One in a collection of essays celebrating the cooking of our mothers.
My mother cooked, but she was no cook.
Taxed with rustling up meals for our six-member family and aware that my father would eat only a handful of foods, she didn’t seem to take much pride in what came to the table. “I see your mother cooks in the style of the ancient Greeks!” a wise-guy friend of my brother’s said at dinner one night. “Burnt offerings!” It was funny, because it was true.
And yet out of her kitchen came one dish so magnificent that it was life-changing. For me, at least.
It was the 1960s. Gourmet had recently published the second volume of its famously massive cookbook. The go-to dinner party dish, the height of elegance, the beacon of sophistication, was beef Wellington, a Continental classic. And for some reason, my mother decided she had to make it. Not for a dinner party, but for us.
Scoring the ingredients from the grocery stores around the small village of Aurora, Ohio, would have been no small feat. There was no packaged pâté; she had to make it. The pastry crust, of course, was homemade. The beef was special-ordered. (I’m not sure how she handled the recipe’s veal stock and truffles. She probably improvised.) And she did it on a tight budget, saving up her grocery money to first buy that Gourmet cookbook — a luxury item, for sure — and then the ingredients.
On the big day, she rolled out her pastry dough and spread it with her pâté. She wrapped the dough around a hunk of roasted beef filet. She baked it. She made the accompanying sauce.
Dinner came to the table, and it was a triumph. The pastry crust was beautiful, the fragrance was heady, and those flavors: The pâté was mysterious and earthy and delicious, the filet like no meat I’d ever tasted.
There were leftovers the next night, and after that, dinner returned to normal. But food had caught my attention. I started baking; I did some cooking and candymaking. I bought cookbooks of my own. I begged my mother to make beef Wellington again. She never did, but in later life, after she no longer had to feed four children, her cooking chops did improve.
I can visualize that Wellington as if it was yesterday, but I don’t remember whether we oohed and aahed when it was set before us. I don’t remember whether we showered Mom with the praise she deserved. I don’t remember whether we even thanked her. I fervently hope we did. It was her one bold venture into Continental cuisine — and it sure beat ancient Greece.
More Mother’s Day essays:
12 to 16 servings
Gourmet published at least two updates of the 1957 beef Wellington recipe Jane Touzalin’s mother, Aletta, made for her family. This one, from the 2006 “Gourmet Cookbook,” modernizes the classic by replacing the usual pâté de foie gras and mushroom duxelles with a lighter, bright-tasting walnut-and-cilantro filling. The pastry crust gets extra moisture and flavor from sour cream.
It’s important that the tenderloin be of uniform shape. If you can’t find a suitable large piece of meat, two smaller ones will work; in that case, skip the step of cutting the meat crosswise before searing.
MAKE AHEAD: The cilantro-walnut filling can be refrigerated up to 2 days in advance. The pastry dough needs to chill for at least 2 hours and up to a day in advance. The assembled beef Wellington needs to chill for at least 1 hour and up to 6 hours before baking. The baked Wellington needs to rest for 25 minutes before carving.
Adapted from “The Gourmet Cookbook,” edited by Ruth Reichl (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2006).
For the filling
1 1/2 teaspoons salt, plus more for the cooking water
10 ounces fresh baby spinach
3 cups packed cilantro leaves and tender stems (from 2 large bunches; about 21/4 ounces)
2 cups packed flat-leaf parsley leaves and tender stems (from 1 large bunch; about 11/2 ounces)
About 7 ounces (2 cups walnut pieces (about 7 ounces), toasted (see NOTE)
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 cup fresh finely ground plain bread crumbs
1/4 cup honey
2 large egg whites
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
For the pastry
3 1/4 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for the work surface
20 tablespoons (2 1/2 sticks) chilled unsalted butter
1 teaspoon salt
1 1/4 cups very cold sour cream
4 to 6 tablespoons ice water
For the beef and assembly
One 4 1/2-to 5-pound center cut beef tenderloin roast (about 16 inches long and 3 inches in diameter), trimmed, tied with string if necessary
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 large egg
1 tablespoon water
Flour, for the work surface
For the filling: Have a large bowl of ice water at hand.
