In some homes, a pricey beef roast is the yuletide equivalent of Thanksgiving's sweet potato and marshmallow casserole: essential.
Yet in tougher times such as these, a $100 rack of prime rib is out of the question for many hosts, a $150 cut of filet mignon unthinkable.
Even for those who can afford it, luxury meat can seem distasteful, an edible symbol of the excesses that have contributed to our financial woes.
"I've served prime rib for the past five years . . . but this year we'll be doing a turkey," says Lois West, a school administrator and Center City resident. "I think there's a real psychological impact to everything we've been hearing about the financial crisis. Nobody knows what lies ahead." West says her family will also be cutting back on the cost and number of gifts to be exchanged.
But for some families, the traditional Christmas menu is deeply nostalgic, a much-loved dinner that is exceedingly difficult to give up. Skipping the roast beef may seem like not celebrating Christmas.
Luckily there are cheaper yet equally elegant alternatives. "If you don't want to spend the money for a prime rib or tenderloin, the next best thing is a sirloin roast," says Charles Giunta of Giunta's Meats at the Reading Terminal Market.
Sirloin costs about 30 percent less than prime rib but it has an equally deep, beefy flavor and can be just as tender if cooked properly. Have your butcher cut the roast lengthwise (instead of like a steak), trim the fat, and tie it. Then prepare it as you would a prime rib.
"Sear it in a little oil, then cook it in the oven," says Daniel Kremin, executive chef at Barclay Prime in Philadelphia. "I like it at an internal temperature of 140 degrees, for medium rare. You can use the drippings to make an au jus." Kremin typically relies on veal stock for the restaurant's au jus, but he refers the at-home cook to his mother's recipe, which utilizes beef broth and French onion soup. Add a steaming herbed popover and you have a meal that even the most rarefied beef snob can enjoy. Roasted brussels sprouts and chestnuts are a lovely accompaniment, and can also be used as garnish for the roast.
Chris Scarduzio, chef and co-owner of Center City's Table 31, shared his recipe for potato and leek gratin for the holiday menu. (See recipes.)
But he had another idea for the beef entree: "If I were looking to save money but still serve something elegant," Scarduzio says, "I would probably make steak Diane with strip or flatiron steak instead of the usual tenderloin." The steak topped with a sauce of mushrooms, brandy, cream and Dijon mustard is "a classic dish that everybody loves."
Demand for strip steaks is higher in summertime when people grill them. This time of year, they're much more affordable. "There are only so many cuts of meat out there," he says. "It's about knowing when to get them."
For his own Christmas meal, Scarduzio is sparing no expense and preparing beef Wellington - a pastry- wrapped package of filet mignon layered with finely chopped mushrooms and pate - for his approximately 20 guests. But while filet mignon currently goes for $26.99 per pound at Whole Foods, this dish, he says, could be prepared less expensively with individual Wellingtons filled with a smaller amount of meat. The pastry can camouflage the size of the filet and no one will be the wiser, or the hungrier.
For those willing to look outside the cattle pen, there are less expensive options. Pork roasts are very popular for the holidays, says Joe Nitti, salesman at Esposito's Meats in South Philadelphia. "They run about $2.99 a pound. We do a hell of a job with those."
The turducken - a deboned chicken stuffed inside of a deboned duck inside of a partially deboned turkey - is a novelty item of Southern origin that is gaining in popularity for holiday meals. The roast stuffed with breadcrumbs or sausage makes an appealing presentation, and, even better, the roasts typically come seasoned, saving time in the kitchen. At Giunta's, a 5-to-6-pound turducken roll costs about $39.95.
Lamb is another elegant choice. While American lamb remains expensive, New Zealand and Australian lamb, a bit gamier than its Yankee cousin, is much more affordable, about $3 to $5 a pound at Esposito's.
There will be those, of course, who won't let a global financial crisis or anything else stand in the way of their traditional Christmas meal.
"Even when things are bad, people still seem to want their prime," Nitti says. "They want a good dinner and they don't want to hear nothing about it."
After some debate with her family, Kelly Tuzio, graduate and professional studies administrator at Cabrini College, has decided to serve the customary filet mignon for her 20 Christmas guests as usual. As a practical measure, she will be cutting back on some of the side dishes.
"My family's Irish and my husband's is Italian, so we would usually make two whole Christmas meals with antipasto, lasagna, seafood, the filet, sweet potatoes and so on. . . . But there's never any filet left. We're not exchanging gifts this year," she said, "but we will have filet."
