Wednesday, 6 January 2010

Pâté du Champignons (Mushroom Pâté)

Come December, the rafters of Paris’ indoor markets are bedecked with holly, lights and birds. Hung from their feet on butchers’ hoot and still in possession of feathers and beaks, the colourful yet visceral display might be off-putting to a first-time visitor. But a roasted bird is as quintessential to a French Christmas as a turkey is to American Thanksgiving. Turkeys, much smaller than their Yankee counterparts, are on offer, as are guinea fowl (pintade), geese (oie), duckling (canette), capon (chapon) and chicken, including the famous poulet de Bresse. These are well-bred birds, and priced accordingly. The best butchers also sell an equally luxurious range of stuffing, made smooth and rich with liver, studded with chestnuts and dried fruits and lubricated with brandy.

Sadly, neither my budget nor my oven would stretch to a roast, so after due admiration, I left to plot more realistic options. But the idea of stuffing must have remained with me, because I ended up preparing another traditional French variant for my first-ever apero (a casual cocktail party).

serves a number of functions in French socializing: as a lead-in to dinner at a local restaurant, a first invitation to a new friend, neighbour or colleague or an impromptu get-together. It typically involves drinks (not necessarily very many or very strong) and nibbles, ranging from a bowl of nuts to half a dozen small dishes. (If there’s enough food to fill the stomach, it’s known as an apéro dînatoire.) Depending on the phrasing of the invitation and the company, it can last for an hour or the entire evening.

Homemade gravadlax, served with blini and crème fraiche, provided a small twist on the familiar, likewise warm, roasted cashews tossed with chopped rosemary and smoked paprika. For the third dish, I sautéed minced shallots and mushrooms in butter, then stirred in good quantities of chives and crème fraiche. I called this a mushroom pâté, but it turned out to also be a near-replica of duxelles, a fine mushroom mixture said to have been created by the great 17th century French chef, François Pierre La Varenne. Used to flavor classic dishes like bouef en croute (Beef Wellington), duxelles are also piped into puff or choux pastry shells. I chose a far simpler—and oven-free—approach, spreading the mixture onto thin slices of baguette.

My guests, already confused by my pidgin French and non-French wine, were further baffled by the appearance of the duxelles/pâté. Either people stopped eating this stuff in the ‘80s, or they just buy it ready-made from the traiteur. Regardless, it disappeared at an almost impolite rate, and was followed by a very polite request for the recipe.

We’ll call this one a

Pâté du Champignons (Mushroom
Adapted from Smitten Kitchen and Melissa Clark
Serves 4-6 for an appetizer (alongside other dishes)
Total time: 30 minutes; Active time: 15 minutes

1 large (banana) shallot
250 grams (just over ½ pound) small brown mushrooms
(cremini, chestnut or baby portabellas)
Crème fraiche

Mince the shallot. Melt a pat of butter on a medium heat in a large frying pan. Add the shallot, season and sauté for several minutes, stirring to avoid sticking. When soft, remove pan from heat.

Clean the mushrooms, removing stems if particularly dirty, and mince. Return the pan to the heat and add mushrooms. Season and cook on medium-high heat, stirring every few minutes, until mushrooms have shed their water and reduced siginificantly in volume, about 10-12 minutes. Remove pan from heat.

Take some chive stems (4-6 should be enough to add a bit of sharpness and crunch) and chop finely. Add to mushroom mixture and stir through. Take a scant tablespoon of crème fraiche and add, combining thoroughly. (You may want a bit more for a creamier, more adherent paste.) Adjust seasoning and serve on baguette or brioche slices.

I’d imagine the pate could be made and refrigerated a day in advance. In that case, add the chives just before serving.

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