No matter if we have guests or not, fat liver (foie gras) terrine is the only item I cannot imagine my Christmas without. Undisciplined and messy cook that I am, I never manage it to look as good as I’d like, the shape is never neat and, in general, it’s far from being perfect. I’m sure professional chefs would consider it unacceptable, but I love my homemade terrine and never even think of buying it already cooked. Now is the best moment to plan a trip to a good duck liver supplier, so I thought I’d share with you my most recent seasoning variation, successfully tested and planned for this Christmas too.
Probably because foie gras is expensive, most people (also in France) think it’s very difficult to prepare a terrine, i.e. seasoned half cooked whole liver. There are different methods, such as poaching it rolled into a piece of fabric or cling film, but I’ve always practiced the most popular one among home cooks: hot water bath baking in a rectangular terrine dish. Seasoning options are endless, though most cooks use only salt or some dry spices and/or aromatic alcohols. The first time I made it I was surprised how easy it was, though I had been scared to spoil the whole liver. It doesn’t require any skills (apart from a bit of patience if you have to remove the veins, but nowadays the liver is often sold deveined) and most of the process consists in… waiting, since you need to prepare it several days in advance.
Apart from those who love cooking and experimenting, people often decide to make this terrine at home because the price is about three times lower (and it’s still costly!), so if you have access to the raw or good quality but frozen liver, do not hesitate (I have no experience with goose liver, so I cannot give any advise on it). Disciplined, meticulous cooks will obtain a beautiful visual result even the first time, but since I’m clumsy and don’t care for the visual improvement that much, I only pay attention to the flavours; good taste is all that counts and it’s very simple to achieve.
I like experimenting with new flavours, but since I’m never sure of the results, I always do it with only a half of my liver (or just one, if I buy two). Last year I prepared half with “safe” Armagnac (see below) and half with a slightly risky mixture of sake and powdered chilli, which reminded me a bit of Korean cuisine. The result was moderately spicy and the delicate sake aroma was still recognisable, so this year I’ll repeat this version, but I have already planned a new experiment for the other half of my liver….
If you prefer a more traditional version of foie gras, you might like the Armagnac seasoning:
If you buy fat liver for the first time, the most important thing is the weight. The heavier the liver is the worst the quality. A good duck fat liver should weigh between 400 and 500 grams. If it’s a bit heavier, it’s not important, but never buy the huge 700 g ones. Try to buy the product which is not too soft (delicately pressed it should “bounce” slightly but definitely not leave traces) and not bruised. Of course, the fresher it is, the better and even famous French chefs recommend frozen product if one is not sure about the raw liver’s freshness because livers are normally frozen the same day the animals were slaughtered. Obviously, it’s better to buy liver from a local producer and if it’s imported, but some countries don’t have the same level of hygiene/quality/medicine use regulations (or simply don’t respect theirs). The difference in taste will be huge. I always try to look for free-range birds, which are force-fed only during last weeks of their lives.
Some friends have already asked me, so I prefer to warn you : I have never cooked goose liver, which is bigger, has a different texture and taste, so I have no idea how to prepare it. All my tips and advice concern fat duck liver.
The terrine must spend 48 hours in the fridge before being served. This is obligatory: I once tasted foie gras about 12 hours after cooking and it was awful. I already thought I had spoilt it, but it was just too early to eat it…. Both the texture and the taste really improve with time.
Since it’s a half-cooked product, you should eat it in four-five days after you cook it. If you see you won’t be able to finish it, freeze the remaining part whole or in small portions.
Remember, even if you forget a step, even if you overcook your liver or you make any other mistake, don’t despair. It might prove totally edible! You will be able to learn it only after 48 hours in the fridge. I once forgot mine in the oven and was surprised it was actually quite good.
How to serve it?
Foie gras is often served with fig jam and also with sweet onion jam or fruit chutneys. For me the simplest and often the best way to enjoy it without hiding its delicate flavours is to serve it with good quality sea salt and crunchy “airy” French-style bread. This is the way I prefer it but I also like it sometimes with tangy jams (such as damson jam).
