Valentine’s Day, Party of Three

This year was our first Valentine’s Day as parents which, contrary to what most would believe, was actually quite liberating.  Instead of trying to nail down reservations for dinner at one of the few establishments that don’t mandate the selection of a “Valentine’s Day Menu”, we had made absolutely no plans up until Friday night, two days before the actual day.  I knew that we were going to stay home and that I was going to cook a nice meal – I just hadn’t really given thought to what I was going to make.  For inspiration, I had to reach back into my memory, and ended up completing a circle that had started quite a long time ago.

Almost sixteen years ago, I took my wife (who, at that moment, went by the title of ‘long distance girlfriend’) to New York City for the first time.  I remember that it was still cold, so it may have been this time of year, and it may, in fact, have been a Valentine’s Day trip.

Wanting very badly to make a good impression, I sought out a place for dinner that was, by reputation, romantic, and after some degree of research, decided on One If By Land, Two If By Sea in Greenwich Village.  After breezing right past it, we fumbled around looking for the door, until finally the piano player motioned at us through the bay window and pointed at the entrance.

The setting, an 18th century carriage house, was warm and inviting, with darkly wooded dining rooms lit by the soft glow of vintage chandeliers.  It was the perfect date restaurant, made even more so by the fact that we were seated at a table that overlooked the garden outside, coated white by a layer of freshly fallen snow.  We both ordered the Beef Wellington, a decadent concoction of medium-rare filet mignon, foie gras, and mushrooms, served wrapped in a golden puff pastry crust.  At that time, One If By Land had been known as one of the few dining establishments that served Wellington as an individually wrapped serving of filet.  The meal was excellent from beginning to end, with course after course of outstanding food, attentive service, and all of the pomp and circumstance of an evening that was slightly out of a college student’s budget range.  But it was worth every cent.

At some point after that experience, after we had gotten married, I had tried my hand at making my own Beef Wellington.  The fact that I don’t really remember how it turned out, though, means that it must not have been very well executed.  But, years later, having accrued a bit more kitchen wisdom and experience, I decided, quite on a whim, that I’d try revisiting the recipe, this time as a Valentine’s Day dinner at home.

A classic dilemma facing every cook who attempts a Beef Wellington is timing.  The pastry crust must be baked to a perfect crispy brown, yet the beef must not be allowed to cook much further than medium-rare.  If I remember correctly, this was my downfall on my first attempt – while the pastry had turned out perfectly, cutting into the serving yielded gray, overcooked filet.

To prepare, I reviewed quite a few recipes for Beef Wellington.  Some of them only required you to pan-sear the filet mignon, to develop a crust on all sides, before wrapping it in pastry and popping it into the oven.  Others, though, had you precooking the filet mignon to very nearly serving temperature, so that you would end up wrapping a near-presentation worthy log of beef in pastry, with only the required amount of time in the oven to ensure that the pastry was fully baked.  I ended up taking methods and ingredients from one recipe and melding them with techniques from another.  For the preparation of the beef, I decided to go with the latter method, and roasted the tied bundle until an internal probe thermometer had registered the meat as rare, around 125 degrees, then cooled it down to room temperature with a quick stint out on the deck, covered by foil.  This is the only legitimate use for a deck in winter – as a large walk-out cooler.

Having no foie gras on hand, I instead crafted a mushroom duxelle, which was as simple as spinning some mushrooms, shallots, and thyme in a food processor, then sauteing the mixture in olive oil until most of the moisture has cooked out of it.  It takes about ten minutes, after which you set the duxelle mixture into a fine sieve to allow even more liquid to escape, and to let it cool to room temperature.

Using store-bought puff pastry, I laid a frozen sheet on a plastic mat that we use for rolling and measuring pie dough and waited for it to thaw.  Once I could easily unfold it without risk of breaking it, I rolled it to about half of its original thickness.  Assembly was fun – wielding a rubber spatula, I smeared a small bed of duxelle onto the pastry, arranged the filet mignon on top, topped it with Dijon mustard and more duxelle, then carefully enclosed the puff pastry around it, sealing the seams with beaten egg.  Carefully sliding the probe thermometer into the center of the Wellington, I popped it into the oven, set my timer, and waited.

Since I had already precooked the beef, there was no guesswork involved as to when the Wellington was ready.  I only had to wait until the internal temperature of the meat had risen to my desired measure of doneness, about 130 degrees or so for medium-rare, and by that time the crust had puffed and turned golden brown.  Still, even with all of these safeguards, I was nervous slicing into the finished product.

I took my sharpest blade and held the golden package with one hand as I took one sure swipe down the center of the Wellington.  Seeing the rosy red interior of the beef, I knew that I had found my new Beef Wellington recipe.  I sliced the Wellington into thick slices, about an inch, letting them fall forward onto a spatula like a Stonehenge of culinary goodness.  A quick pan sauce of capers, cream, mustard, and brandy was just enough to send the dish into overdrive.

So that night, with the baby napping on the couch beside us and with a bottle of red wine to celebrate the occasion, my wife and I celebrated our first Valentine’s Day as a threesome.  And you know what?  I think I enjoyed it even more than an evening in New York City.

(Note: I need time to write up this recipe, since it’s a hybrid of a bunch of different sources, but as soon as I do, I will update this post.  Promise.)