A Word On Food: Roast Beef

Dec 21, 2013

The very words themselves call up ancient things. I imagine it on the menu that day in the year 1215 when King John was forced to sign the Magna Carta at Runnymede or something Shakespeare’s own mother would have served.

When I fantasize about the words being read in a perfect movie, I hear a voice like Sir Alec Guinness intoning them.

“Roast Beef.”

To me, it seems a meal more “God-save-the-King” English than any other country. I am not sure why. Maybe the simplicity of the preparations common to it. It also seems sensible and required like boots in winter, lightly-salted ripe tomatoes or Helen Mirren playing the Queen.

It beckons us with the promise of a kind of primal sustenance, ancient and alluring. With the released aromas emanating from an oven door, I am carried to times past, to before the invention of ovens, when a turning spit or a wood grill were the only cooking contraptions thus far devised. And to times when humans gathered in the reverence and thankfulness of deeply satisfying nourishment, a time before beeping cell phones and winking computers.

Deep in the formation of our brains the seed for eating meat was planted. And while my vegetarian friends say it is one that needs to be overcome, I say my prayers and roast my beef.

One noticeable difference between the cooking of the 18th Century and later classic French cuisine was the treatment of roasts. In classic French cooking, roasts are served in their natural, unthickened juices, (jus de rôti or ZHOO-DUH-ROW-TEE). In the eighteenth century chefs were far more likely to convert the natural juices from the roasts into an array of flavored sauces. Oranges, chopped shallots, truffles, foie gras (FWAH-GRAH) and herbs were all used to give roasting juices a variety of flavors.

The seeming inventiveness vaunted in the television shows of today were already in full bloom centuries ago. I can remember a Chicago food critic taking me to task while I was just beginning my voyage as a chef for inventing “the worst dish of 1982” when I served a whopping grill roasted rib steak with Barbeque arnaise.” The writer couldn’t see that I had taken the classic idea of sauce “Choron” (SHOW-RON) and given it an American spark! The guests loved it so we kept it on.

However one feels about simplicity or complexity I think a side of Sauce Béarnaise or one of her capable cousins Choron, Foyot (FOY-YOH) and Raifort (RAY-FOUR) the last involving the spirited tang of freshly grated horseradish are all rightful partners to Roast Beef.

These days people are passing over the classic Rib Roast of Beef and choosing to purchase the Top Loin Roast, which is where the New York Strip Steaks are cut from. Why? No bones. And it’s leaner. I love a great seared strip steak, especially Steak au Poivre. You can cut off a few steaks and save them for another day and just roast part of the Top Loin.

But really, where is the joy in that? For my money, it is the Standing Rib Roast of Beef bedecked with a fine, thick layer of animal fat that bathes the meat as it slowly roasts.

Most cooks take the heavy roast and place it squarely in an equally heavy pan surrounded by carrots and onions. It’s more symbolism or nerves than cuisine in that there is going to be far too much rendered oil from that beef fat cap to make a sauce at least out of that arrangement alone. The perfume might have some logic but that is your call. To twist things up you can simply lift up the cap momentarily and pierce the roast with a small knife and push studs of garlic and chilies into the meat before it heads for the oven. I have a friend who even drives anchovies into the meat.

Maybe they did that at Runnymede too.


Note: We use bottled horseradish for consistency sake.

Yield: 1 quart

2 Cups heavy cream

6 Egg yolks

1 Tablespoon of Spanish sherry wine vinegar

1 Tablespoon strained orange juice

½ Teaspoon of kosher salt

½ Teaspoon of freshly cracked black pepper

5 Tablespoons of prepared horseradish


Set up a water bath large enough for the recipe here as for making a Hollandaise sauce.

Meanwhile: Whip the heavy cream in a cold bowl (over ice) until soft peaks form. Do not over whip! Cover and chill and reserve the whipped cream while making the next step.

Whisk the egg yolks together in a stainless steel mixing bowl very well before placing it over the heat of the water bath. 

Now with the water just simmering whisk the egg yolks steadily until you can draw a line across the bottom of the bowl.

Now add the vinegar and orange juice and whisk again until you can draw the line again.

Remove the bowl from the heat whisking still to dissipate the heat totally. Set aside a moment.

Get the chilled cream.

Now fold the egg mixture gently into the whipped cream. Do not add any dried egg that may cling to the bowl from the cooking to the mixture.

Season with the salt, pepper and Horseradish and gently stir again.

Remove to storage containers and chill.

This sabayon is usable for about 2 days if kept cool before it begins to get too loose.