fish mixture cooked in a water bath in the oven, and pate en croute , an elaborate, layered meat mixture baked in pastry.
But there is a much simpler form of pate, which is equally delicious and requires no baking. It is smooth and luscious and could be described as a luxurious spread.
My favorite pate is made of smoked and poached fish. french chefs developed this style of pate fairly recently as a fish take-off on an old-fashioned pate called rillettes , which is traditionally made of meat cooked in fat and then shredded with a fork.
The Parisian chef who taught me to prepare these new pates used equal weights of fresh fish, smoked fish and butter. The butter contributes flavor and makes the mixture spreadable, but I sometimes like to substitute olive oil for all or part of it. To make a quicker pate, I blend the mixture in a food processor.
Salmon is the most popular choice for fast fish pates. Other smoked or fresh fish, such as trout or whitefish, can be used too. Following the same principle, pates can be prepared from smoked and roasted chicken or turkey. Herbs, spirits and other seasonings can be added to taste. Thyme is wonderful in fish pates, while chopped shallots and a splash of brandy or Madeira are great with meat.
A fine pate deserves quality bread. A selection of several sliced breads, such as fresh baguettes and cocktail-size rye and pumpernickel, is always welcome. Fresh or toasted pita triangles and bagel crisps can also be served. Cucumber slices make a refreshing base that complements rich pates.
The easiest way to serve pate is to present it on a buffet table in ramekins or other small deep dishes. To stretch the pate to serve more people, spread it on bread or cucumber slices to make canapes. Keep garnishes simple and small--halved black olives, parsley leaves or tiny pieces of fresh or roasted red peppers are perfect.
Pate made from salmon has a superb flavor and a bright pink color. Often you can buy the smoked salmon in small pieces for a better price. For a special holiday presentation, garnish the top of the pate with a little black or salmon caviar.
SMOKED AND FRESH
1/4 cup dry white wine 1/2 cup water 1 bay leaf 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme 1 (10-ounce) piece fresh salmon 1/2 pound sliced or small pieces smoked salmon or lox 1 cup unsalted butter, cut in pieces Freshly ground pepper Dash freshly grated nutmeg, optional Combine wine, water, bay leaf and thyme in saute pan. Bring to simmer over medium heat. Add fresh salmon. Poach, covered, about 5 minutes or until just tender when pierced with knife. Cool in poaching liquid until lukewarm. Remove fish, reserving liquid. Discard skin and bones.
Grind fresh and smoked salmon in food processor. Add butter and process until well blended. Add dash pepper and nutmeg and 2 tablespoons poaching liquid, blending briefly. Taste and adjust seasonings. Spoon into small serving dishes ore ramekins and chill thoroughly. Serve cold, with fresh French or sourdough bread or with toast if desired. Makes 8 to 10 servings.
Variation: Substitute 1/4 cup mild olive oil for 1/4 cup of the butter.