Our three children will be coming home for Christmas, so as always, we’ll look to do some of the cooking beforehand. We’ll want to spend a lot of time with them and not be cooped up in the kitchen too much.
They all enjoy good food. In their eyes, “good food” includes some of the tastes they grew up with. It also may incorporate some new tastes they bring to the table. Last year, our daughter brought lavender caramel candies she’d made from scratch and carried across country. The other day we mailed her several Meyer lemons for inclusion in some lemon cookies she has in mind for this year.
The older of our two sons is wont to pull into the driveway with a few lavish selections from Los Angeles, usually on the sweet side. Two years ago he and his fiancée, now wife, made a side trip to San Francisco to wrangle an extravagant chocolate cake for the table. She’ll be with us, and she likes good food as well.
What to have on Christmas Eve that can be made ahead, or it’s very simple and quick, yet worthy of the occasion? Actually, it’s a question that can be raised for any of the religious celebrations, or New Year’s Eve, before the year ends.
“Dungeness crab,” suggested our daughter-in-law. We bounced that one around with emails — it wasn’t urgent enough for texting — and we got a thumbs up on that choice. However, availability could be a factor.
“How about turducken again?” I mentioned.
Some years ago we served turducken when we were charged with the main dish at a friend’s house, where our two families were gathering on Christmas Day. It drew mixed reviews. Traditionalists didn’t like it much. It’s a boned turkey stuffed with a boned duck stuffed with a boned chicken. Conventional stuffing fills part of the interior. We used alligator stuffing from Louisiana, where turducken enjoys some popularity. Nugget will make a turducken for you.
That idea hasn’t gotten much traction. OK, turducken is out, even though you just have to put it in the oven for a few hours. No muss, no fuss, except for the butcher who assembles it.
“Shrimp scampi?” someone suggested.
We’ve had that a few times. One pot for pasta, one large sauté pan for the shrimp. Some crostini and antipasti fleshes that out, or a good Caesar salad. It doesn’t seem very holiday-ish to me, but it’s popular and easy to assemble. It barely qualifies as cooking, but in truth it isn’t made ahead. Also, we’ll have homemade butternut squash soup and minestrone on hand if we deem it necessary to have an added taste.
“What about Beef au Madere?” I asked Diane. Always a favorite, and a do-ahead dish worthy of a special occasion. Surely this is an inspired choice!
This dish goes back. Once we belonged to a small country church in Maryland. The parish originated in 1763, when the area had tobacco fields tended by slaves, whose descendants comprise a third of the parishioners even today. Our priest, a kind fellow, was narcoleptic, and therefore prone to nod off when a parishioner delivered the first reading. But I digress.
One day he got word that the bishop and his entourage of priests would be visiting, a rare and special thing. They expected dinner. He asked if Diane and I would cook for the special occasion, which would be held in the small rectory.
At that time there was no locavore interest. We regularly bought soft-shell blue crabs by the dozen from a widow, farmed pheasant from a family who had a sideyard operation, and I could have wrangled a free country ham, salted and aged up to a year, from Gloria, a woman I worked with who had a hog farm with her husband. Red-eyed gravy, made with coffee — yum! But that wasn’t done for special guests back then, and besides, the rectory kitchen was subpar.
No, we selected Beef au Madere, which is luscious and silky, dare I say, on the tongue. It can be made ahead, and freezes just beautifully. A nod to Craig Claiborne, the venerable food critic of The New York Times, who brought this recipe to the fore in a 1971 cookbook.
Because we could make it ahead, we had 100 percent confidence on the big night. We served it with egg noodles. We’ve since served it with baked or mashed potatoes as well. The bishop and priests found it worthy, and our parish priest was so relieved, we know he slept well — he would have anyway, I suppose.
But what I remember most about that evening is when, at the outset, the bishop was asked what he might like to drink. Our next-door neighbor, Pat, was doing the service, and had brought some Perrier water. The bishop chose that instead of wine. When each of the priests was asked, each of the priests asked for Perrier. Perrier all around! Exactly, I’m sure, what they would have had if the bishop wasn’t there.
We haven’t decided yet on the meal for Christmas Eve. But in the event that you have beef-loving crowd for a holiday dinner this month, and you want it to be something luxurious that you can just head up, my holiday gift to you is the recipe.
First, a few notes. Fillet is more tender than sirloin. The better the beef broth, the better the dish. Same with the tomatoes.
Beef Au Madere
A Craig Claiborne classic
2 pounds fillet or lean sirloin of beef
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
3 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
3/4 cup minced onion
1 tablespoon minced shallots
2 cups sliced mushrooms
2 cups beef broth
1 cup chopped red tomatoes (fresh or canned)
1/3 cup Madeira (a fortified Portuguese wine, like sherry)
1/2 cup sour cream
Putting it together:
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Cut meat into thin strips.
Add salt and pepper to flour, dredge meat in it, in batches. Heat butter and oil in large skillet and brown meat quickly over high heat. (Emphasis on “quickly.”) Do several batches, not crowding beef at all, and transfer batches with slotted spoon to a large casserole pot.
Add onion and shallots to skillet and cook until wilted. (Add a pat of butter if pan is too dry.)
Add mushrooms and cook, stirring, about 5 minutes. Spoon mushrooms over meat in casserole pot, add beef stock, add tomatoes (drained), add Madeira, cover, and bake 45 minutes (salt and pepper to taste) for ready service or let cool for refrigeration or freezing. Return to room temperature before reheating on the big night.
To serve, spoon onto plate, top with a dollop of sour cream, which creates the silky, richer taste.
— Dan Kennedy, a Davis resident, has a long history with the bounty of gardens and small farms. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org