Recipe: Wellington Trumps Turkey This Holiday
Contributor Lisa Fielding is a private chef and boutique caterer based in Manhattan who weekends in Litchfield County whenever possible. Many of her Manhattan clients are also Litchfield County weekenders, so work brings her to Northwest Connecticut as well. A Los Angeles transplant, Fielding was a former Hollywood film executive who segued into screenwriting several years ago, which enabled her to pursue her passion for food and entertaining. Lisa’s culinary skill set draws from a broad spectrum of dishes and ingredients.
Whenever there was a special occasion in our house or a spectacular party in the works, my mother would pull out all the stops and make a classic dish or dessert that was a Herculean effort from my young point of view. Two dishes stand out in particular: Beef Wellington and Baked Alaska. I never understood the attraction of the latter. Cake is cake and ice cream is ice cream. Should the two collide, it needn’t occur under the veil of a meringue bomb with the added jeopardy of a brief appearance under a broiler. She loved making it until one year, with her hands full, she used a bare foot to push the scorching rack bearing the Alaska back into the oven, and the dessert was forever removed from our festivities.
The Beef Wellington lived on, and it is with much chagrin that I admit to never undertaking the sumptuous and elegant main course until a client (whom I could not refuse) requested it upon his return home from a long stay in the hospital. I smiled at memories of my mother making her own pastry and just enough extra to cut out flowers and leaves to decorate the crust. She was talented in that way, which I am not. I promised to make the Wellington, but since this was new territory for me, I didn’t promise it would be crowned with a pastry laurel wreath.
For the uninitiated, Beef Wellington is rumored to be a classic British dish named after the first Duke of Wellington, but little evidence supports this historical anecdote. What it is, and all cooks agree on, is seared beef tenderloin coated with pâté and duxelles, which is then wrapped in puff pastry and baked. The process is shockingly simple. I imagined a far more laborious endeavor in the kitchen, with a few aborted encasing episodes thrown in for good measure. This did not happen. My Wellington cooperated easily and went quietly into the oven encrusted in vented puff pastry glistening with egg wash and sprinkled with coarse sea salt. The overall appearance was rustic but still decorative. After carving the first slice, I was hooked. Few dishes make such a stunning presentation right out of the oven and require so little else to make a meal fit for a duke or a duchess.
So this holiday dinner, ours being a Christmas celebration, I will be serving a stately Beef Wellington with green peppercorn sauce, roasted fingerling potatoes with fresh herbs, and wilted greens. My mother would be proud, but I know that with her propensity for perfection, she would comment (and not under her breath) something to the effect of “It would have looked so much prettier with a Christmas wreath on top and perhaps a few red peppercorns for color.” Come to think of it, that’s not a bad idea.
Happy Holidays from the Duchess of Litchfield County!
The Ultimate Beef Wellington
Serves 6 to 8
For the duxelles
3 pints (1-1/2 lb.) white button mushrooms
2 shallots, coarsely chopped
4 cloves garlic, coarsely chopped
2 sprigs fresh thyme, leaves only
2 Tbs. unsalted butter
2 Tbs. extra-virgin olive oil
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
For the beef
1 3-lb. center-cut beef tenderloin, trimmed and tied
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
6 Tbs. salted butter
2 Tbs. Dijon mustard
For the pastry
Flour, for rolling out puff pastry
1 lb. puff pastry, thawed if using frozen
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
½ tsp. coarse sea salt
Minced chives, for garnish
For the green peppercorn sauce
2 Tbs. olive oil
2 shallots, sliced
2 cloves garlic, smashed
3 sprigs fresh thyme, leaves only
1 cup brandy
1 box beef stock
2 cups heavy cream
2 Tbs. grainy mustard
½ cup green peppercorns in brine, drained.
Make the duxelles:
Put the mushrooms, shallots, garlic, and thyme in a food processor and pulse until finely chopped. Put the butter and olive oil in a large sauté pan and set over medium heat. Add the shallot and mushroom mixture and sauté for 8 to 10 minutes, until most of the liquid has evaporated. Season with salt and pepper and set aside to cool.
Prepare the beef:
Tie the tenderloin in 4 places so it holds its cylindrical shape while being seared. Generously coat with salt and pepper. Melt the butter in a heavy skillet and add the beef to the pan. Sear all surfaces, including the ends, about 8 minutes. When the beef is seared, remove from heat, cut off the twine and smear lightly all over with Dijon mustard. Allow to cool.
Prepare the pastry:
Heat the oven to 425°F.
On a lightly floured surface, roll the puff pastry out to about a 1/3-inch thickness. With a spatula spread the duxelles over the pastry, leaving a 1-inch border. Set the beef in the center of the pastry and fold over the longer sides, brushing with egg wash to seal. Fold the ends and tuck them under the beef on the seam side. Place the beef seam side down on a baking sheet. Brush with egg wash and sprinkle with coarse sea salt. Make a couple of slits in the top of the pastry using the tip of a paring knife to create vents that will allow the steam to escape while cooking.
Bake for 40 to 45 minutes, until the pastry is golden brown and the beef registers 125°F on an instant-read thermometer. If the pastry browns before the beef is finished cooking, tent with foil and continue cooking. Remove from the oven and let rest while you make the sauce.
Make the green peppercorn sauce:
Add the olive oil to the pan after removing the beef. Add the shallots, garlic, and thyme and sauté for 1 to 2 minutes. Then, off the heat, add the brandy and flambé, using a long kitchen match. After the flame dies down, return to the heat, add stock, and reduce by about half. Strain out the solids, and then add the cream and mustard; reduce by half again. Remove from the heat and add the green peppercorns.
Cut the Wellington into thick slabs and serve with the sauce.