By Lynn Moynahan
My mother was a culinary student at her vocational high school. While she didn’t pursue cooking as a career, she has frequently dabbled in different food and drink adventures. From old classics like creamed chipped beef (shit on a shingle) to cake decorating to beer and wine making, my mother is a risk-taker in the kitchen. She may not make any particular thing again but just trying is enough for her. If she likes it, she may keep it going. It’s how her hobby became trying hobbies. There’s always something new she’s trying to do.
I take after my mother in a few ways and culinary ability is one. I love almost everything to do with food. I love the familiarity of my family’s traditional foods like Tourèire pie, kapusta, pierogi, creamed salmon. I love trying new foods, watching people make food, learning new techniques in cooking, learning new recipes. Approximately, 65% of my YouTube recommendations and subscriptions are food-based. I love food in general!
My paternal grandmother, my Mémère, isn’t much of a cook. She can cook, and what she does make is good. However, she doesn’t like to cook. She doesn’t like to eat, really. She enjoys food but think it’s a waste of time to have to eat. Her husband, four sons, and all her grand- and great-grandchildren beg to differ. We love food! My maternal grandmother, Grammie, I think only liked cooking. She came from a different generation than my other grandmother did (there’s a twenty-year age gap). She was a housewife that made things from scratch or whatever new-fangled thing was in the store (it was a sin to not have Bisquick in your fridge at all times). She told me that in the 50s, she once worked for a very wealthy woman who wanted her cookies unreasonably small, “I made them the size of a quarter teaspoon and she said they were still too big.” she said.
She also made one of my all-time favorite foods: shit on a shingle. Thinly-sliced dried circles of beef, quartered, in a cream sauce over toast or mashed potatoes. I’ve had a few versions of this elsewhere, including Stauffer’s frozen variety and some buffets but none has come close to the way my grandmother made it. Her special ingredient isn’t secret and is in many shit-on-a-shingle recipes that can be found online: worcestershire sauce. Most commercial versions omit this ingredient, probably for cost. It adds a savory flavor that, to me, is required in this dish.
This year, I’ve decided to try my hand at a different culinary challenge each month. A popular one on YouTube is Gordon Ramsay’s beef wellington, a puff pastry enveloping a seared beef tenderloin covered in a duxelles (a mushroom and shallot mixture) and wrapped with prosciutto. There are thousands of videos of people trying their hand at the original or improving on Ramsay’s classic recipe and while I watched a handful of these, I stuck with the original recipe. Ramsay has been my favorite celebrity chef, not only for his talent and knowledge but his cursing at inept chefs makes my heart happy.
Beef tenderloin is one of the more expensive cuts of beef. In my area, a local bulk butcher was $9.99/lb but you had to buy it whole, setting you back about $50 for a package. Big Y ranged from $17.99-$29.99 a pound. BJs Wholesale was $13.49 a pound and will give you the cut you need, so I went there. I called the day before and ordered a 2-pound tenderloin. When I got there, the butcher said the weight was a “little over.” I don’t fret over a little more but the actual weight was 2.75 pounds, making it $37. I asked him to reduce it down, as I didn’t need that much and it was thirty percent more than I needed. So he sliced an end off the meat instead of trimming the flaps that were attached to the side. I can’t bear to be a pain in the ass so I sucked it up and went home.
I started as soon as I got home, around 3:00 pm. My boyfriend Marc was sharpening my knives for me so they’d be perfect for the slicing I was going to do. I had been looking forward to this for a few weeks, all the while worrying I was going to screw it up. It’s an expensive piece of meat and a long 3-hour process with several chilling stages.
When I opened the tenderloin, there was a large chunk of hard fat on the flat underside. I’m not great with my knife skills but Marc had worked at Big Y’s butcher shop some years back and I trusted he could figure it out. There was a pit in the meat where the fat was so I put some of the English mustard in it and he slapped a small piece of the side flap in it and I didn’t have to worry about it. I liberally salted and peppered the beef and seared all the sides and edges and brushed English mustard all over it. This had to chill for 30 minutes. This prevents overcooking once everything is constructed and ready to go in the oven. My cling wrap is cheap and wasn’t cooperating so I had to have Marc help pull it out while I wrapped it. Pro tip: get the widest cling wrap you can if you’re going to try wrapping it and rolling it like Ramsay does. I didn’t do that.
