English-speaking foodies often ask me what the difference is between a pâté and a terrine. For many Parisians, the definitions are hazy at best - it’s what the French like to call the flou artistique or artistic blur. I only know how blurry it is to Parisians because I think I’ve asked at least one third of the city’s population this very question: what is the difference between a pâté and a terrine?
Of course, the artistic blur doesn’t stop Parisians from giving me their personalized and very specific definition of pâté and terrine, and yet the mystery remains: as many times as I’ve asked about the difference is about how many distinctive answers I’ve heard. According to many people, a pâté is made of coarsely ground meat, usually a combination of pork throat, lean pork, fatback, or other ingredients which make up the specific name of the pâté, like duck or rabbit.
But a terrine is something much more delicate, almost airy - aérien is the word French friends use - and often uses fish, sometimes studded with other types of seafood: a shrimp here and there, or a scallop or langoustine, and these are like tiny treasures hidden inside the terrine when you cut into it! Terrines are lighter, people say, and more refined, than the basic pâté.
But really, if you ask an inveterate charcutier-traiteur, or pork butcher-caterer, a terrine can be made from either meat or fish, as long as the ingredients were cooked in the pottery vessel that is called a terrine. The old-fashioned kind are brown, terra-cotta affairs, but there are all types nowadays, sold at well-known stores like E. Dehillerin and La Bovida, and even a humble dish-shop like my favorite, La Vaissellerie, has a few different styles.
Too many egg whites!
Both pâtés and terrines conveniently use up meat or fish scraps, as well as eggs or egg whites, in varying proportions. And this is the answer to a prevalent problem in French restaurants: how to use up leftover egg whites. Can you just imagine all the mayonnaise, hollandaise and béarnaise sauces, crème brûlée, and crème anglaise custards that French restaurants make? What they all have in common is egg yolks.
Sometimes the leftover egg whites go into the freezer, to be thawed and used later for meringue, but before freezers existed in French kitchens, chefs had to find a way to use up those egg whites! So the age-old solution was to make a farce mousseline.
Despite the fancy-sounding name, a mousseline stuffing is nothing more than a puréed mixture of meat or fish, cream, and egg whites. Those extra-cold ingredients are blended together to make an emulsion, in which the solids are suspended in the liquid ingredients. This creates the lightest of terrines, a wisp of fish flavor on your plate, served with mayonnaise (there are those egg yolks again!) or just a lemon slice.
A blank canvas
In French restaurants, that fish mixture has been pressed through a drum sieve with a rubber scraper, cooked long and slow (nowadays in an oven which looks like a computer), and then once cooked, pressed overnight under a heavy weight. The whole-egg version of a terrine, the recipe for which you’ll find below, is often actually called a pain de poisson or fish loaf. It’s more substantial than the egg-white only version, and great for picnics or a main course, served with plenty of fresh green salad. And it’s a helluva lot easier to make.
Entire books have been written about pâtés and terrines, including Marcel Cottenceau’s masterful Professional Charcuterie Series. And French chef and restaurant-owner Stéphane Reynaud has written a fantastic book - Terrine- featuring creative recipes.
In fact, one of the great things about terrines is that they really lend themselves to all kinds of culinary creativity! They’re basically a blank canvas with which to create ephemeral, edible artwork. Once you’ve mastered the basic technique given here, you can experiment with all sorts of variations on a theme. You’ll find a couple of ideas in the notes below the recipe, or book a cooking class with me here in Paris to learn more!
Fish terrine with zucchini scales
1 lb.10 oz. (800g) white fish of choice, pin bones removed with tweezers
1 medium zucchini (7-8 ounces or 200g), washed but unpeeled
1¼ cup (300ml) heavy whipping cream, very cold
1½ teaspoons fine sea salt
a few twists of white pepper
a small handful of herb of your choice (I like dill), finely chopped
1 tablespoon butter for the terrine mold or loaf pan
special equipment: fish tweezers (or any well-sterilized pliers or tweezers), food processor with a slicing blade or mandoline, terrine mold or rectangular loaf pan
how to make it:
1. Cut the fish into 1-inch cubes (2-3 cm), and place them in the freezer for at least ½ hour. Also place your food processor bowl and blade in the freezer if you have the space.
