Saturday, December 28, 2013

The Christmas Fillet Loin Lives Happily Ever After

Wow. I need some fiber, STAT. I feel like I've been at a Roman feast for a week. In the grand tradition of my family, Christmas dinner was divine (largely because we didn't have company--when we have scads of people, the meal is never perfect).

I had a solid twenty-four hours of utter panic before Christmas Day. We had talked my father into an Italian Christmas dinner for one whole day before he changed his mind (just long enough for my sister and I to make a meal plan and collect recipes. I even got a super-secret recipe for the most divine tiramisu EVER). Anyway, we re-planned for a traditional Christmas dinner. My father went out and purchased a beautiful beef fillet loin that cost more on its own than all the ingredients for entire dinner parties I've thrown. And it was up to me to cook it without ruining it. Picture me, hair standing on end, frantically paging through cookbooks and magazines, trying to decide what to do.

Thanks to the gods, I found salvation in a magazine I'd picked up the day before I came to my parents' house. Years ago, when I was a poor(er) college undergrad, I had taken to getting my father a big bag of cheap books as a Christmas gift. I still go, every year, to Half Price Books, and get him a bag full of $1-2 paperback novels because it's a holiday tradition by now. This year, I included my mother in the fun, and I picked up a few back issues of Cook's Illustrated because it's my favorite cooking magazine. Lo and behold, one of the issues had an entire spread on how to perfectly cook a fillet loin!!!
Cook's Illustrated, March/April 2009, Number 97, pages 6-7. Note the ethereal sunlight streaming in over it, like the true Christmas miracle it was. ; )
According to Charles Kelsey, the author of the article who cooked over 25 fillet loins (about $1200 worth) to figure out the most successful method, the best way to get a good crust on a fillet without getting that unattractive gray ring around the edges when it's cut into is to cook it at a low heat (300 degrees) for 40-50 minutes (or until your meat thermometer reads 125 degrees for medium rare or 135 degrees for medium) and then to take the loin from the oven and sear in a pan of very hot oil to get a good sear. He explains that it takes too long to heat cold, raw meat to the searing point, which results in overcooking the external layer of meat. However, searing a loin already hot from the oven takes much less time and prevents this overcooking. The man is a genius, and he saved my a#@ this year.

I wanted to try the garlic horseradish crust I mentioned several posts ago, however. So, I took about 30 cloves of garlic. (BTW, did you know that you can get a 1/3 lb bag of already peeled garlic at Sam's for about $5? This time of year, or when you have a very garlic-y project to undertake, I would highly recommend this beautiful bag o' easy garlic.) I tossed my garlic in a generous amount of olive oil, put it in a roasting pan with a tight foil cover, and roasted it at 350 degrees for about half an hour until it was soft. When it cooled, I combined the garlic, oil, salt, pepper, and a small jar of creamy horse radish into a small food processor and made a paste. Smear!
I had to cut my loin, as it was too long for any of the baking dishes I had. I cut one plump end off so that I would have two pieces, each one of consistent thickness throughout. I trimmed as much fat and silver skin off as possible, liberally salted and peppered both pieces, smeared them with my paste, and returned them the the fridge to hang out for about four hours before cooking.

Obviously, I couldn't sear this in a hot pan when it came out of the oven. When it was registering 125 degrees in the meat thermometer, I jacked up the broiler to about 475 degrees and waited for the paste to crust. A note here: DON'T LEAVE YOUR POST WHILE THE BROILER IS ON, or your lovely piece of meat may incinerate. Do NOT go to the bathroom, go smoke a cigarette, or go in search of something to fill up your red solo cup. I turned on the oven light and sat on the floor in front of the oven, hot pads in hand.
Success! I think I could have let it gone longer under the broiler to get a crunchier crust, but sheer panic won out in the end. It was like butter. With horseradish and garlic. Thanks, Mr. Kelsey.

I also made another, life-changing discovery: cooking turkey at about 300 degrees is the way to go. At Thanksgiving, we had a 25 lb turkey that was okay but not great, even with our tried-and-true Rosemary Orange recipe. Generally, we cook a turkey at about 375 degrees until the skin browns, cover it with foil, and then cook it at 325-ish until it's done. However, due to lack of oven space, the turkey, once it was browned, had to hang out in the 300 degree oven with the fillet. We just did a breast, and it was AH-MAZING. The moral of the story is thus: Don't cook a huge turkey. Bigger is not better. By the time the middle is cooked, the top of the breast is overdone. Cook a couple of smaller turkeys or breasts. And, after the initial browning, cook it at a lower heat.
And yes, that is my red solo cup in the background.

My mother did her usual fantastic job at the Asparagus Casserole. My sister, the potato queen, made both mashed and scalloped potatoes that melted in the mouth. I made the Black Friday dressing and a Steamed Cranberry pudding.

How was your holiday? What did you make? What did you eat? Is there photographic evidence?