What do you want from a vegetable pâté?

(Deb Lindsey/ FOR THE WASHINGTON POST ) - Mushroom and Lentil Pate.

(Deb Lindsey/ FOR THE WASHINGTON POST ) - Mushroom and Lentil Pate.

There are certain things we expect from pâté, no matter its constituents. We expect it to be rich, the flavor deep. We don’t expect to eat very much of it, but we expect it to linger.

Those same qualities are what a vegetable pâté is after, and it is, perhaps surprisingly so, adept in achieving them. Vegetables are by turns, and by treatment, sweet, nutty, earthy, smoky, spicy. They can take on textures dense and smooth or ethereally creamy. The best in vegetable pâté, then, takes philosophical cues from traditional pâté — the depths of flavor and luxuries of texture — without aspiring to mimic them.

VIENNA, VA, JANUARY 9, 2013: Winter salad of shaved cucumber, radish and endive with lemon vinaigrette. Dishware courtesy of Crate & Barrel. (Photo by ASTRID RIECKEN For The Washington Post)

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“There are two things you want in a vegetable pâté,” says Amanda Cohen, chef-owner of the New York vegetarian restaurant Dirt Candy. “One is a very strong flavor; the other is an intense depth of creaminess. . . .What you should expect is a very interesting taste sensation in a small bite.”

Almost any vegetable can be worked into a pâté, but the ones that perform most successfully carry flavor profiles that lean on the side of sweet, with earthy undertones, and flesh fine-grained and dense. Think root vegetables, winter squash, or those not-exactly-vegetables, mushrooms. Nuts and seeds, pounded into a paste, contribute to a creamier, more substantial texture, as do legumes such as lentils and white beans, and fat.

A vegetable pâté (not to be confused with vegetarian), then, is not about making amends for something it is not, nor is it a substitute for a pâté made with meat. A vegetable pâté should instead be a celebration of the vegetable itself, an exploration of what that vegetable is capable of expressing. And you don’t need to be a vegetarian to appreciate it.

Horton is a Washington food writer.

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