(by Patricia Fieldsteel)
My mother had a beef with, well, beef. Her problem was not one of taste, neither was it moral, dietary or ethical. It was more mathematical. Beef came attached to numbers and calculations. “Business was excellent this week.” We had standing rib roast. “Business was bad this week; we’re going to have to tighten our belts.” We had tuna-noodle casserole with Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom soup topped with Corn Flakes. Business was good, we had rolled roast beef. She cooked a four-pound roast for four hours. That’s what is known as cement.
Steaks were the domain of men, cooked outside on the grill. My first memory of steak, always a T-bone and cooked rare, was from when I was around two. Grandpa Jack, my father’s father, was cooking one on a small charcoal grill in our driveway, and as he speared it to go from grill to platter, he dropped it on the ground. There was a communal gasp from the gathered family and a few screams from Grandma Ruth, his wife. With grace and aplomb, he picked the steak up and proceeded to carve. To my two-year-old self, this was hilarious and great fun, and the steak was delicious, forever after tinged with comedy and the dramatic, not to mention a certain je ne sais quoi of dirt and grass.
Decades later, long after Grandpa Jack had died, my mother decided we needed a deluxe Weber Grill. There was much hysteria over setting it up and reading the instruction manual. No quizzes were given, but my mother came close as my father studied and memorized. She went to the best butcher in town to purchase two T-bones for the inauguration. The grill was lit, the charcoal coddled to perfection, an exquisite tableau of red, white, and black. Madame Supervisor did what she did best—give orders. The steaks were rubbed with herbs, salt, pepper, and flavored butter. With great and solemn ceremony, they were lifted onto the grill. No prayers or blessings were said. There was an exquisite sizzle as the fat and butter hit the heat. My father wanted to leave the rounded lid off. No, ordered Madame, the lid was what made it a Weber; the lid had to go on. No one dared question the Chief Administrator. My father was sent at the appointed time chosen by Madame to fetch and bring the steaks to the table. We each had a plate, cutlery and steak knife, wine and water glasses and cloth napkins to go with the Pierre Deux tablecloth. My mother had also prepared various salads and vegetables.
After a while, my father had not returned. One of my younger brothers was ordered to get him. When neither came back, the other brother was sent. When he didn’t return, I was commissioned to reconnoiter. The three of them were doubled over laughing. My father had tears streaming down his cheeks. Urns would have been more appropriate at each place setting, since what had occurred on the Weber was nothing short of a cremation. The corn on the cob, vegetables and salads were excellent, the wine even better. My mother was not amused.
If there was one beef dish at which she excelled and never miscalculated, it was a standing loin rib roast. Yes, when a friend was visiting from out of town, I asked my mother if she could come for dinner, and my mother said yes, not realizing all she had for dinner was leftover rib roast bones, so grilled bones it was that the poor girl was served, with a dollop of buttered bread crumbs and some flat-leaf parsley. We already were an odd enough family, bones or no bones about it. But the origins of that dish, several nights beforehand had been ambrosial. To this day, I crave my mother’s rib roasts (even though I rarely eat beef), last had over 40 years ago. And never again will I have it, if for no other reason than I live in France, and beef here is not the same as it is in America. What is obligatory is that the ribs must be served with Yorkshire pudding made from the drippings. A standing rib loin roast of beef is truly only for the most special occasions or holidays, and the experience is all the richer if it is shared with those you love. While my mother’s recipe is great, it’s even better without her presence.
Patricia Fieldsteel is a native New York writer who has lived in Provence, France, since 2002.
Prime Rib Roast of Beef
My mother began cooking prime roast rib of beef after The New York Times Food Editor Craig Claiborne published a recipe for a “perfect” roast by author, editor, and food consultant Ann Serranne: “Put it in the oven and relax.” Serranne’s method is foolproof, easy, and requires no mathematical calculations. It doesn’t need basting, sauces, gravy or other adornments, often used to disguise lesser qualities of meat. At most, ten minutes of work for the cook are involved.
