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Recipes and Stories

16 December 2014: Christmas Beef, alla Parmigiana

Here, I'm shaving Parmigiano-Reggiano over the layer of Prosciutto di Parma that covers the flattened beef. It's then rolled up like a jelly roll, tightly trussed, and braised in wine and cognac until medium-rare.

In my family, the fat turkey of Dickens’ immortal tale, A Christmas Carol, was always the centerpiece of our Christmas dinner table, even though we’d just had turkey at Thanksgiving. Usually, my grandfather also baked a fresh ham (not the cured pink meat we think of as “ham” now, but an uncured fresh haunch of pork), an old family tradition that had been passed down for generations before him, and is carried on by my younger brother to this day.

So, when my friend the lyric soprano Elizabeth De Trejo asked for a Christmas main dish that wasn't turkey or cured ham, I had nothing from my own history to draw upon other than that roast haunch of pork. Fortunately, there are plenty of other traditions to plunder.

For many families, the pork is a grand crown roast, garnished with holly and fragrant with sage and onion or dried fruit-studded stuffing at its center. For others, it’s a fat goose instead of a turkey, and for others, a luxurious, rare-roasted cut of beef, either a showy standing rib, a fat sirloin roast, or, most luxurious of all, a whole tenderloin.

The latter is probably the easiest of all those to manage. It’s also the most expensive, and, ironically, the least interesting. Because the tenderloin sees very little action during the animal’s lifetime, it’s uniformly tender no matter what you do to it, but that also means it will always be the least flavorful.

In the province of Emilia Romagna, Italy’s gastronomical center, cooks compensate for its deficiencies by dressing the tenderloin up with two of the region’s most famous products, Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese and Prosciutto di Parma. Though both are strong-flavored, they add a welcome contrast to the uniform texture and bring out the best in the beef’s natural flavor without covering it up.

The little extra work involved in butterflying, stuffing, and trussing the beef can be done a day ahead, so the family cooks can spend less time in the kitchen on Christmas morning and more time where they belong: with everyone else in front of the tree.

Rosa di Parma

There are probably as many versions of Rosa di Parma as there are cooks in that ancient city. This is Rosa Musi’s version.

Serves 6 to 8

4 to 5 large cloves garlic, lightly crushed and peeled
½ cup olive oil
3 pounds beef tenderloin
About 6 ounces thin-sliced Prosciutto di Parma
About 4 ounces Parmigiano Reggiano in one piece
3 large sprigs rosemary
3 large or 6 small fresh sage leaves
Salt and whole black pepper in a peppermill
1 cup dry red wine
½ cup brandy or cognac

1. Two days ahead, wash the garlic, pat dry and put it into a heatproof bowl. Heat the oil until very hot but not quite smoking and pour it over the garlic. Let cool, and, if not using right away, cover and refrigerate for up to three days. (Don’t keep it longer than that and never store it at room temperature.)

2. Butterfly the beef tenderloin, cutting through one side about 1/3 up from the bottom and to within same thickness at the opposite side. Unfold and lay it flat and butterfly the fatter section, beginning at the middle, on level with the flat section, and cut as before so that the meat unfolds like a letter. Lay open and beat flat with a mallet or scaloppine pounder.

3. Brush the entire surface with the garlic-infused oil and completely cover with a single layer of prosciutto. Shave Parmesan cheese over the prosciutto with a vegetable peeler, completely covering it. Repeat with a second layer of prosciutto.

4. Roll the meat tightly and sew up the cut side with a trussing needle and cooking twine. (If you don’t have a trussing needle, omit this step and wrap the meat with twine at more frequent intervals.) Wrap and tie securely with twine in 3-4 places (about 8 if you aren’t sewing up the side). Rub well with salt and pepper. Tuck the herbs into the twine ties. Put it in a narrow pan that will hold it snugly and pour the remaining garlic-infused oil over it. Discard the garlic.

5. Put the pan over medium high heat and brown the meat on all sides. Add the wine and brandy, let it boil up, then reduce the heat to medium low, loosely cover, and gently braise to desired doneness, about 30 minutes for medium rare, 45 for medium. This can be done in a 350° F. oven. Let the meat rest 15 minutes before carving, then remove the string and slice crosswise into rounds: the meat will resemble the petal pattern of a rose, hence the name.

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