The stockings are hung by the chimney with care, more or less. The chestnuts have roasted on open fires, and everyone has wished everyone else a merry Christmas.
Time for dinner.
Of all the meals in the year, Christmas dinner is the one you probably most want to do up right. Nice table settings. Festive decor. And most important of all, good food.
Make that great food. The family is on its best behavior, everyone is (one hopes) delighted with his presents. To make the day even more special, you need to cap it off with a meal that people will still be remembering next Christmas.
Every Christmas Eve, I make a grilled standing rib roast. It’s the best food I know how to make. It may be the best food I know how to eat. It may just be the best food, period.
Grilled standing rib roast is a marvel of simplicity; nothing fancy here. It is just the optimal food cooked in the optimal way. It requires only three ingredients: a bone-in roast, salt and pepper. And yet, when combined with the flavor of glowing charcoal, it transcends ordinary meats and becomes culinary perfection.
If you have a gas grill instead of charcoal, that works too — but it won’t be quite the same. Still, when you are talking about a dish as mind-blowingly spectacular as this one, making it just slightly less mind-blowing isn’t going to hurt it too much.
If you make a standing rib roast, you simply have to serve it with Yorkshire pudding. You just have to. Mashed potatoes would be fine, too, especially with a hint of garlic or even horseradish swirled through them. But Yorkshire pudding is the only dish that can truly match the simple brilliance of a grilled standing rib roast.
Yorkshire pudding is almost the same thing as a popover; it is a thin batter of flour, eggs and milk that puffs up golden and rich and delicious in a hot oven. The only thing that distinguishes it from an ordinary popover is the fat in which it is cooked.
Regular popovers use butter or oil. Yorkshire pudding uses the drippings from beef. If you are making a standing rib roast, simply use its drippings to make the Yorkshire pudding. There is no better way to pair two dishes than to actually use one as an ingredient in the other.
I shouldn’t have done this, but I did: I cut a wedge of hot Yorkshire pudding, put hunks of the beef on it and rolled it up before eating it with my fingers. It may not have been in keeping with the elegance of the meal, but it was so incredibly delicious that I threw decorum to the wind and did it again.
You need a vegetable, of course, but for a holiday dinner the vegetable should be extra special, extra-fancy. I chose haricots verts, which are just green beans in their fanciest evening clothes. They are thinner than ordinary green beans, a little sweeter and definitely more French.
I usually just steam my green beans and haricots verts, but these are sautéed in browned butter, giving them a rich, nutty appeal. Garlic is mixed in, of course, but what makes these beans stand out so remarkably is that they are also tossed with a bit of fresh tarragon.
Tarragon goes with green beans — and especially with haricots verts — like mustard goes with hot dogs. It brings a fresh, almost springlike flavor that adds a jolt of happiness to any table.
For a holiday? It’s perfect.
Finally, dessert. I topped this sophisticated dinner with an ultra-sophisticated dessert, two layers of chocolate mousse separated by a layer of crispy meringue. The recipe name calls it a cake, but although it is in the shape of a cake (and is created in a cake pan) there is nothing cakey about it other than its appearance. It doesn’t even have flour.
What it has is butter. Lots and lots of butter. You could spread this dessert on toast, and it would actually taste great. It also has eggs, eight of them, though three are used to make the meringue.
Delicate and crisp, the meringue is the source of much of the dish’s relatively low amount of sweetness. It also is what takes it from being merely a richer-than-ordinary mousse to a refined, luxurious dessert worthy of finishing an impressive, festive meal.
And then, when you’re doing the dishes, have another slice of Yorkshire pudding rolled up with some of the beef. You know you want to.
Go ahead, it’s Christmas.
Yield: 6 servings
3/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup milk
1/2 cup pan drippings from roast prime rib of beef
1. Preheat the oven to 450 degrees.
2. Sift together the flour and salt in a bowl. In another bowl, beat together the eggs and milk until light and foamy. Stir in the dry ingredients just until incorporated.
3. Pour the drippings into a 9-inch pie pan, cast iron skillet or square baking dish. Put the pan in the oven and get the drippings almost smoking hot. Carefully take the pan out of the oven and pour in the batter. Put the pan back in oven and cook until puffed and dry, 15 to 20 minutes.
Per serving: 263 calories; 20 g fat; 9 g saturated fat; 113 mg cholesterol; 6 g protein; 14 g carbohydrate; 2 g sugar; no fiber; 336 mg sodium; 51 mg calcium.
Recipe by Tyler Florence, via Food Network
GRILLED STANDING RIB ROAST
Yield: 6 to 8 servings
1 (4-rib) rib roast, about 6 to 8 pounds
6 tablespoons kosher salt
6 tablespoons freshly cracked black pepper
1. Light a fire on one side of a large kettle grill, using about enough charcoal to fill a large shoe box. If you have a gas grill, turn the gas on medium high on one side. Or preheat an oven to 400 degrees.
2. Dry the roast with paper towels, then rub it all over with the salt and pepper, pressing gently to be sure that it adheres. When the fire has died down and the coals are covered with white ash, place the roast bone-side down on the side of the grill away from the heat, being very careful that none of the meat is directly over the coals or gas (if using an oven, place the meat on a rack in a baking pan). Put the lid on the grill and open the vents about 1/4 of the way.
