Dick Francis mystery novels have always fascinated me with their complexity of characters, intriguing plots and elegant writing. A few weeks ago I decided to reread all his books instead of tackling the current bestsellers, most of which leave me less than breathless. I wanted earthbound flavor and substance rooted in a reality this child of the ’50s could understand. I was immersed in the sumptuous world of one character’s visit to his ex-father-in-law’s stately Georgian home when their dinner bell rang, the candles reflecting on the magnificent silverware. My memory booked back to the dining room of my family’s Williamsburg Colonial. In both scenes, in front of the head of the household, waiting to be carved in inch-thick slices, stood a glossy, exquisitely, flawlessly, browned beef Wellington.
This dish requires patience and perfect timing to present a medium-rare to rare tenderloin wrapped in golden pastry, and you may have to shop around for the foie gras. If you make your own liver pate, use duck or chicken livers. If you decide not to make this tricky dish yourself (I don’t blame you), a few daring restaurateurs on Long Island feature it on their menus: Palmer’s American Grill, Farmingdale 516.420.0609; H2O Seafood & Sushi, Smithtown 631.361.6464; Prime Restaurant, Huntington 631.385.1515; Bistro 25, Sayville 631.589-7775. Call first to be sure it’s available.
Many celebrity chefs have videos with step-by-step guides. There are two critical steps. Tie the tenderloin before roasting, so it doesn’t spread; remove the ties once the roast is cold. After it’s roasted, chill the beef completely. This prevents the pastry—applied in the second step—from getting flabby. What you want is for the pastry to bake and for the interior of the meat to be hot, but not cook any further. An instant meat thermometer pays for itself here.
The simplest recipe I’ve found is James Beard’s. It’s unique because he flames the roast with Cognac before wrapping it. I would use the Cognac and juices from the meat to create a light sauce (on the side) for the finished Wellington.
One sheet of puff pastry, rolled flat; it should be big enough to envelop the roast with with overlap. Use pastry trimming to cut leaves for decoration.
A tenderloin of beef: about 5 pounds, trimmed and tied (your butcher can do this).
Butter, salt, freshly ground pepper
1/3 cup Cognac
2 cups duxelles
Foie gras or liver mousse or pate
1 egg, separated: lightly beat the yolk with 1/4-cup heavy cream; reserve the white.
Keep the dough chilled while preparing the beef.
For the duxelles: Finely chop 2 shallots or a small onion and 1 pound. mushrooms. Sweat the onions and mushrooms in a small pan with 1/2 cup butter until the mushrooms are dry and the mixture is very dark. Chill about an hour, until cold. You can do this while the roast is cooking.
Pre-heat the oven to 450 degrees.
Rub the tenderloin all over with butter and pepper. Place it on a rack in the center of the oven and roast to 120 degrees, very, very rare. Remove from the oven and flame with the Cognac. Salt to taste. Let cool completely. (Preferably, refrigerate until it is chilled.) Dispose of the string ties.
Reset the oven temp to 425 degrees.
Spread the cold roast with the foie gras, mousse or pate.
Spread the pastry with the duxelles.
Place the fillet, face down, centered on the pastry. Bring the pastry ends and sides up around the meat, moisten with the reserved egg white, and seal. Roll onto a sheet of parchment paper. Transfer to a baking sheet or shallow pan. Stick leaves on top with egg white for decoration. Paint the pastry with the egg yolk and cream mixture.
Bake in the preheated 425 degree oven for 10 minutes. Reduce the heat to 375 degrees and bake another 20 minutes or so, until the crust is golden brown. Remove from the oven, let it rest 15 to 20 minutes. Slide the Wellington onto a serving platter. With a serrated knife carve into 3/4- to 1-inch slices. A good Burgundy stands up to this rich dish nicely (and is very nice for sipping during prep!)