While the duxelles chilled, I took out the puff pastry to roll it out a bit to fit around the whole tenderloin. Puff pastry itself if a time-consuming culinary challenge that I didn’t have the spoons to attempt with an already-challenging dish. The recipe calls for the puff pastry to be rolled out and -- surprise-- chilled. It needs to be brown properly when baking. I stuck it on a baking sheet and tossed it in my fridge. that came out of the mushrooms was astounding and infinite. I could have cooked out a bit more water, I’m sure, but I’m impatient. The duxelles also needs to properly cool before being put on.
While the duxelles chilled, I took out the puff pastry to roll it out a bit to fit around the whole tenderloin. Puff pastry itself if a time-consuming culinary challenge that I didn’t have the spoons to attempt with an already-challenging dish. The recipe calls for the puff pastry to be rolled out and -- surprise-- chilled. It needs to be brown properly when baking. I stuck it on a baking sheet and tossed it in my fridge.
While the rest of this was resting and chilling, I cleaned up. This is an area of cooking that many people are divided on. Some want to clean up when it’s done and they tend to be messy cooks. I am not one of those people. I don’t want to have an entire kitchen to clean once I’m done eating my meal. That is time to wind down and enjoy the fruits of my labor, even if it’s just a frozen pizza baked in the oven.
Once it’s cleaned, I carefully layered the prosciutto onto another piece of cling wrap. This was a true test of patience with the thin slices of meat and finicky plastic wrap. Then, the duxelles was cooled down and I spread it onto the prosciutto layers. Wrapping the chilled beef in it was a delicate process to keep the prosciutto from breaking and sticking to the plastic wrap and I had to have Marc help again. Then, we left it to chill for 30 minutes.
The puff pastry wasn’t too difficult to work with. It wrapped around the beef smoothly and with minimal excess. I applied the egg wash and made slashes on the top for a slight decoration. I looked at it for a minute and gave it a pep talk.
“Don’t over cook, don’t burn your pastry, don’t leak too much. Medium rare, please.”
Marc ventured upstairs from his woodworking cave and I told him I was never going to make it again. “It’s too expensive, too much work, too stressful, and I don’t even know how it’s going to turn out. It’s taking forever with all the chilling it has to do.”
After about 40 minutes, I checked the temperature with an instant read thermometer, which read 125 degrees fahrenheit. I gave it another ten minutes and it reached 138 degrees, which was enough for me, since there would be a bit of carryover heat while it rested. It leaked more than I expected but it had a very concentrated and salty mushroom taste. Make sure to cook your duxelles down more than I did!
Then, it was time to cut. I don’t have a long bread knife but I did have a short serrated knife, so it wasn’t as beautiful. I wish I could have more accurately captured the medium cooked temperature that it came out as. My camera much prefers natural light when photographing colors accurately but this was 6:15 pm in January, so you work with what you’ve got.
I made a gravy with some of the beef trimmings, broth, flour, and seasonings. It worked out well and tasted great with the store-bought mashed sweet potato I bought. There was no way I was preparing a side-dish, too.
Marc loved it! We were able to have leftovers for the next day, though they were far from tasting like the fresh version. I am picky with leftovers as it is, but it held up well enough that I enjoyed it.
I don’t think Gordon Ramsey would be impressed, but I think he’d know that I am an amateur and would commend me for my efforts. Overall, if you have some spare cash to blow, have some confidence and skills in the kitchen, and want to try your hand at Beef Wellington, give it a shot! I would give this recipe a try again, despite declaring that I wouldn’t earlier. If you want to buy all the ingredients and do the cleanup, I’ll even make it for you!
Recipe source: Gordon Ramsay recipe