Makes 6 servings
3 pounds sirloin roast (ask the butcher to cut the roast lengthwise, trim the fat and tie it)
1 teaspoon kosher salt
3/4 teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper
1 tablespoon canola oil
1 10-ounce can beef broth
1 10-ounce can French onion soup
1/2 cup cold water
1/2 teaspoon sugar
2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Pat meat dry and season well with salt and pepper.
2. In a large saute pan, heat oil until smoking. Add sirloin and brown thoroughly, about 5 to 7 minutes per side. Reserve pan with the drippings for the au jus.
3. Transfer sirloin to a baking sheet and roast in oven for 45 to 50 minutes, or until a meat thermometer reads 140 degrees, for a medium-rare roast. Allow sirloin to rest for at least 20 minutes.
4. Meanwhile, make the au jus: Place the saute pan over moderately high heat. Add beef broth to the pan and bring to a boil, using a wooden spoon to scrape up the browned bits on the pan. Add French onion soup, water, sugar and Worcestershire sauce. Season to taste with salt. Bring to a boil, stirring occasionally. Allow mixture to boil for 3 minutes. Strain into a bowl and discard onions.
5. Thinly slice the sirloin and spoon au jus over top.
464 calories, 49 grams protein, 2 grams carbohydrates, trace sugar, 27 grams fat, 120 milligrams cholesterol, 856 milligrams sodium, trace dietary fiber.
Makes 12 popovers
2 cups all-purpose flour
2/3 tablespoon kosher salt
2 cups warm milk
2/3 tablespoon chopped fresh rosemary
2/3 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme
1. Adjust an oven rack to the lower third position and preheat oven to 400 degrees. Sift flour into a bowl and stir in salt.
2. In a standing mixer, whip eggs on medium speed until frothy and slightly thicker, about 3 minutes. Increase speed for 1 to 2 minutes more until eggs are thick and frothy. With the machine still on, add half the milk and mix until combined. Then add half of the flour mixture and mix until well combined. Scrape the sides of the bowl down and repeat the procedure with the remaining milk and flour. Pass the batter through a fine mesh strainer to remove any lumps and set aside for 5 minutes. Fold the herbs into the mixture.
3. Brush or spray the insides of a muffin pan with oil. Divide the batter among the muffin pans. Gently place the popovers in the preheated oven and bake until deep golden brown and puffed, about 35 to 40 minutes. Serve immediately or cool on a wire rack and reheat at 350 degrees for a few minutes just before serving.
Per popover: 126 calories, 6 grams protein, 18 grams carbohydrates, 3 grams sugar, 3 grams fat, 75 milligrams cholesterol, 362 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber.
Makes 8 to 10 servings
10 Idaho potatoes, peeled
2 cups heavy cream
1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme
1 tablespoon kosher salt, plus more to taste
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, plus more to taste
2 large leeks, rinsed, white part only
1/2 pound butter
1 shallot, minced
2 cloves garlic, halved
1/2 cup freshly grated parmesan
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Use a mandoline to slice potatoes 1/8-inch thick. Transfer sliced potatoes to a bowl and combine with cream, thyme, salt and pepper.
2. Julienne leeks. Melt half of the butter in a large saute pan. When foaming subsides, add leeks and shallot and cook until soft, about 7 to 10 minutes. Set aside.
3. Generously rub all sides and bottom of a 2-quart baking dish with remaining butter. Rub garlic cloves over the butter. Discard garlic cloves
4. Arrange half the potatoes on the bottom of the dish. Sprinkle very lightly with salt and pepper. Spread 1/3 of the leek and shallot mixture across the potatoes. Repeat layering process with remaining potatoes and leeks, filling the dish ¾ full. Pour thyme cream over potatoes.
5. Bake in oven, covered with foil, for 50 minutes. Check the doneness of the potatoes by inserting the tip of a knife into the center of the casserole. There should be little to no resistance. If needed, continue cooking potatoes until done before proceeding to the next step.
6. Raise the temperature to 425 degrees. Sprinkle the parmesan on top of the gratin and return to oven to bake, uncovered, until cheese is melted and golden brown, about 5 minutes.
Per serving (based on 10):
556 calories, 10 grams protein, 46 grams carbohydrates, 6 grams sugar, 38 grams fat, 118 milligrams cholesterol, 801 milligrams sodium, 5 grams dietary fiber.