3. Cook, adding a handful of fresh charcoal every 30 minutes (if using charcoal) until it is done the way you like it: 1 hour and 40 minutes to 2 hours for rare (1 hour and 50 minutes to 2 hours and 10 minutes in the oven). To check for doneness, insert a meat thermometer into the dead center of the roast: 120 degrees is rare, 126 degrees is medium rare, 134 degrees is medium, 150 degrees is medium-well and 160 degrees is well done.
4. Remove meat from grill, cover it loosely with foil and allow to rest 20 minutes or so before carving.
Per serving (based on 8): 590 calories; 35 g fat; 14 g saturated fat; 200 mg cholesterol; 66 g protein; 3 g carbohydrate; no sugar; 1 g fiber; 4,485 mg sodium; 49 mg calcium.
Recipe from “How to Cook Meat,” by Chris Schlesinger and John Willoughby
SAUTEED FRESH GREEN BEANS
Yield: 6 servings
1 1/2 pounds very thin French green beans (haricots verts)
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 rounded teaspoon chopped shallot
1/4 teaspoon minced garlic
Pinch of granulated sugar
1/4 teaspoon chopped fresh tarragon or marjoram
Salt and pepper to taste
1. Prepare a large bowl of ice water.
2. Trim the ends from the beans and wash thoroughly. Bring a 6-quart pot of salted water to a rolling boil. Drop in the beans and cook for 4 minutes. Remove the beans and immediately plunge into the bowl of ice water for 2 to 3 minutes. Drain and thoroughly dry.
3. In a 10-inch sauté pan, melt the butter over medium heat, swirling it to cover the surface of the pan. When the butter begins to brown, turn the heat to high, add the beans immediately and saute for 1 1/2 minutes. Constantly toss or lift the beans with a big spoon to prevent burning.
4. Add the shallot and garlic and saute for about 1 minute, continuing to move the ingredients around the pan. Add the sugar and the tarragon or marjoram, and salt and pepper. Stir briefly, about 10 seconds. Remove from heat. Note: the entire cooking time in the saute pan should not exceed 3 minutes.
Per serving: 69 calories; 4g fat; 2 g saturated fat; 10 mg cholesterol; 3 g protein; 7 g carbohydrate; 3 g sugar; 3 g fiber; 1 mg sodium; 55 mg calcium.
Adapted from “The Inn at Little Washington Cookbook,” by Patrick O’Connell
CHOCOLATE MOUSSE CAKE
Yield: 12 servings
For the meringue
3 egg whites
2 cups powdered sugar, sifted
For the mousse
4 ounces semisweet chocolate, coarsely chopped
5 eggs, separated
2 sticks (1 cup) plus 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder, preferably Dutch process
Note: The meringue should be made a day in advance.
1. For the meringue: Preheat the oven to 150 degrees (see step 4 if your oven does not get that low). Line a baking sheet with parchment.
2. In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a whisk attachment, whisk the egg whites until they form soft peaks. Very slowly, add the powdered sugar and continue whisking until doubled in volume.
3. Place the meringue in a pastry bag fitted with a plain tip. On the baking sheet, working from the center outward, pipe a continuous coil of meringue to a diameter of 7 inches (it helps to measure out the 7 inches in advance). Bake for 10 hours, until crisp and dry. Skip to step 5.
4. If you cannot heat your oven to as low as 150 degrees, preheat it to 250 degrees. Make the meringue as directed. Put it into the oven and immediately lower the temperature to 200 degrees. Bake 1 1/2 hours, then turn off the heat but leave the meringue in the oven overnight.
5. To make the mousse: Line an 8-inch round cake pan with parchment paper.
6. Melt the chocolate in a stainless steel bowl set over a pot of simmering water. Remove from the heat and whisk in the egg yolks one at a time. Set the mixture aside and keep warm.
7. In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, whip the butter and slowly add the cocoa powder until thoroughly incorporated. Add the chocolate and egg yolk mixture and mix well. Set aside.
8. In a clean bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a whisk attachment, whip the egg whites until they form soft peaks (you can also do this by hand). With a rubber spatula, gently fold the egg whites into the chocolate mixture, one-third of the whipped whites at a time.
9. Place the mousse in a pastry bag fitted with a plain tip and pipe the mixture into the cake pan. Fill the pan half full. Lay the meringue disc on top and gently press into place. Pipe the remaining chocolate mixture into the pan, allowing it to fill in around the sides of the meringue. Chill for 2 hours.
10. To serve, run a warm paring knife around the inside rim of the pan to loosen the cake and invert it onto a serving tray. Carefully remove the parchment paper and dust with unsweetened cocoa powder.
Per serving: 314 calories; 23 g fat; 14 g saturated fat; 123 mg cholesterol; 5 g protein; 26 g carbohydrate; 23 g sugar; 1 g fiber; 46 mg sodium; 19 mg calcium.
Adapted from a recipe by Patrick O’Connell in “The Inn at Little Washington Cookbook.” Higher-temperature adaptation by Alex Hitz in House Beautiful.
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