The meat counter inside the Whole Foods supermarket in New Orleans, Louisiana, is in the back of the store, past the organic vegetables, the bulk spices and the expensive imported cheeses. In front of it a girl is pacing, more than slightly uncomfortable and clearly indecisive about what she wants. She has already waved away two meat counter assistants, telling them she'll let them know when she's ready, but to be honest she doesn't know if she'll ever be ready - she's considering dropping her plan entirely and retreating back to the tofu cooler. She sizes up those glistening piles of scarlet animal flesh and wonders what on earth they feel like: are they wet, firm, mushy, cold, slippery? She shudders involuntarily, and then feels her pulse rise. What if I can't bring myself to actually swallow it? She briefly considers asking one of the counter assistants for advice. It sounds too crazy in her head, though: "what would you recommend for someone who has been a strict vegetarian for so long that she can't even remember what meat tastes like?" They would laugh, or at least look at her with disdain - it's one thing to be a confirmed carnivore, but a lapsed vegetarian is something else entirely; it connotes failure. And part of her feels like a failure for giving up on a way of life she has lived happily for so long. Nevertheless, she can't ignore the signs, which in her case have been coming in strengthening waves, sometimes in the middle of the night as she wakes up from a dream in which she has been eating a plate of sweet, sticky ribs or a big juicy cheeseburger, and sometimes in the middle of dinner where all of a sudden she wishes her soup tasted like ham hocks instead of celery. She finds it ludicrous to think that she is craving something whose taste she can't even properly remember. But cravings happen for a reason, she tells herself, and that is why she is here - not necessarily to embark on a new, carnivorous life, but just to see what happens if the cravings are fed. And just so she knows what she's getting herself into, she's buying and cooking that meat herself, no matter how squeamish she feels. With that thought lingering in mind, her eye catches something. It's a sausage, a pork sausage. A whole pile of them, actually, shimmering pink and white in the corner of the display. Her eyes light up, and she beckons over the assistant.
"A half-pound of those, please."
The rest, as they say, is history.
I was a vegetarian for nearly ten years, from the age of 12 until just shy of my 22nd birthday. While the last couple of years were marked by the very occasional appearance of fish on my plate, in all that time I consumed not so much as a single bite of land-dwelling animal (or, at least, not to my knowledge). Unlike many other reformed vegetarians I have known, however, when that moment came to make the transition back to carnivore, what helped me along was not the easy bland innocuousness of chicken breasts (though that may have had something to do with a particularly traumatic event in my childhood which involved me, a chicken leg, and a blood-filled vein under my fork which put me off fowl for quite a while), but instead the sweet seductions of pork.
Pork, in my book, is a miracle meat. It may not be as omnipresent as chicken or as sexy as beef, but of all the forms meat takes on this planet some of the most delicious come from the humble pig. Whether it's a fresh pork sausage for the grill, a whisper-thin slice of prosciutto di Parma, a knobbly, spicy, rock-hard cylinder of salami, showers of crumbled crispy bacon or a thick slice of chunky paté de campagne, pork lends itself to more delicious and varied preparations than any other animal. During those early days of meat-eating, when the sight of a whole steak would still render me weak at the knees, I consumed pork in all of these forms, and to this day, count a meal of barbecued sausage or charcuterie and bread to be one of the most perfect things the universe can deliver. Of course I eat plenty of chicken now too, and am open to just about anything else that happens to walk across my plate, but nothing, absolutely nothing, can take over that little corner of my heart which has been loyal to pork ever since that first bite of Whole Foods sausage passed these lapsed-vegetarian lips so many years ago.
