How to make a designer pâté

Pâté is one of those French words that sounds far more dignified than the pedestrian object it describes. Like bidet. Or Gerard Depardieu. In layman’s terms, pâté is just chopped up seasoned meat that’s spread on bread. And if you’re worried that it’s snob food, remember that not-snobby liverwurst is technically pâté, which is awesome because “liverwurst” is such a funny word. My point is: If you can get over the snooty name, pâté is a delicious, unexpected appetizer that’s unexpectedly easy to make.

I decided to make a mushroom pâté since ground mushrooms have the meaty look of a traditional pâté. But which mushrooms would I use? A trip to the produce department revealed as many varieties of mushrooms as there are couture designers – and dried morels, at around $25 per ounce, are just as outrageously expensive. Fresh shiitakes were more reasonable, but still rang up at twice the price of regular ol’ crimini. I believe, in my ever-so-shallow heart, that some things (French handbags) are better when they are more expensive (Don’t tell my husband.). But is that true of mushrooms? For this recipe, would designer mushrooms be worth the designer price?

Always up for a taste test, I bought some fresh shiitakes and criminis, plus some extravagant dried morels. I reconstituted the morels and noticed that they were ever so slightly rubbery. I hoped the texture issue would magically resolve itself (Did I mention they were expensive?) and tossed the morels in a hot pan with the shiitakes, along with butter, garlic, shallots and sherry (because mushrooms and sherry go together like Louis and Vuitton). A quick whirl in the food processor and … The taste was too wild – so strong and gamey that it made me wince. Even worse, the morels were still chewy, like chunks of expensive gristle.

I went back to the basics and filled my pan with the fresh crimini mushrooms. Saute, saute. Whirl, whirl. The criminis offered a more pleasant texture compared to the shiitake-morel mixture, but tasted mild, bordering on bland. To liven things up, I added a splash of white truffle oil. The oil added just the je ne sais quoi I was looking for. Yes, the oil was a splurge, but hey, I was saving money on this batch of ’shrooms.

Next, I needed a binder. Emeril Lagasse binds his mushroom pâté with a combination of cream cheese and goat cheese. Martha Stewart just uses cream cheese. Now on a taste test roll, I tried it both ways. As much as I love goat cheese, any touch of it overpowered the yummy truffle oil. The cream cheese version tasted delicious and had a light, lovely texture, but it was the pale brown color of canned cat food. You might as well serve liverwurst, because no one will eat something that looks like that, even if you tell him it’s French.

A vegan cooking trick is to mash cashews when you need something creamy. I added some toasted, chopped cashews to the mushroom mix and hoped the pâté would hold its shape. After a night in the refrigerator, it did. More importantly, the pale cashews added a contrasting color to the mushrooms, which made the pâté look like a million francs.

Mushroom PÂtÉ

2 cups

½ cup unsalted raw cashew halves
4 Tbsp. unsalted butter
2 oz. shallots, peeled and sliced
1½ lbs. crimini mushrooms, sliced
1 tsp. kosher salt
¼ tsp. freshly ground black pepper
2 tsp. minced garlic
¹∕³ cup dry sherry
1 tsp. fresh lemon juice
½ tsp. white truffle oil
1 paper-thin lemon slice, for garnish
Baguette slices or crackers

• Toast the cashew halves in a dry skillet over medium-high heat, stirring constantly, for 2 to 3 minutes, until they begin to brown. Transfer the cashews to the bowl of a food processor and pulse until the nuts are coarsely chopped.
• Melt the butter in a large, heavy skillet over medium-high heat. Add the shallots and cook 1 to 2 minutes, or until lightly brown. Add the mushrooms, salt and pepper. Cook, stirring often, until the mushrooms are soft and brown and the liquids have released and evaporated, about 5 to 7 minutes. Add the garlic and stir 30 seconds. Add the sherry and cook 1 minute longer, or until the liquid has evaporated. Remove the mixture from heat and allow it to cool to room temperature.
• Add the mushrooms, lemon juice and truffle oil to the cashews in the food processor bowl. Run the food processor until the mixture is creamy, stopping to scrape the sides as necessary. Taste and adjust seasonings.
• Cut a piece of plastic wrap large enough to line the bottom and sides of a two-cup ramekin or pâté mold and with at least 4 extra inches of plastic wrap hanging over the sides. Center the lemon slice in the bottom of the lined ramekin or mold. Spoon the pâté mixture into the dish, being careful not to disturb the lemon garnish. Fold the extra wrap over the top, pressing down to remove any air pockets. Refrigerate pâté overnight.
• Serve chilled with baguette slices or crackers. Pâté will keep, wrapped and refrigerated, up to three days.