Friday December 21, 2012

You never know where inspiration will come from.

As with almost everyone I talk to this time of year, we’ve got a lot going on. We’re smack-dab in the midst of holiday hustling -- checking lists twice, drinking our share of egg nog, baking lots of cookies and alternating between naughty and nice. There are gingerbread houses and trains to be decorated, solstice hay rides to take, lots of wrapping to be done and ribbons to deck on something that needs bedecking. And then there’s been the regular stuff -- lunches to be made, homework to be done, dishwasher to be emptied, dog to be fed, groceries to be bought. It’s all wonderful and in its fullness makes for a joyous holiday season, but I’ve been feeling a bit short on planning and execution time, for things like, well, menus and meals.

We are looking forward to spending a day with my family, opening gifts and catching up on one another’s lives after too much time having passed. This is a day that we want to be special, full of fun and traditions. Our daughters and nieces don’t get to spend the kind of time together that my brother and I got to spend with our cousins simply based on how far apart we live, so infusing time we do get to spend with memorable things is important to us. We want to make the most of this one day, so while I want to make sure that we have a lovely and memorable meal at our house, I don’t want to spend very much time cooking it while they are here. It’s a bit of a conundrum that has been circling around in my brain for a couple weeks, yet I haven’t made the time to sit down and solve.

Then, through the oddest chain of recipe events, I found the solution. We split a share of Walker Farm’s winter CSA with our neighbors. On Saturday I went over to their house to pick up our half of the produce and figured I’d ask what they’ve been doing with all the sweet potatoes that we have been getting. Right away they had an answer -- they had found a recipe for sweet potato enchiladas in a recent issue of Vegetarian Times, a magazine that I was unfamiliar with. They loaned it to me and I borrowed it, intrigued.

At home I took a few moments to look through the magazine. That enchilada recipe did look good -- have to put that on the menu! But there was also an article on homemade "bake-and-slice" cookies, which is the kind of solution I am always looking for. One of the recipes was for a cookie dough made with Nutella, that chocolate and hazelnut spread that is so decadent on toast in the morning. Unfortunately (or fortunately) our family just isn’t into chocolate so early in the day, so I happened to have extra Nutella on hand. Before I even finished paging through the magazine, I whipped up the cookie dough and left it chilling in the fridge, ready to be made in to cookies shortly.

Later, I took another look at the Vegetarian Times. Two great recipes all in just a few pages! I wondered what else might be found. And there, in a tribute to the staff’s favorite traditional holiday meals, I found a beautiful picture of a vegetarian Wellington. It was fresh looking and colorful, and I could almost taste the goat cheese and vegetables surrounded by that puff pastry. Reading further, I saw that the woman who had shared it had a family tradition of having Beef Wellington, tenderloin of beef covered with pate or mushrooms and encased in pastry. Thinking back, I recalled a Christmas or two where we had eaten Beef Wellington ourselves and how decadent that had been. And, if I remembered correctly, it was something that I had prepared ahead of time, popped into the oven and had not had to fuss over on Christmas day.

I checked recipes and cooking times. I thought about sides. Roasted potatoes, maple carrots and a green salad? I checked with my brother and my mom. It seems like the perfect solution to everyone. And while there is a part of me that seriously considered serving the lovely vegetarian version that had inspired this menu, the traditionalist in me won out. I am including both recipes here in the hopes that you will find a version to please your palate, table and time schedule.

Vegetables Wellington Redux
(from Vegetarian Times)

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 pound asparagus, trimmed and cut into 1 and one-half inch pieces

2 red bell peppers, cut into quarter- to half-inch strips

1 medium onion, thinly sliced

1 package baby spinach (5 oz)

One-quarter cup pesto

1 egg

1 package puff pastry, thawed

10 oz soft goat cheese

2 cups tomato sauce, warmed

Heat oil in skillet over medium-high heat. Saute asparagus, peppers and onion until beginning to soften, 5-10 minutes. Add spinach and cook until wilted, about 4 minutes. Stir in pesto and allow to cool.