Pork Paté with Port and Hazelnuts
Coarse, country-style patés have always been one of life's greatest pleasures for me while traveling in France. Most larger French supermarkets make and sell their own versions of paté de campagne which I usually find quite wonderful, though I've heard that many French people would never dream of buying a paté from anyone but their local butcher (who naturally guards his recipe like the holy grail). I don't know how those people would feel about my version, but I'm pretty fond of it with its hint of winy sweetness and toasted hazelnuts studded within the intensely aromatic, moist and almost creamy meat. If you've always wanted to try your hand at making your own charcuterie, paté is the perfect place to start. There are no hard-to-find ingredients like sausage casings or special equipment needed; there's no hanging in the cellar and praying that the weather cooperates. As long as there's enough fat and salt, very little can go wrong, and believe me, the results will be worth the tiny bit of extra effort involved. Okay, it is quite a bit more effort than ripping open a package from the supermarket, but everyone you serve this to will be mightily impressed that you made it yourself, and surely that must count for something!
Source: this recipe has been heavily adapted from many sources, but the most important part of the instructions - that of the pork - comes from Anthony Bourdain's recipe for Paté de Campagne in his Les Halles cookbook. I hope he'll forgive me for my deviations.
Yield: one 3-lb paté, enough for 10-12 people
1/2 pound (225g) pork liver, diced
1/2 pounds (225g) pork fat, diced
1 pound (450g) pork shoulder, diced
2 1/2 - 3 teaspoons salt
1 1/2 teaspoons black pepper
1/8 teaspoon allspice
1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
1/8 teaspoon mace
1 tablespoon minced fresh thyme
1 tablespoon minced fresh sage
2 bay leaves, crumbled
3 tablespoons butter
5 garlic cloves, minced
6-8 medium shallots, peeled and thinly sliced
2/3 cup (160ml) port (doesn't need to be anything pricey)
1 cup (100g) whole hazelnuts, blanched and toasted
1/2 pound (225g) bacon (or fatback) slices, for lining mold
In a large bowl, combine the liver, pork fat, pork shoulder, 2 1/2 teaspoons salt, pepper, allspice, herbs and cover. Refrigerate this mixture overnight.
The next day, remove the mixture from the refrigerator, and pass everything through a meat grinder which you have fitted with a medium blade. The grind size should not be too small (paste) nor too large (chunks). As Anthony says, you're looking for a grind size about that of meat loaf. If you don't have a meat grinder, you can either pulse the mixture in your food processor until it is a coarse chunky paste, or dice it into oblivion by hand (which supposedly gives the best texture, but which will give you *quite* a workout). I did a mixture of the two, which seemed to work fine.
Melt the butter in a frying pan over medium heat and gently sauté the shallots and garlic until soft but not colored - about 10 minutes. Remove from the heat, cool, and add to the meat along with the port and egg, stirring to combine (don't put the pan away yet). At this point take a small spoonful of the mixture and fry it in the pan until cooked through. Taste for seasoning - it should be well salted (remember that the saltiness will be muted when the pate is cold). Add the remaining salt to the rest of the meat if necessary, then add the hazelnuts and mix thoroughly. Preheat the oven to 325°F (170°C).
Line a terrine mold or loaf pan crosswise with strips of bacon so that they hang over both edges. Fill the terrine with the ground mixture, packing it tightly. Lift the terrine and firmly drop it onto the work surface (easy, don't go nuts) a few times, to knock out any air pockets. Fold the bacon ends over to neatly cover the paté, adding a couple extra strips down the middle if the ends don't quite meet. Now cover the whole thing with a double thickness of foil.
Place a deep roasting pan in the preheated oven. Put the filled terrine in the center. Boil some water and pour it into the roasting pan - you want just enough water so that it comes up just below the rim of the terrine. Cook the terrine in the water bath in the oven for about 2 1/2 hours, or until the internal temperature is 160°F (70°C).
When done, remove from the oven and allow to cool. Place a weight on top of the terrine (still wrapped in foil) and refrigerate overnight (a few cans should do the trick). The next day, remove the weight. To unmold the paté, immerse the bottom in a pan of just-boiled water for a couple of minutes. Run a knife around the sides and unmold onto a cutting board. At this point you can run the paté under the broiler to color the bacon a bit, if you want (obviously not on the cutting board, but on a baking sheet of some kind). Return to the refrigerator and chill for another couple of hours before serving. The paté will keep in the refrigerator for at least 5 days. Serve thickly sliced with toasted bread, mustard, cornichons, cheese, butter - or whatever sounds good to you.