I am terrified of the French.
Or I was. I know this is ridiculous and childish – I know – and maybe not just a little bit crazy-town, but there it is. The language! The food! The wine! The clothes! The culture! The… Frennnnnchness!
As lovely as it all is, those items seemed to play upon my worst personal fears of clumsiness and ineptitude. So much so, that after more than a decade of writing about food and wine, I only took my first trip to that lovely country a few short years ago – prior to that, I feared that setting foot in Paris would only bring about the villagers to point their fingers (J’ACUSE!) exposing me for the two-bit fraud I feared I was: a dabbler not worthy to indulge in the greatness of Gallic culture.
So you see the depth of craziness that my sweet, lovely ex-pat Parisian neighbors had to battle before convincing me that they come in peace – and, at times, pate.
A few years ago, my friends Jean-Francois and Marie moved into a sweet, set-back Tudor home across the street from my husband, Dan, and me. The intimidation bar was set high - J-F worked for a high-profile fashion designer and M is an extraordinarily talented artist. She also happens to be the kind of cook that played upon my worst fears – traditional, phenomenal, instinctual. You know – French.
As our friendship has grown, they’ve become very dear to us. They are, really, the best neighbors you could possibly ask for and despite my enormous hang-ups and bullet-riddled insecurities, we go to each other’s homes for dinners, share wine at our respective t
ables, and look out for each other when the occasion for neighborly attentions arise. They even spend Thanksgiving with us. And at this last one, M invited me to come and cook with her for the umpteenth time, and I finally said yes.
One week to the day later, I was in her tidy kitchen learning to make sweetbread pate, a recipe of her mother’s, written in M’s neat handwriting on a sheet of paper. M doesn’t speak much English, and my French is about as terrific as my dog’s, but we muddled through (with only one phone call to J-F for a particularly tricky translation) and I learned to make something I never believed I could.
I wish I possessed the kind of storied bravery and openness of a woman like Julia Child (and even some contemporaries of mine – I’m talking about you, Caroline and Mindy!) who took Paris by storm with the kind of fearless wonder that allowed her not just to learn, but to bring her cooking adventures back home to fascinated American masses. My god, it’s taken me five years (and a lifetime) just to set foot in M’s kitchen and stand beside her, lining Le Creuset terrine with pork, veal, and Port-marinated sweetbreads. But you know, it was really worth the wait. We have another cooking lesson today – a traditional veal stew and chocolate mousse – and we’ll eat it together with them tomorrow night.
But as for the pate, here’s how it went:
Boil the sweetbreads (200 grams, or about half a pound) for 10 minutes. Allow to cool; pull off any loose bits of fat. Marinate for 2 hours in ruby Port (in the ‘fridge, if that’s not obvious) and freshly ground nutmeg. Meanwhile, marinate (separately) about a pound of pork loin and a pound of veal, cut into 2-inch pieces, in Cognac and freshly grated nutmeg, also for 2 hours.
When the marinade time is almost up, mince three shallots and sauté in about a tablespoon of butter. Add salt and pepper and set aside.
When marinade time is up, reserve the Cognac and put the pork and veal in a food processor and chop until consistently ground and smooth.
Combine the ground meat in a large bowl with the residual Cognace, 2 eggs, salt and pepper, about a half cup of sour cream, and freshly ground nutmeg. Set aside.
Remove skin from a breast of pork and slice the meat into long, thin strips.
Remove the sweetbreads from the Port, and slice into thin pieces.
Line an earthenware terrine with some of the pork strips. Add a layer of the chopped, mixed meat.Add a layer of the sweetbreads.
Repeat until the terrine is full. Top with any leftover pork strips and cover. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit.
Place the terrine in an oven-proof dish filled with water. When oven is ready, carefully put it on the middle rack and cook for 1 ½ hours. When time is up, remove and allow to cool completely. When terrine is cool, remove the top and press down with something flat (most terrines come with a gizmo for this, but a plate of fat-edged section of a butcher knife will probably do just fine) and refrigerate overnight. Voila.