Bring a large pot of water to a boil over medium-high heat. Add a generous amount of salt, then the spinach; cook for 30 seconds; add the cilantro and parsley and cook for 10 seconds. Pour into a colander to drain, then quickly transfer to the bowl of ice water to stop the cooking. Drain in a colander, then remove the mixture in small handfuls, squeezing to eliminate as much water as possible.
Pulse the walnuts in a food processor just until finely ground. Add the spinach mixture along with the garlic, bread crumbs, honey, egg whites, the 11/2 teaspoons of salt, the ground cumin and coriander and the pepper; pulse just until smooth, with the consistency of a thick pesto. The filling can be made up to 2 days in advance, covered and refrigerated.
For the pastry: Lightly flour a work surface.
Combine the 3 1/4 cups of flour, the butter and salt in a bowl and use your fingertips or a pastry blender (or use a food processor) to blend until the mixture resembles coarse meal, with some pea-size lumps. Add the sour cream and stir with a fork (or pulse in the processor) just until incorporated. Drizzle evenly with 4 tablespoons of the ice water and gently stir (or pulse) until incorporated. Squeeze a small handful of dough; if it doesn’t hold together, add more ice water 1 tablespoon at a time, stirring (or pulsing) just until incorporated.
Turn the mixture out onto the floured work surface and divide it into 4 equal portions. Use the heel of your hand to smear each portion once or twice in a forward motion to help distribute the fat. Gather the portions of dough together and form them into a single 4-by-5-inch rectangle. Wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate until firm, for at least 2 hours and up to 1 day.
For the beef and assembly: Pat the tenderloin dry. Cut it in half crosswise and sprinkle it all over with the salt and pepper.
Heat the oil in a large, heavy skillet over medium-high heat until nearly smoking. Working with one piece at a time as needed, add the beef and sear, turning it with tongs, until browned on all sides, about 5 minutes total. Transfer to a platter. Remove any string.
Lightly whisk the egg and water together to form an egg wash.
Lightly flour a work surface and roll out the dough to a 15-by-19-inch rectangle; it should be slightly less than 1/4-inch thick. If you plan to decorate the pastry crust, cut a 1-inch strip of dough from a short end and refrigerate it. Place the dough rectangle lengthwise on a large baking sheet, letting the excess hang over the ends. Spread a generous 1/4 of the filling down the middle of the dough, forming a 3-by-16-inch strip. Lightly pat the beef pieces dry, arrange them end to end on the filling, and spread them with the remaining filling mixture to cover completely. Brush the border of the dough with the egg wash, then fold up the long sides of the dough to enclose the beef tightly and completely, reserving any excess, and press the seam to seal. Fold up the short ends and seal the edges, cutting off any excess and reserving it. Refrigerate any reserved dough pieces.
Line a large baking sheet (preferably rimmed) with parchment paper and invert it over the beef. Hold both baking sheets together and invert the beef so the pastry is now seam side down. Brush the dough evenly with the egg wash. Cut out decorative shapes from the reserved, chilled pastry dough, if desired, and arrange them on the dough, pressing gently to adhere. Brush the decorations with the egg wash. Use the tip of a small paring knife or the point of a skewer to make small steam holes or vents every 3 inches across the top of the pastry. Loosely cover the assembled Wellington and refrigerate for at least 1 hour and up to 6 hours.
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Remove the Wellington from the refrigerator and bake (middle rack) for 45 to 55 minutes, rotating the sheet front to back after about 25 minutes, until the pastry is golden brown and an instant-read thermometer inserted into the center of the meat registers 115 degrees. Transfer the baking sheet to a cooling rack and let the beef Wellington rest for 25 minutes before slicing. (It will continue to cook, reaching 125 to 130 degrees for medium-rare.)
NOTE: To toast the walnuts, spread in a single layer on a baking sheet and bake in a preheated 350-degree oven, stirring once or twice, for about 8 to 12 minutes or until they darken and smell toasty. Check frequently; nuts can burn quickly.
Nutrition | Per serving (based on 16): 580 calories, 35 g protein, 32 g carbohydrates, 36 g fat, 15 g saturated fat, 130 mg cholesterol, 660 mg sodium, 2 g dietary fiber, 6 g sugar
Recipe tested by Jane Touzalin; e-mail questions to firstname.lastname@example.org