Beef Wellington: A traditional English dish with a rather snooty-sounding name
[A guest post by my dear friend, Amit Ajwani]
Wellington shares its name with many famed things, one of them being a Duke. Adding to its snobby appeal, even its name is capitalized. This was a source of great segregation in the past.
“Mi lord, may’ive a bit more beef wellington please?”
“It is Beef Wellington, you fishwife. Make that mistake thrice and I shall have you killed.”
This sort of back and forth was common amongst the classes.
I typically shy away from costly and elaborate home-cooked meals for peasantry’s sake, so I never really knew what Beef Wellington was. I just knew that it was a classic and opulent English dish, and a likely candidate for one of the most sacred Christmas dinner traditions of all: oneupmanship.
In its essence, Beef Wellington is the finest cut of beef, the tenderloin, used for fillet mignon, seared in a hot pan and basted with English mustard, then wrapped in prosciutto (or foie gras, if you are an especially horrible person), a paste of tasty seasoned mushrooms called a duxelles, all rolled up in pastry, and baked as you would any baked thing.
Serving a Beef Wellington is nothing short of dramatic. You slice into what appears to be a dense loaf of bread, and it bleeds steamy pink meat juices. It’s magical, in an odd sort of way, like you’re a child again, experiencing wonder for the first time, combined with the feeling that something’s just been murdered.
“Mi lord, how’d the beef get in’ere?” an especially classless voice pipes up. “Issit witches agin? Mi lord, iffit’s witches, may be burns dem?”
You raise your thumping wand to punish the insufferable fool, but hesitate, because you can’t help but agree that it is indeed a peculiar sight.
A peculiar sight, ‘tis, but ‘tis no Christmas miracle. The dish is simply the culmination of top shelf ingredients, hours of prep, and a few encounters with near defeat. You want to curse in these trying moments, but the sheer elegance of the dish demands your civility. “Thou art as loathsome as a toad,” I think I muttered to it at one point.
The question of whether or not to make Beef Wellington for loved ones has less to do with perseverance, and more to do with the pence in one’s purse. At $120 for a four and a half pound fillet from a butcher, and a few more for good-quality prosciutto and mushrooms, it might be the most costly meal you ever make. For a crowd expecting Beef Wellington, a plump, juicy Christmas goose would be a greasy slap in the face.
The history of the dish is old and murky, and so the original method of preparation was likely lost in a book sometime during the filming of Braveheart. Every chef has their own take on it and there are many stories of its origins. As a result, there are a number of small variations on the dish, including a number of healthier adaptations.
According to one website, if the prosciutto is deemed too unhealthy, why not use a low-fat crêpe to seal in the beef’s moisture instead? Instead of duxelles sautéed in butter, why not plain tofu? Instead of pastry, why not nothing? And instead of beef, why not just serve some pre-crumpled newspaper and ruin Christmas for everyone?
The truth is that Beef Wellington is probably not too healthy, but it’s not something you eat every day either. As with many other traditional British dishes which are often just meat and pastry, it is not even the most economical, practical, or even least time consuming to prepare. It is an indulgence, reserved for special occasions, and so I suggest you just unbutton your waist garments for a night and simply wallow in your new hedonistic outlook on life.
I used a Gordon Ramsay recipe to make mine, which I did not depart from at all. Tweaking a recipe is usually reserved for round two. Ramsay is known for reinventing classic British dishes with a simple and modern twist, while making everything look dead easy to make and beautiful to look at. He’s also an impassioned spaz who is clearly obsessed with his art, which I will admire until the day he goes mad and cuts off his own ears.
Overall, it is not a very difficult dish to make, if you are well-versed in a few basic but crucial cooking techniques, like seasoning, searing, reducing, and not rushing.
Just remind yourself that you are working with hundreds of dollars in sensitive ingredients that you could ruin easily, which would spoil a perfectly good dinner party, and patience becomes a kind of compulsive second nature. Right next to limitless fear. You know when they say you can taste someone’s fear? It’s a good thing, it means they’ve just made something delicious.
I made this the night before so as to not be distracted by people on the day of, which has the added benefit of allowing you to revel in your preparedness amongst your guests by showing them how casual and cool you are, then WHUH! Elaborate meal for 16 from bloody nowhere. Unfortunately I put it in the oven much too late and was actually scorned for my lack of preparedness. But I knew I could have been prepared if I wanted to be. I knew.
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Anti-aircraft missile? Nope, just a 72-ounce beef fillet. You could cut that up into nine 8-ounce fillet mignons and sell them for $42 a piece, if people were willing to give you money to make them food, obviously.
This is where the tenderloin comes from on the cow. Tenderloin is usually wrapped with bacon to give it an extra bit of fat, salt, and keep in moisture. Yes, steak and bacon together. In biology, we call that a symbiotic relationship.
I hacked off the bit at the tail end since it was much thicker and would likely cause the dish to be lop-sided and cook unevenly. Then I split the piece in two to make two Beef Wellingtons. The piece I saved for later was a chef’s gold.
These days, I would say that using the right kind of salt is as important as the right amount of salt. Just taste some different salts and see what you think will go nicely with what you’re making. When you paint a picture, you use your eyes. When you cook, you use your mouth. Credit: Jamie Oliver.
Seasoned and ready to sear. Searing is where you cook just the outside of a piece of meat quickly at a an extremely high temperature to add flavour and seal in the juices for when you actually cook it.
Searing meat in a pan looks something like this. Watch out for jumping hot oil.
Dark brown crunchy bits on the outside, bloody on the inside. This is what you should be aiming for.
Baste in English mustard when the meat is hot from the pan, it will better absorb it. Try not to get too much on the brush handle when you’re doing this, it makes you look sloppy in photographs.
I used Colman’s. It’s the quintessential English mustard and cheap as hell at $3 a bottle.
A mix of shiitake and cremini mushrooms for the duxelles.
In the whizzuh.
Cooked down in a wok to reduce the water content so that it doesn’t ruin the pastry when baking. Should be a paste by this point.
Prosciutto from Italy. This costs more by the ounce than the beef, and for good cause. It literally melts in your mouth.
Layer prosciutto on cling film.
Cover with duxelles.
Place fillet in center.
Roll up nice and tight.
I let them sit overnight in the fridge to blend the flavours a bit and save time the next day. Place fillet in center of pastry and roll.
Forgot to take a picture of it after I was done rolling, but use your imagination.
Brush with egg yolk to keep the pastry moist for longer while the beef inside cooks. It also gives it an appetizing golden colour.
Score with a sharp knife in some sort of pattern. It makes it look pretty when it’s done baking.
Rock salt and bake.
Pleased and nervous.
Like a knob, in the heat of the moment, I forgot to take another picture right when I took it out of the oven, but here is the final sliced and plated result.
Well done steak on the ends, medium in the middle. The medium parts were far better, but the old folks and philistines had already spoken and so I had to purposefully overcook it slightly. I also had to carve it after only a few minutes instead of a full 10, since the crowd was restless, so a lot of the moisture hadn’t reabsorbed back into the meat, hence the loose pastry.