I sometimes get asked in my everyday life if I am a vegetarian. It’s understandable because I often cook vegetarian dishes (both intentionally and unintentionally) and order them at restaurants because I happen to really like vegetables. I’m always quick to correct people, not because there is anything wrong with being a vegetarian, but because I know someday they will likely see me tucking into rack of lamb or a turkey burger and do not wish to be declared a fraud.
I’m not sure if this is a common thing among omnivores, but I often have debates with myself about whether I could fully go vegetarian, especially after a particularly awesome vegan or vegetarian meal or a read of a book on food ethics. Inevitably though this is counterbalanced by an equally alluring meat-based meal. The meals that keep me from going vegetarian are not what you think. It’s not about perfectly fried chicken, filet mignon, or baby back ribs. No, the meat-based dishes most likely to lure me to the dark side are a fine charcuterie plate or a dish of offal. If there’s house-made pate or pan-crisped sweetbreads on the menu it’s usually not a challenge to know what I’ll order. Paired with some crusty bread and a light salad, they are two of my favorite splurge meals.
Until yesterday, these genres of meat dishes were things I ate only in restaurants. I shied away from making them because, besides the intimidation factor, I was pretty sure bringing these dishes wouldn’t exactly make me a popular potluck guest. So when I happened to mention to my boyfriend, offhand, that I wished I could try making a chicken liver mousse to bring to a Halloween party, I was surprised when he egged me on. All it took was were his words of encouragement and I found myself in my kitchen with all the necessary ingredients.
I’m not going to lie, the mousse was a bit of a process. First the chicken livers went for a ride in the food processor with bacon, shallots, leeks, spices, eggs, brandy, port, herbs and cream. It was then strained through a sieve into a 1 quart souffle dish and baked in a water bath for a little over an hour. It then chilled overnight before being whipped with room temperature butter. So yes, a few steps and some waiting time were required. However if you’re patient it’s not terribly difficult and the results are amazing. Liver plus eggs plus cream yields great mouthfeel and the spices and liquor added great depth of flavor. It tasted every bit as good as the mousses I’ve had in restaurants, which made me giddy with pleasure. I served the mousse with a variety of dippers including crusty french bread, celery sticks, slices of apple and pear, and homemade Parmesan-Black Pepper Biscotti (recipe to follow as well). I love pairing pate with fruit slices because of the play of savory off sweet and the balance of light and heavy. The savory biscotti were also a hit. The inspiration to make them came from reading about Sues’ savory scones on We are Not Martha. With the cheesiness of the Parm and the pop of the black pepper these are great on their own or as a sidekick to soup and over the top with a schmear of mousse and slice of apple. Overall I was pleased with both dishes and even more happy when the mousse bowl returned from the party empty. Maybe liver mousse can be a crowd pleaser after all.
Adapted from The Girl and the Fig Cookbook
Yields 4 cups
-4 slices black forest bacon, chopped
-2 tablespoons minced shallots
-2 tablespoons chopped leeks
-1 ½ pounds chicken livers, chopped
-3 eggs, lightly beaten
-½ cup heavy cream
-3 tablespoons brandy
-2 tablespoons ruby port
-3 tablespoons chopped fresh Italian parsley
-1 teaspoon ground ginger
-2 teaspoons salt
-½ teaspoon white pepper
-½ teaspoon nutmeg, freshly grated
-2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
-3 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.
Place the bacon, shallots, leeks, and livers in a food processor and puree until smooth. Add the eggs, cream, Cognac, port, parsley, ginger, salt, pepper, and nutmeg and blend thoroughly. Slowly work in the flour and continue to puree. Strain the mixture through a fine-mesh sieve to remove large pieces.
Grease an ovenproof dish (large enough to hold 4 cups – I used a 1 quart souffle dish inside a dutch oven) with 1 tablespoon of butter and fill the dish with the liver mixture. Cover the dish with foil, place it in a pan with water that reaches halfway to the top, and put the pan in the oven. Bake for 1 hour 15 minutes or until the center reaches 160 degrees F on an instant-read thermometer. Referigerate for at least 4 hours or overnight.
In a blender or food processor, whip the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter into the mixture. Puree until smooth and adjust the seasoning with salt and pepper.
Serve with your favorite dippers. Suggestions include Parmesan Black Pepper Biscotti (recipe follows), apples, pears, and slices of crusty baguette.
Parmesan Black Pepper Biscotti
Adapted from Gourmet
-1 ½ tablespoons whole black peppercorns
-4 cups all-purpose flour plus additional for dusting
-2 teaspoons baking powder
-2 teaspoons salt
-4 ½ ounces Parmigiano-Reggiano, finely grated (2 1/4 cups)
-1 ½ sticks (3/4 cup) cold unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
-4 large eggs
-1 cup half and half
Put oven racks in upper and lower thirds of oven and preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
Pulse peppercorns in grinder until coarsely ground.
Whisk together flour, baking powder, salt, 2 cups cheese, and 1 tablespoon ground black pepper in a large bowl. Blend in butter with a pastry blender or your fingertips until mixture resembles coarse meal. Whisk 3 eggs with half and half and add to flour mixture, stirring with a fork until a soft dough forms.
Turn dough out onto a lightly floured surface and quarter dough. Using well-floured hands, form each piece into a slightly flattened 12-inch-long log (about 2 inches wide and 3/4 inch high). Transfer logs to 2 ungreased large baking sheets, arranging logs about 3 inches apart.
Whisk remaining egg and brush some over logs, then sprinkle tops of logs evenly with remaining 1/4 cup cheese and 1/2 tablespoon ground pepper. Bake, rotating sheets 180 degrees and switching position of sheets halfway through baking, until logs are pale golden and firm, about 30 minutes total. Cool logs to warm on sheets on a rack, about 10 minutes.
Reduce oven temperature to 325 degrees F.
Carefully transfer 1 warm log to a cutting board and cut diagonally into 1/2-inch-thick slices with a serrated knife. Arrange slices, cut sides down, in 1 layer on a baking sheet. Repeat with remaining logs, transferring slices to sheets. Bake, turning over once, until golden and crisp, 35 to 45 minutes total. Cool biscotti on baking sheets on racks, about 15 minutes.
For those of you who are omni’s like me, what are the foods you would find hardest to give up to go vegetarian?