Whisk egg in a small bowl and set aside. Cut a 15x10 inch sheet of parchment paper. Place one sheet of pastry over paper and then lift both, placing into a 9-inch loaf pan with the parchment side down. Carefully press pastry into contours of the pan, letting excess paper and pastry hang over the sides. From the second sheet of pastry, cut squares to fit into the short sides of the pan and press them into pan as well. Prick bottom of pastry with a fork.

Spread goat cheese over bottom of pastry. Top with vegetable mixture and fold excess hanging pastry over the top of vegetables and brush edges with egg.

Cut a 9.5x5.5 inch piece of pastry from remaining sheet. Lay over top of the Wellington and press edges together. Refrigerate for 30 minutes, along with remaining pastry and egg.

Preheat oven to 425 degrees, placing rack on second to lowest level. Brush top of Wellington with egg and vent by cut 2 or 3 holes. Decorate top with scraps of pastry, brushing with egg (leaves might be nice, or a criss-cross pattern).

Bake Wellington for 15 minutes, then reduce heat to 350 degrees and bake 45 minutes more. Cool 15 minutes before lifting Wellington from pan using the parchment. Transfer to serving plate, removing parchment. Slice and serve with tomato sauce.

Beef Wellington is the first "fancy" entrée that I ever cooked when I was about 14. Because of its very classic flavor combinations, it is almost universally enjoyed. I’ve left out the liver pate that is often used as a nod to the kids who will be around our table and to cut-down on the richness of the dish.

Beef Wellington
(serves 6 to 8)

1 to 1.5 pounds button mushrooms, chopped finely

2 shallots, chopped finely

2 cloves garlic, chopped finely

2 sprigs fresh thyme (leaves only) or one-half teaspoon dried thyme

2 tablespoons butter

2 tablespoons olive oil

Salt and pepper to taste

3 pound filet mignon (beef tenderloin)

2 tablespoons Dijon mustard

1 17.5oz package puff pastry, thawed

1 egg, beaten

Sauté the mushrooms, shallots, garlic and thyme in the butter and olive oil over medium heat until most of the liquid has evaporated, about 10 minutes. Set aside.

Brown tenderloin, including the ends, either in oil in a hot skillet or rubbed with butter and roasted in a hot oven (425 degrees) for 10-15 minutes. Allow to cool completely, reserving all pan juices.

On a lightly-floured surface, roll out one sheet of pastry to one-quarter inch thick (depending upon size, you may need to roll out both and press seams together). Place cooled beef in the center and spread with a thin layer of mustard. Evenly distribute mushroom mixture over the top. Fold pastry up around the beef, trimming and sealing carefully, making sure that none of the seams are too thick. Carefully transfer Wellington to a baking dish, seam side down. Decorate top with bits of extra pastry, then brush lightly with egg. Vent top of Wellington in 2 or 3 places to allow steam to escape. Bake in a preheated 425 degree oven for 40-45 minutes or until beef reads 125 degrees on an instant-read thermometer. Remove from oven and allow to rest 10 minutes before serving.

For a quick and easy sauce, place reserved pan juices, 1 cup of beef stock and one-quarter cup red wine in a saucepan. Bring to a boil and allow to reduce slightly. Strain, if desired, and serve with slices of Wellington.

If your day’s schedule requires you to prepare this ahead of time like my schedule does, refrigerate after the Wellington is completely assembled, covering lightly with plastic wrap. You will almost certainly find that you need to add a few more minutes to the baking time to accommodate for the cooler temperature of the meat. Use your thermometer and turn down the oven if necessary, to avoid scorching the pastry.

So, from an overabundance of sweet potatoes and a neighborly suggestion, following a convoluted path that involved recipes for enchiladas, cookies, and a fabulous vegetarian Wellington, we arrive at the perfect entrée for our family Christmas dinner. No last-minute panic attacks, a lovely presentation and very minimal cooking while we are enjoying our time together, this is a gift to our entire family. Thankful for such serendipity among all our other blessings, I wish you all a very Merry Christmas!

Julie Potter is a wife, mother of two, avid gardener and passionate cook who believes good food doesn’t have to be complicated. Share your thoughts with her at jpottercooks@gmail.com.