A standing rib roast is for special occasions, a festive meal, with each rib holding enough meat for two servings. The better the meat’s quality, the more divine will be the results. Nothing else is required beyond salt, pepper, flour and a tightly sealed, well-insulated oven. The roast’s flavor comes from the layer of fat on top and the bones below. The fat forms a golden-brown irresistible crust—crunchy, crispy, juicy, and wickedly bursting with caloric flavor. Yorkshire pudding is an ideal side dish, and the leftover bones are great broiled and topped with butter, bread crumbs, and flat-leaf parsley for a weeknight family supper.
2 - 4 rib prime loin roast of beef, weighing 4 1/2 - 12 pounds
(Have your butcher trim and if necessary tie the ribs.)
kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
Remove roast from the refrigerator 2 1/2 - 4 hours before cooking.
Preheat oven to 500 F.
Place roast in an open, shallow roasting pan, fat side up.
Sprinkle with a little flour, and rub the flour lightly into the fat.
Season all over with kosher or coarse sea salt and freshly ground black pepper.
Top with a sliced onion. Roast according to weight chart below, about 5 minutes per pound of trimmed, ready-to-cook beef.
When cooking time is finished, turn off the oven, but do not open the oven door.
Let beef remain in the oven about 2 hours, or until the oven is lukewarm.
The roast will still have an internal heat suitable for serving as long as 4 hours after removing it from the oven.
Cover with tin foil while the Yorkshire pudding bakes.
If you like your meat well done, add 10 minutes to the cooking times above.
My mother’s Yorkshire pudding was from a recipe in the American housewives’ culinary bible, The Joy of Cooking, by Irma S. Rombauer. She made it in a rectangular, dented and lopsided tin, which she passed on to me once she bought herself a better one. It's similar to popovers and Dutch babies. It was originally known as a “dripping pudding,” a dish developed in northern England to catch the drippings from meat roasted on a spit into a batter pan below. The first recipe in print appeared in The Whole Duty of a Woman (1737). Hannah Glasse published a similar recipe that she renamed Yorkshire Pudding in The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy. It was originally served as a first course, meant to dampen the appetite, so diners would eat less of the more expensive meat that followed. Today Yorkshire pudding is an almost obligatory accompaniment to a standing loin rib roast of beef. It rises high from the pan when done and retains a custardy inside with a crunchy crisp golden crust.
All ingredients must be at room temperature, otherwise the pudding will not rise.
7/8 c. all-purpose flour
1/2 t. salt
1/2 c. whole milk
2 eggs, beaten
1/2 c. water
Sift flour into a bowl.
With your finger, make a well in the center and pour in milk.
Stir milk into flour with a large whisk.
Whisk eggs into batter, adding water, until large bubbles rise to the surface.
(Can be made to this point 1 hour ahead, covered with plastic wrap, an refrigerated. Beat again when ready to bake.)
Preheat oven to 400 F.
Place a metal 9 x 11-inch pan in oven and add about 1/4 inch beef and fat drippings or butter.
When thoroughly heated, remove from oven and pour in batter.
Bake for 20 minutes.
Without opening oven, reduce heat to 350 F. and bake for another 10 - 15 minutes.
Cut into squares for serving.
If not serving immediately, put it under a hot grill or back in the oven to crisp up.
Broiled Leftover Rib Roast Bones
1 stick (1/4 lb.) melted sweet or salted butter
2 - 2 1/2 c. fresh bread crumbs
fresh flat-leaf parsley or chives, chopped fine.
optional: thinly sliced shallots and /or garlic cloves, mixed with Dijon mustard
8 - 10 separated rib roast beef bones at room temperature
Put melted butter in a deep plate.
Put bread crumbs and remaining ingredients in another plate.
Dip ribs in butter, thoroughly coating each one, and then roll them in the bread crumbs.
Place in a large broiling pan, leaving space between each rib.
Broil about 7 - 8 inches from the heat so they cook slowly and the crumbs don’t burn.
Keep turning the bones with tongs until crisp on all sides.
The cooking time should 15 - 20 minutes.
The bones go well with baked potatoes, homemade coleslaw, and/or fried onion rings.