Tuesday 8 November 2016

No more beef Wellington!

A naked Wellington - a fiendishly expensive, centre cut, Scottish beef fillet
Wellingtons make no sense. There, I've said it. For what is essentially a posh pasty of beef and mushroom they have a curious cachet. "Oh, a Wellington!" People say, in a tone of breathy reverence normally reserved for cases of unexpected nudity. But it's just meat and mushrooms in pastry. Now, don't misunderstand me, if you make one and invite me round, I'll eat it. But throughout my mastication, this argument will preoccupy me:
The heart of a Wellington is a centre cut fillet of beef; the most expensive part of a cow. For ten people you'll spend the best part of £90. It is a very lean and tender joint, ideally with a little fat marbled through to lubricate the meat.  To enjoy you should simply pan fry it over a very high heat. Being so lean the fillet benefits from some basting. Now rest, pat on a little herbed butter and eat. With a Wellington, you take this very expensive, lean, prized cut and make it as difficult as possible to cook properly. You wrap the thing in mushrooms - ok, great. Some people use pate - not great. Fillet steak is a subtle thing. Eat fillet and paté and you taste... paté. Now you wrap the joint in puff pastry. This makes it impossible to know when and if your joint is cooked to your liking. Basting is out of the question. Your meat will sweat instead. It means, of course, that there is no oven roast. That beef is now inside its own super-carb sauna. All the colour on the meat (colour = flavour) comes from the initial sear. There's no delicious crust. Even with modern digital probes timing is still vague; you have to allow for resting. Even Michelin starred chefs get this wrong. The ends will cook more than the middle so let's hope some of your guests want well done and some rare. Worse, that paté or mushroom is working hard at keeping your pastry soggy. Is that what you want with prime beef - undercooked pastry? Maybe you went old school and used some herby crepes to protect pastry from mush? Well done: another layer of insulation, preventing proper roasting. Another mouthful of unnecessary carbohydrate. When did you last serve pancakes with your beef? Yeah, and for good reason. Oh, and have you ever tried to wrap a tube of meat in a crepe, in a pastry case? Try rolling up a cat (neatly) in two oily duvets; it's a similar level of frustration. (I imagine. Put down your phone.) There's no roasting juices by the way so you'll have to invest in some other meat to make a gravy. Perhaps a kilo of oxtail and the same of marrow bone. These will need to be roasted, a stock made, port added (perhaps half a bottle) and reduced before you have something approaching a decent sauce.
Enough. No one likes a whiner. Sorry. But it had to be said.

Oh and then. THEN! You have to carve it. You want that Sunday supplement shot of a perfect ring of pastry with precision duxelles and pink meat. You rarely get it. It's like picking up glass plates with two hammers. Hot hammers. With no handles.

I have a solution. If you want that combo of fillet, mushrooms and crispy pastry I can deliver but done in a way that maximises all the assets. Dark roasted beef, cooked to your liking. Crispy and well risen puff. A soft duxelles of mushrooms and truffle. This is my UnWellington.

OK, I still have to make a gravy.

This is it. Yeah? 

It takes far less time too and can largely be prepped in advance. I make simple little hats of herbed puff pastry and bake to crisp and golden. A quick fricassee of mushrooms, shallots, cream and some truffle paste. The fillet here (my proof of concept) was pan seared and then roasted for about ten minutes. Even better, in future I'll do a reverse sear - a few hours at 55°C and then ten mins at maximum blast. Maybe basted with treacle and a black pepper butter. A pain free and predictable process delivering something that looks like this.

Yes, I thought you'd like that. 

I'm flirting with the idea of making little mushroom pastries and sitting those on top of the beef and pouring gravy over the lot. This keeps the duxelles hot and moist.

So, as far as this supper club cook is concerned, the Beef Wellington is dead. All hail the UnWellington. I just hope you agree.


  1. A deconstructed Wellington, brilliant idea Jason x

    1. Sadly not mine. You have to get up very early in the millennium to bag an original food idea.