Makes 6 to 8 servings
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 1/2 pounds medium brussels sprouts, trimmed (about 2 1/2 cups)
2 cups fresh chestnuts (vacuum-packed chestnuts can be substituted; skip Step 1)
Kosher salt to taste
1. If using fresh chestnuts, prepare them: Preheat oven to 350 degrees. On the flat side of each chestnut, cut an X through the shell large enough to reach the edges. Place the chestnuts on a cookie sheet in a single layer, flat side up. Roast for 20 minutes or until a knife easily slides into the nut meat. Peel while still warm.
2. Place a rack on the bottom third of the oven. Preheat oven to 500 degrees. Put the butter on an 8-by-12-inch baking pan. Melt the butter by placing the pan in the oven for a minute.
3. Add the brussels sprouts and chestnuts to the pan. Toss to coat well. Roast for 7 minutes. Turn the pieces over. Roast for another 7 minutes or until the sprouts are crisp and browned. Add the salt. Mix well.
Per serving (based on 8):
160 calories, 4 grams protein, 23 grams carbohydrates, 6 grams sugar, 7 grams fat, 16 milligrams cholesterol, 23 milligrams sodium, 3 grams dietary fiber.
Makes 10 to 12 servings
For the cake:
1 tablespoon unsalted butter, room temperature
3 3/4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
11/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
3/4 teaspoon ground cloves
3/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 1/2 cups unsulfured dark molasses (not blackstrap)
11/2 cups granulated sugar
11/2 cups canola or peanut oil
11/2 cups water
1 tablespoon baking soda
2/3 cup packed, peeled and minced fresh ginger
3 large eggs, beaten
Confectioners' sugar for dusting
For the Crème Anglaise:
1 cup heavy whipping cream
1 cup milk
4 large egg yolks
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1/4 teaspoon kosher or sea salt
1 1/2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
1. Position a rack in the lower third of the oven. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Generously butter and flour a 12-cup nonstick Bundt pan, tapping the pan over the sink to remove the excess flour. (Make certain every interior surface is thoroughly coated or the cake will stick.)
2. In a large bowl, sift together the flour, cinnamon, cloves and pepper. In another large bowl, whisk together the molasses, sugar and oil.
3. In a 2½-quart saucepan, bring the water to a boil. Remove from heat and stir in the baking soda. Whisk the mixture into the molasses mixture, and then add the ginger.
4. Adding a generous cupful at a time, stir the flour mixture into the molasses mixture until the flour is absorbed. Whisk in the eggs until combined. Pour the batter into the prepared pan.
5. Bake the cake until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean, about 1 hour. If the cake appears to be browning too quickly, lay a piece of foil over the top of the pan. Let the cake cool in the pan on a wire rack for 1 hour. Invert the rack over the top of the pan. Invert the pan and the rack together and lift the pan off the cake. Let the cake continue to cool on the rack until it reaches room temperature. (The cake can be covered and stored at room temperature for up to 3 days, or tightly wrapped and frozen for up to 1 month. Thaw overnight at room temperature.)
6. To make the crème anglaise, fill a large bowl three-fourths full with ice for cooling the sauce and set aside. In a 2½-quart saucepan over medium-low heat, combine the cream and milk. Bring to a simmer and remove from the heat. (Do not let the milk mixture boil.)
7. In a medium bowl, whisk together the egg yolks, granulated sugar and salt. Slowly add ½ cup of the hot milk mixture while whisking to combine, and then pour the egg yolk mixture into the saucepan. Return the saucepan to low heat and whisk constantly until the mixture is as thick as whipping cream and coats the back of a spoon, 3 to 5 minutes. (The crème anglaise is done when it registers 180 degrees on an instant-read thermometer.) Remove from the heat and strain through a fine-mesh sieve into a clean bowl. Nest the bowl in the ice bath, stir in the vanilla and let cool, stirring occasionally. Cover and refrigerate until ready to use. (The sauce can be made up to 2 days in advance.)
8. To serve, using a small fine-mesh sieve, dust the top of the cake with confectioners' sugar. Cut the cake into slices. Spoon 2 or more tablespoons of crème anglaise onto each dessert plate. Place a slice of cake in the center and serve immediately.
Per serving (based on 12): 506 calories, 8 grams protein, 92 grams carbohydrates, 53 grams sugar, 12 grams fat, 153 milligrams cholesterol, 408 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber.