A whole, prime, standing rib roast that has been aged for six weeks costs about $325, is the size of a Yorkshire terrier, and, with its dark, caramelized crust and gently curved bones streaked with tender meat and crispy fat, is as alluring as a hunk of protein can be.
Which all are reasons why guests at Philadelphia District Attorney Lynne M. Abraham's annual holiday feast ooh, aah and cheer when she bears her regal beef on a fine china platter into her Center City dining room. It is a Norman Rockwell moment, one that Abraham eagerly anticipates each year, and has for, well, as long as she can recall.
Across the nation, home cooks turn to prime rib to celebrate the winter holidays or welcome a new year. Many do so because they ate this particular cut of meat throughout their childhoods at similar end-of-year celebrations. Others, like Abraham, did not have prime rib when they were growing up.
"My mother was the worst cook - not just in America, probably in this hemisphere," she says.
However, Abraham was seduced by Julia Child's television shows and books and, over the years after graduating from Temple University Law School, taught herself to make French sauces and stocks, to recognize salamanders (a type of French broiler) and mandolines (a kind of French slicer) and to know enough about meat to converse intelligently with the butchers at Harry Ochs' in the Reading Terminal Market.
Abraham is one of many Philadelphians who don't have to remind the Ochs butchers every year to set aside an aged, heavily marbled, prime rib roast for them. They have standing orders on the books.
Nick Ochs, grandson of the company's founder, estimates that the 100-year-old meat company sells about 500 rib roasts to Philadelphians in late December. (A whole standing rib roast has seven ribs, but roasts can be ordered with any number. They will accept Christmas orders up until the Sunday before.)
Technically, says Ochs, "one rib will serve two people, but one rib doesn't roast very well. You need at least two ribs for it to stand up in the roaster, allowing the fat to melt down through the meat as it cooks."
The best and most expensive standing rib roast is graded prime and has been aged for six weeks, says Ochs. This costs $18 a pound at Ochs'. If the meat is choice and has been aged only four weeks, it goes for $16 a pound.
Aging does three things: It breaks down some tissues to produce tenderness, and removes moisture and thus weight from the meat. It also gives the meat a blackened crust with patches of white.
Marbling, which means streaks of fat - not gristle - in the interior of the meat, determines its grade because where there is fat, there is flavor and tenderness.
A beautifully marbled, choice, whole standing rib roast aged for six weeks weighs about 18 pounds.
Abraham's standing order varies from four ribs, or about 10½ pounds, to two 5-rib roasts. Her dinner party, which is held between Christmas and New Year's Day, customarily has 10 diners, but some years she has a few more guests at the table.
Abraham doesn't believe in appetizers because they take the edge off appetites. Instead, she starts her meal with a first course of a very French sole mousse with tomato-cream sauce. She serves it with crisp white wine.
She says the dish is somewhat of "a pain to make, but I fell in love with it." She credits the recipe to Craig Claiborne, the late food critic, chef and writer, with Pierre Franey, published in a 1989 New York Times article headlined "How to Cook the Perfect Meal."
She reiterates, however, that Julia Child is her true muse, especially when she is able to prepare for dinner parties by starting reductions several days ahead of time.
She rounds out her holiday menu with Pommes Anna, another traditional French treatment for potatoes; a simple salad; and a free-form apple tart topped with crème fraiche or a bit of vanilla ice cream.
Abraham says she became enamored of prime rib for this dinner because, despite its kingly price and ability to impress, it is so easy to make. Basically, Abraham brings the meat to room temperature, coats it with a paste of salt, pepper, herbs, butter and flour, and pops it into the oven until it registers 130 degrees - medium rare - on an instant-read meat thermometer.
"I wanted something beautiful and elegant that doesn't take all day to prepare" because the potatoes, which are cooked just before serving, and the mousse and its sauce are so labor-intensive, says Abraham.
She begins gathering her ingredients two to three days before the dinner. She gets out the fine linen tablecloths and napkins, usable Philadelphia souvenirs that she purchased from the Bellevue Stratford hotel when it closed in 1976 as a result of Legionnaire's Disease.
Abraham sets the table with fine china and organizes her flowers and serving dishes the day before. She gets out her electric Hammacher Schlemmer plate warmer, memo pad and timer.
"I write MEAT IN [and the time on the note pad] and use the timer" to guard against overcooking the pricey main course, she says. This is especially important because Abraham refuses all help in the kitchen. She works "alone, can't stand help," she admits.
When the meat is ready and a beautiful mahogany color, she whisks it in to her guests for that long-awaited presentation, then scurries back into the kitchen to carve and plate it and its accompaniments.
She serves her masterpiece with a bold red wine, but she does not forget what is possibly the secret highlight of the meal: the roast's bones.
"As much as people love the meat, they love the bones even more. I serve them on the side so that people can snag one" and strip it clean, Abraham says.
Makes 8 to 10 servings (figure on 2 servings per rib)
1 (4- to 5-rib) standing rib roast (see Note)
Salt and pepper to taste
1 to 2 cups beef broth or bouillon, preferably reduced sodium
1. Bring the roast to room temperature (about 1 hour).
2. Heat the oven to 500 degrees. Season the roast with salt and pepper, to taste. (For added seasoning, if you feel creative, mix 1 tablespoon finely ground peppercorns, 1 teaspoon ground bay leaf, 1 teaspoon white pepper, 1/4 cup flour and 1/2 stick softened unsalted butter to a paste and spread on the cut ends of the meat. Coat all you can but don't make yourself crazy trying to cover every spot.)
3. Put the roast fat side up, rib side down, on a rack in a pan large enough that all of the fat falls inside the pan. Roast for 30 minutes, reduce temperature to 350 degrees, and continue roasting until an instant-read digital meat thermometer inserted in the fleshy part of the meat reads 125 to 130 degrees for medium-rare, about 2 hours. (For medium, roast to 135 to 140 degrees.) Transfer the roast to a heated platter and let it rest for about 20 minutes. It will continue to cook on residual heat as it rests, raising the internal temperature 5 to 10 degrees. Resting also lets the juices redistribute within the meat.
4. Meanwhile, put the roasting pan with drippings on the stovetop on medium-high heat, add the beef broth, and scrape up the browned bits in the pan as the broth comes to a boil. Taste and adjust seasoning. Strain the jus through a fine sieve into a warm gravy boat.
5. Serve thick slices of meat on heated plates. (If you don't have a plate warmer, put dishes on top of the hot stove or run them under hot water. Warm plates not only keep the meat warm while serving, but also prevent the juices from congealing.) Garnish plates with watercress or parsley sprigs and serve.
Note: Ask the butcher to cut the back of the rib bone or chine, so you can cut the meat easily for serving. Serve the meat on the bone or cut the bones off the cooked roast and serve them separately.
Per serving (based on 10): 1,004 calories, 69 grams protein, no carbohydrates, no sugar, 78 grams fat, 223 milligrams cholesterol, 286 milligrams sodium, no dietary fiber.
Makes 6 servings
1 1/2 pounds skinless, boneless fresh sole
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Dash of cayenne pepper
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1 egg yolk
2 cups heavy cream
Sauce Portugaise (see accompanying recipe)
1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. There may be a row of fine bones running down the center of each sole fillet. If so, cut them away and discard.
2. Cut the fish into 1- or 2-inch cubes and put the pieces into the container of a food processor. Put the container in the freezer until it is very cold, but do not let the fish freeze.
3. Remove from freezer. Place bowl on food processor. Add salt, pepper, cayenne, nutmeg and egg yolk. Start the processor and, when the mixture is coarse-fine, gradually add the heavy cream, pouring it through the funnel.
4. Butter the bottom and sides of a 4-cup mold. Spoon and scrape the mixture into the mold and pack it down, smoothing over the top.
5. Cover closely with foil, spreading it snugly around the sides of the mold.
6. Place the mold in a baking dish and pour boiling water around it. Bake 1 hour, or until the internal temperature reaches 130 degrees on a meat thermometer. Set aside. The mousse can be served now or reheated later. (If reheated later, heat the oven to 400 degrees. Place the mousse in the oven and bake 10 minutes or slightly longer. Remove the foil and unmold the mousse on a round dish.)
7. Serve it sliced with the hot Sauce Portugaise.
Per serving (with sauce):
608 calories, 25 grams protein, 6 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram sugar, 52 grams fat, 250 milligrams cholesterol, 276 milligrams sodium, trace dietary fiber.
Makes 6 servings
2 cups fish stock
1/2 cup dry white wine
1/2 pound tomatoes
2 tablespoons finely chopped parsley
1/4 cup finely chopped onion
2 tablespoons butter
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 cup heavy cream
1. Pour the fish stock and wine into a saucepan and bring to a boil. Cook until about 1/4 cup of the mixture remains. Set aside.
2. Peel and core the tomatoes. Cut each tomato in half and squeeze to extract most of the seeds. Chop the tomatoes. There should be about 1 1/4 cups. Chop the parsley and onion.
3. Meanwhile, heat half the butter in a saucepan. Add the onions. Cook until the onions wilt.
4. Add the tomatoes, salt and pepper to taste. Cook until most of the liquid has disappeared, about 10 minutes. Set aside.
5. Add the cream to the cooked-down fish broth. Cook over high heat about five minutes and then add the cooked tomato mixture. Cook down about 1 minute. Set aside, closely covered, until serving time.
6. When ready to serve, swirl in the remaining butter and stir in the chopped parsley.
212 calories, 3 grams protein, 4 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram sugar, 19 grams fat, 66 milligrams cholesterol, 166 milligrams sodium, trace dietary fiber.
1 1/2 pounds russet (baking) potatoes
1/2 stick (4 tablespoons) unsalted butter, melted
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1. Put a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat to 425 degrees.
2. Peel the potatoes. Cut them into 1/16-inch-thick slices and transfer them to a large bowl of cold water, then drain and pat dry with paper towels.
3. Generously brush the bottom and sides of a 10-inch heavy ovenproof skillet, preferably nonstick, with some of the butter. Arrange potato slices in skillet, overlapping slightly, in layers, brushing each layer with some of the remaining butter and seasoning with salt and pepper. Cover the top with a buttered round of foil, buttered side down, and press down firmly on the potato cake. Bake for 30 minutes.
4. Remove the foil and bake the cake until the potatoes are tender and the top is golden, 25 to 30 minutes more. Slide the cake onto a cutting board and cut into wedges.
You will need a mandoline or other adjustable-blade slicer, such as a Japanese Benriner, for this classic French dish. While some versions of these potatoes are cooked on the stovetop, this oven version is easier.
Per serving: 232 calories, 4 grams protein, 26 grams carbohydrates, 3 grams sugar, 12 grams fat, 32 milligrams cholesterol, 152 milligrams sodium, 3 grams