Thursday 18 June 2015

Beef (or Vension) Wellington

Today marks the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo, one of the most fiercely fought European battles of its era, as well as one of the most influential events on European history.  It brought to an end a series of conflicts that had been raging since at least the 1770s, perhaps even earlier, and the world's first truly global war.  And in its wake there followed a period of relative pan-European peace that would last just shy of a century. 

In honour of that great battle, I am today posting about the magnificent Beef Wellington.  This is despite there being almost certainly no connection between the dish and the victor of Waterloo.

There can be few dishes more impressive than a wellington, combining as it does both the comforting countenance of the pie and the majesty of the roast joint.  It is one of my absolute favourites as well.  The addition of the ham and the mushrooms adds an extra element of flavour to a cut of steak which, for all its benefits, just misses out on the richness and depth of flavour that cuts like rib eye or rump have, whilst maintaining the fillet's glorious tenderness.  The pastry really does seal in the heat and moisture as well – unbelievable given how much always seems to have seeped into the crust – especially the bottom layer.  All in all, it's a triumph of over-the-top, retro dining. 

This is actually a really, really simple dish to cook.  I promise.  It's a faff to assemble, I won’t lie, but it is not at all difficult.  I've tried to spell out step-by-step instructions to make it easier to see the practical, assembly parts – but as a general rule this is pretty simple. 


800g fillet (beef or bambi)
150g chestnut mushrooms
1 clove of garlic
1-2 bushy sprigs of thyme
50ml madeira
400g puff pastry
10 slices of Parma ham
25g butter
1 egg

Also, although not an ingredient, cling film plays starring role in this dish.  You're going to need plenty of it.

A few things to note, however: First, this post is actually about a venison wellington I made. Don’t let that bother you. It's exactly the same recipe – I think the venison version is slightly superior, but that's just me. In all respects this recipe will produce an easily equal beef wellington – just read 'beef' for 'venison' and 'cow' for 'deer' / 'bambi'.

Second: I have restrained myself to the most simple of duxelles – in fact, it's so simple it barely even qualifies for that title – and parma ham. Lots of people advocate the addition of all sorts of other fillings, crêpes and pâté / foie gras being the most popular. On the question of crêpes, I say that enough is enough. This dish already has plenty of stodge, thank you, there's no need for more. On the pâté front – and more generally on the addition of other trinkets and baubles – I think this is rich enough as it is. What's more, as I've said, fillet is not the strongest flavoured cut of steak, you don’t need to go drowning out the flavour with a rich pâté – especially not when it's so damn expensive.

Third: You're supposed to sear the meat first - one minute for each side, until crisp and brown on the outside.  I totally forgot to do this but it actually made very little difference.  Take from that what you will.

Anyway, onto the cooking.

1. First, get the meat and the Parma ham out of the fridge and bring them up to room temperature.  The meat will benefit from it when cooking and you will seriously thank me when it comes to using the ham.  Pat the fillet dry and season the meat by rubbing (gently) salt and pepper into it.  Heat the oven to 180ºC.

2. Chop the mushrooms up finely.  I said finely.  Really, really fine. 

You see these?

Think they're good enough?

They're not.  Not nearly. 

These are better. 

Once chopped finely use a big knife like you would on a bundle of herbs and, see-sawing back and forth, get them chopped right down to a sort of grit.  Also, chop the garlic finely as well.  Again, really, really fine. 

3. Heat a big frying pan with a lug or two of olive oil and then fry the garlic, mushrooms and thyme (the leaves only, plucked from the twigs) together over a medium heat.

You need to cook the mushrooms so that they are starting to brown and crisp ever-so-slightly.  There should be no liquid left in the pan – to the extent that the mushrooms produce any, cook it off.  As they start to brown, turn the heat up a fraction so that they're ready as the pan reaches temperature.  Then add the madeira and cook that right down.  I've used madeira because it was supposedly the eponymous Duke's favourite.  I'm not sure why that should influence me, for there (sadly) appears to be not connection between Wellington and the wellington.  Still, it works well.

Once reduced, remove the 'shrooms from the pan and allow them cool right down. 

(NB: Before the next step, this is where you should seal it first in a very hot frying pan - just a minute each side until brown and crisp.  I forgot, as I said earlier.  You can seal it in the same pan, save on washing up, and it's a good idea to let it cool right down before wrapping it up in its pastry and ham parcel.) 

