Sunday, October 28, 2012

Dinner Party Series: Traditional Sunday Roast Beef

On the spur of the moment last weekend, we invited our daughter-in-law and two of our grandchildren to a simple family dinner. We all have busy lives, and with the exception of Thanksgiving and the holiday season, we don’t gather family members around the table as often as wed like. 

Paper napkins signal "informal" 
- but still offer jaunty flair
For dinner last weekend, I served a simply prepared 4 lb. Bottom Round Roast (also known as an Outside Round or Silver-Side Round). As a two-person household, we have roast beef only rarely, so I’d forgotten that bottom rounds are one of the least flavorful and least tender cuts, with tough muscles, plenty of connective tissue, and almost no marbled fat. 

I slammed the thing into a 350 deg. F. oven with nothing more than a little seasoning - mistake! That laissez-faire approach works well for a more tender cut of beef, but this particular cut was tougher than an army drill sergeant. Still, we managed to chew our way through it while I made a mental note to remember that not all roast beef is created equal. 

For the right way to cook a Bottom Round Roast, see the excellent recipe at Not surprisingly, low, slow cooking and a little moisture produce a delicious roast. A tough cut should always be served a little undercooked and thinly sliced. 

We had so much fun talking that - whoops! - the roast sat in the oven longer than it should have, at a temperature higher than it needed, to be sliced thicker than a plank. Cooked wrong, sliced wrong, each slab of gray meat lay on the plate like an accusation. The children’s tiny jaws worked furiously, like squirrels trying to choke down nuts.

To keep everyone in good humor, I served the kids Perrier, told them it was champagne, and pretended not to hear their mother whisper: “You don’t have to eat the meat if you can’t chew it.” 

I’ve always maintained that you can disguise any cooking disaster with one of three things: A massive blob of whipping cream, a huge spray of parsley, or liberal lashings of gravy. Our dinner featured all three: Its success was guaranteed! 

(Tip: When you make a mistake, don’t draw attention to it. For me to have said: “Ewwww! This roast is tough!” wouldn’t have made it any less so. This was a good time for me to keep my mouth firmly closed. Besides, I was focused on chewing, as were we all.)

Having roast beef always reminds me how economical a roast actually is. From this evening’s roast come tomorrow’s sandwiches and ample leftovers. The day after our family dinner, I made a Shepherd’s Pie, and still had plenty of roast for another day!

I’ve previously blogged a few of the recipes that were on our Traditional Sunday’s menu: I served the roast with plenty of Gravy, Roast Potatoes, Pennsylvania Red Cabbage, and a simple bowl of buttery sliced carrots mixed with tiny Brussels sprouts (Tip: Make a small X in the stemmed sprouts for fast, even cooking). 

If I’d thought to do so, I would have made the traditional Yorkshire Puddings that work so well with roast beef and Gravy. You’ll find my Roast PotatoesPennsylvania Red Cabbage, and the Yorkshire Puddings I should have made listed in the Index under Side Dishes (Tip: Always save, strain, and freeze bacon fat for future use. The potatoes, cabbage, and savory puddings all need a little bacon fat for their successful preparation; a different fat simply will not do for these recipes!). 

We finished dinner with the deliciously easy Company Plum Cake I blogged just over a week ago: It’s in the Index under Cakes: Fruit. I served this cake directly from the pan, passing around a whipping cream bomb. 

Had this been a formal, pull-out-all-the-stops dinner, the whipped cream would have arrived in a fancy little bowl and none of us would have punctuated lulls in the conversation with an idle squirt here, another there, and a third for good measure.

So heres the Gravy recipe that saved the evening! I’ll publish my recipe for Shepherd’s Pie tomorrow. These recipes aren’t in the least bit fancy or difficult - the emphasis at our Traditional Sunday Roast Beef Dinner was to relax, throwing together something fuss-free while still presenting a welcoming table setting for our guests. Experienced cooks will have made these two recipes countless times, but if you’re new at cooking or don’t normally prepare roast beef, slip into your aprons, Dollinks!

Nicole’s Gravy:

I don’t use precise measurements: Everything depends upon the size of the chunk of meat or poultry, how much fat you add, and how much the meat releases.  Once meat reaches desired doneness, remove it from roasting pan (Tip: If you aren’t sure, use a meat thermometer). Tent meat lightly with foil and allow to rest (10 min. for most meats; 20 min. for a turkey) before carving. Do not wash roasting pan!

Heat drippings in roasting pan over medium-high heat. Sprinkle in just enough all-purpose flour to absorb most pan fat. Whisking quickly, thoroughly combine fat and flour, adding extra flour as needed. Continuing to whisk, cook about 1 min. over medium-low heat. 

Gradually add homemade or commercial broth (see Index for How to Make Stock), whisking until gravy reaches desired thickness. Be mindful that gravy thickens upon standing, so don’t be too heavy handed with the flour. If floating fat remains on the surface, add more flour and liquid or simply skim it off.

Season to taste (and do taste it!) with garlic powder, salt, pepper, and any herb or combination of herbs you fancy. You may want to use a splash of red wine in your gravy, or sliced mushrooms, or a spoonful of Dijon-style mustard; I sometimes do. You may also want to “cheat” by adding a gravy browning agent at this point. There are plenty of brands available: All produce an attractive, nicely colored gravy. 

Because this gravy contains bits of meat and the occasional flour lump, strain it before transferring it to your gravy boat. Stirring the flour into cold broth before adding it to hot gravy may slightly reduce the number of lumps, but the smoothest and best gravies are always strained, in my opinion. Substitute cornstarch for flour at your peril: The result is often a far thinner, less “substantial” gravy for those who want only a pale drizzle.

I’ve had cornstarch-thickened gravy in chi-chi dining rooms, and found it extremely unsatisfactory. If you’re going to have gravy, for goodness sakes, have gravy! You don’t do this everyday, so enjoy the splurge! 

Note: I like to make lots of gravy. Not only do guests forgive my culinary bloopers, but leftover gravy is a superbly reliable addition to homemade soups, stews, and dishes such as Shepherd’s Pie. More on that tomorrow, followed by Tuesdays post of additional Guidelines and Tips for successful entertaining. And now I’m off to find some hungry shepherds! 

Tea lights are an understated center piece - another  
hint of informality 

Wooden serving platters emphasize the meal's relaxed feeling.  
Note the large sprays of parsley on the meat platter - my attempt
to disguise the notion that someone cremated the cow.

1 comment:

  1. A neighbor in our high-rise did a traditional roast beast dinner last week, including Yorkshire Puddings. You know how you add the Yorkshire batter to the hot oil, and how it smokes like crazy? Well, at that moment another neighbor knocked at their door. When they answered, the smoke hit the main smoke detector in the hallway - the one that automatically calls the fire department, sets off all the alarms, and causes everyone to abandon their dinners and traipse downstairs, because one shouldn't use the elevators. All eleven flights, for us! Our hosts were SO apologetic! So make sure your windows are open and your door is shut when you prepare Yorkshire Puddings!


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