2. Using the slicing blade of a food processor or a mandoline (with its hand-protecting pusher), thinly slice the zucchini (1/8-inch or 2mm).
3. Lightly steam the zucchini slices, about 3 minutes. Carefully remove the slices from steamer basket and spread them onto a tray or large plate lined with paper towels.
4. Preheat oven to 325°F (160°C). Heat water for the water bath.
5. Remove the fish from the freezer. Using a food processor with a pulse button, process the fish in stops and starts, about 15 times, stopping to scrape the fish down the sides of the bowl from time to time.
6. When the fish is still slightly chunky but beginning to break down, add the eggs, cream, salt, and pepper.
7. Process until a smooth paste forms.
8. Taste for seasoning. If you don’t want to taste the raw ingredients, you can make a small dumpling and put it gently into simmering water to poach for about 4 minutes. Let it cool completely before tasting.
9. Add ¾ of the chopped herbs to the fish mixture, stirring well. (Reserve the rest of the herbs in the fridge for your plate garnish.)
10. Transfer the paste to a pastry bag (with medium plain tip if you have one). Refrigerate.
11. Butter the bottom and sides of the terrine mold or a 3-inch deep (7.5cm) rectangular loaf pan (approximately 9x4 inches or 22x10 cm).
12. For unmolding “insurance” cut a long strip of wax paper to the same width as the bottom of your terrine mold. Place it in the bottom of the mold: it should be long enough to overlap the ends of the mold.
13. Line the mold with the zucchini slices: start at one end and place a zucchini slice half onto the bottom of the mold, half on the side.
14. Then place the next zucchini slice halfway over the first one, using the same half-on-bottom, half-on-side method as before.
15. Continue in this way until the entire bottom of the terrine mold is covered in zucchini slices.
16. Using the pastry bag, fill the mold with the fish mixture, leaving about ¾ of an inch (2 cm) between the mixture and the top rim of the mold.
17. Smooth with a rubber spatula.
18. To cook the terrine in a water bath, place the filled terrine mold (or loaf pan) into a large lasagna-type pan, and fill the pan about ⅓ of the way up with hot water.
19. Place in the oven, and add a little more water to the pan. The water level should come to at least halfway up the sides of the terrine mold.
20. Cook the terrine in this hot water bath for 35 minutes, or until a knife poked into the middle comes out clean.
21. Very carefully remove the pan from the oven.
22. Gently push the terrine mold through the water to one side of the pan. Using a ladle, scoop the hot water out of the pan.
23. Remove the mold from hot water bath using oven mitts if you like.
24. Place the terrine mold in a cold water bath to cool quickly.
25. Refrigerate overnight or for at least 4 hours.
26. Cut into 8 equal parts, using the restaurant method: first cut the terrine in half, right through the middle, using a serrated knife (like for bread). Use a long, sawing motion to disturb the terrine as little as possible. Then cut those two halves into halves (now you have 4 equal parts), and cut those halves into halves again. Voilà! You should have 8 equal parts.
27. Serve the terrine with a lemon slice and a sprinkling of fresh herbs. Bon app’!
serves 6-8 as a first course
notes: The recipe given here comes from Stéphane Reynaud’s book Terrine, with the slight modification of cooking temperature. The lower you can go on temperatures for cooking fish, the better: fish is a delicate and expensive ingredient, and “performs” much better with lower, slower cooking methods.
If you’re looking for some other creative ideas to decorate your terrine, try one of these, or use these as starting points for your own ideas!
For the fish “scales” you could use two (or more!) vegetables instead of one to make an alternating pattern. For example, in summer, you could use eggplant sliced the same thickness as the zucchini, and quickly grilled under the broiler. The alternating green and purple scales look beautiful.
Fold into the terrine mixture some cooked shrimp, mussels, cockles, or any other kind of seafood you can get your hands on. Sometimes I even add in a few sprigs of sea pickles (also called sea beans) if they’re available at the market. This is a great opportunity to try unusual ingredients from your fishmonger, or even from your supermarket’s shelves.
If you’re interested in coming to Paris, book a cooking class with me, and I’ll take you to my local fishmonger to see what treats he has for us! At different times of the year, he carries razor clams, goose barnacles, several types of crabs, mussels, langoustines… Miam!