Foie gras is usually served as a starter, on individual plates in slices (which should never ever be squashed and spread on the bread like a vulgar supermarket pâté!), together with toasts, but it also makes wonderful finger food when served on mini toasts. Good quality – flaked or grainy – salt sprinkled over a piece of the terrine or a toast is the ultimate touch.
Every meal and every time of the day is perfect for foie gars. A late Sunday breakfast/brunch is one of my favourite moments to enjoy it…
Traditionally sweetish sauternes wines are advised with fat liver, but I have it only with dry wines. (Don’t be ashamed to try it with red wine! Many people living in south-western France, famous for its fat duck livers, actually prefer it with red wine).
If you don’t like the shape of your cooked terrine or if it falls into pieces, serve it on small toasts as canapés.
good tweezers (the best would be special fish bones removal tweezers, but good eyebrow tweezers should be ok too)
a “terrine”/pâté dish (with a cover and, ideally with a fitting lid, but it’s not obligatory)
a cooking thermometer (this is not obligatory, but makes the cooking time control much easier)
Preparation: about 4 days (2,5 hours + 24 hours in the fridge + 30-40 minutes cooking+minimum 48 hours in the fridge before serving)
Ingredients (serves 6 – 8):
1 whole duck liver, weighing max. 500g (see the tips above)
10 tablespoons sake (I have used here really cheap sake I use for Japanese cooking – though not the sweet mirin! – and it was perfect)
5 flat tablespoons (or more) powdered medium hot chilli (I have used here Kashmiri chilli) or sweet paprika, if you prefer it mild
3 tablespoons Japanese soy sauce (you can add 5 if you use low-sodium version)
about 1/2 litre water
about 1/2 litre milk
salt (10 g/about 2 teaspoons per kilo, since there is also soy sauce)
(some more medium hot or sweet chilli powder to sprinkle just before serving)
Take the liver out of the fridge.
Let it warm up to the room temperature.
Divide the two lobes and carefully take out first of all the main veins and as many small ones as you manage.
Put it into tepid mixture of water and milk for 2 hours.
Take it out, pat dry. Put the first part of the liver in the terrine dish.
Season with salt, chilli, soy sauce and half of the sake (if your terrine is small but tall, you might have to divide the seasoning into three portions and make three layers of the liver; in this case start with a third of all those).
Put the second part, season once more (if you have three layers, place a third layer and season once more) and slightly press.
Cover the dish (otherwise it will change its colours to gray!) and leave in the fridge for 24 hours.
Preheat the oven at 130°C/266°F.
Take the liver out of the fridge.
Put some hot water (80°C/176°F) in a big shallow dish, put the dish with the liver (make sure it’s at room temperature) inside, so that the water covers 3/4 of the dish’s height.
Cook in the oven for around 40 minutes, checking the central temperature of the liver.
It shouldn’t have more than 65°C-70°C/about 149°F-158°F inside in the centre, while being taken out of the oven (depending on how pink you want it to be inside).
Take it out and let it cool.
Discard most of the fat formed at the top of the terrine.
Press it slightly (or press with something heavy, such as a wooden board; the best thing is to have a special terrine dish with a special adjusted board).
(You can also reserve the fat discarded from the terrine, press the terrine with a board, leave in the fridge for 12 hours and then and pour the fat back on top. This will create a nice yellowish layer on top. I never bother doing this.)
Put into the fridge for at least 48 hours (this half-cooked terrine should be consumed within four-five days after being cooked).
Keep in covered (otherwise it will dry and the colour will change to gray).
Take out of the fridge about 30 minutes before serving.
Serve it either in individual slices with bread/toast aside or as finger food on small toast.
You may sprinkle it with some more chilli powder just before serving.
Dipping the knife in hot water makes the cutting easier.