4. Whilst they're cooling you can make a start on the assembly bit.  Start by laying down a piece of cling film about one and a half times the length of your fillet, perhaps even a touch longer.  On that you should lay out 8 of your Parma ham slices (keeping two spare) vertically so that each slice overlaps the last by about one-third to one half.  If your Parma ham is still cold from the fridge all the fat will have congealed and it will tear as you prize it from the little plastic sheets it comes on.  That would be a disaster so pay heed to my earlier warnings.

5. Flour your work surface.

Try to behave sensibly.

Now roll out the pastry to about 3mm thick – the thickness of a pound coin, someone once said.  I can never be faffed to make my own, sorry, but I reckon it makes too little difference to faff with it.  The supermarket stuff is pretty good – I even managed to get it pre-rolled.  Score.

6. Now here's the first properly tricky part.  This is a delicate operation, but it's do-able – it's also the most delicate thing you're going to have to do, so once you're through this you're through the worst of it.  First, place two sheets of cling film along the top third and the bottom third of the Parma ham sheet.  I'm going to call these the 'top sheets'. 

Second, lift the pastry sheet onto the sheet of Parma ham that's sitting pretty on its cling film bed (the "bottom sheet").  Then carefully, sliding one hand under the cling film, turn the pastry sheet back over so that the ham is on top and the bottom sheet is now on top of that, with the top sheets sandwiched between the ham and the pastry.

Third, even more carefully (so that you don't just pull away all of the ham that you've so carefully laid out), peel the bottom sheet back.  You should now have ham perfectly laid out on the pastry, with the top and bottom thirds of each slice of ham separated from the pastry by the top sheets. 

7. Grab the mushrooms and carefully and precisely spread them out along the middle of the ham where the fillet will rest.  Use the fillet as a guide – anything that protrudes from the ends will be wasted, although anything that protrudes along the top of bottom is fine.

8. Place the fillet on top of the mushrooms. Now, the beauty of GrubsterBoy's Ultra Cling Filmy Method™ (patent pending) comes to the fore.  Again being very careful, lift one of the top sheets up so that the Parma ham wraps around the fillet.  Do the same with the other side.  Lift up the ends as well, wrapping the fillet like a Christmas present.  You will almost certainly find that the ham does not fully circumnavigate the fillet, but no worries – use those spare slices to paper over any gaps.  You now should have a little parcel of meat. 

9.  Do the same with the pastry: lift the top, then the bottom, then the sides.  Use some beaten egg to glue any pieces of pastry that will be touching together.

By now you've probably noticed the absolute disaster I have managed to achieve with mine.  The pastry doesn't fit!  That's what comes from buying pre-rolled stuff.  Not to worry though – just trim some off the ends,  roll it out and turn it into a sort of pastry sticking plaster, again using the egg as glue.  This is going to be the bottom, so it's not a problem.

10. Use the butter to properly grease a roasting tin just large enough for the wellington.  Now carefully turn your wellington over and place it into the tin so that the join is on the bottom. 

Now decorate (seriously, it's bad luck not to - see this post). I did a criss-cross pattern (lazy and boring) and then carved out a little stag's head as mine was a venison wellington. I tried to model this on the Gordon Highlander's crest, as that was my step-granddad's regiment, but I think I failed a little. OK, I failed a lot, but it was still cool.  And I reckon that a military crest as decoration is fitting for a dish that, at least today, I am using to celebrate a battle.

11. It now goes into the oven, which should be hot by now.  How long depends on how you like it.  I reckon 35-40 minutes (but you should know your oven better than I do).  This will produce it medium rare.  I remember the unforgettable Clarissa Dickson Wright explaining how this ought to be done: "If you like it pink cook it for [X] minutes.  If you like it well done, make something else".  I tend to agree...

12.  When the timer pops (or whatever) get it out and give it ten minutes resting time.  Then take it to the table and serve in big, thick slices – about steak thickness – being careful to pop it on the plate in one whole slice, mushrooms, ham, pastry meat and all.

Then take it to the table and serve in big, thick slices – about steak thickness – being careful to pop it on the plate in one whole slice, mushrooms, ham, pastry meat and all.

Good accompaniments include spring greens, red cabbage (as here, braised in vinegar, sugar, spices and apple), bitter greens like curly kale or cavolo nero, or roasted root vegetables (again, as here, roasted in olive oil and honey).  Its only weakness as a roast dinner is its lack of gravy, although this could be rectified through the judicious application of a butcher-bought gravy or a port or red wine sauce.  But, and it's a big but, I honestly don’t think it needs it.  On the contrary, I rather feel that this handsome beast does just fine without any kind of a sauce – much as I like my steak, I can only think that a sauce would diminish, rather than enhance, my unadulterated enjoyment. 

 - GrubsterBoy -

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