A Bargain Roast

Inexpensive chuck can keep your holiday table festive on a budget

December 17, 2008|By Jill Rosen | Jill Rosen,jill.rosen@baltsun.com

At Eddie's market in Roland Park, cuts of beef beckon behind glass like a jeweler's gems. Behold the rib roast - upright and regal, luxuriously marbled. As for the tenderloin, the store displays only tiny, tantalizing pieces - the whole roast, the cut of kings, is ensconced somewhere behind the counter.

Beef is an exclusive commodity indeed. But in a recession, a roast topping $20 a pound seems almost gauche - if not outright out of reach.

According to a Consumer Reports poll, 76 percent of those surveyed vowed to cut back on holiday spending this season. Even at Eddie's, one of Baltimore's more upscale grocery stores, butcher Troy Allison has noticed people watching their wallets. The folks who typically order ready-made Thanksgiving turkeys opted to cook their own instead. "Christmas," he says, "is going to be the same."

Still, for many, roast beef is the quintessential holiday choice, the elegant anchor of a festive table on Hanukkah (which starts Sunday), Christmas and New Year's. Luckily, "affordable" and "roast" are not mutually exclusive terms.

Robert Fahey, executive chef at the Hyatt Regency Baltimore, can make a cut of meat that rings up at just over $3 a pound look and taste just as decadent as what his well-heeled guests feast on at the hotel's New Year's carving station.

His trick is looking past the prime cuts of meat, but not all the way down the food chain to stew meat. Chuck is Fahey's answer.

Though it comes from the less-gracious end of the cow, and though it's got a reputation as a more challenging cut of beef, chuck can pay dividends to those who treat it right, the chef says.

"The chuck is a great piece of meat," he says. "It's quick and easy and tastes like a million dollars."

Fahey says when he's cooking for himself, he rarely buys tenderloin - which is up to $21.99 a pound at Eddie's. "Unless I see the sale sign," he says, "I walk right by."

Instead, he scouts the meat aisle at Sam's Club, where he recently found chuck roast for $3.28 a pound. A 5-pound cut of that, which would cost about $16, will feed as many as eight people, Fahey figures.

Fahey prepared his economical roast recently at the Hyatt's kitchen. His recipe is almost shockingly simple. The ingredients can be counted on one hand - with none more exotic than garlic.

And as for the technique, it's season, sear and roast. That's it.

First, Fahey rubs fragrant chopped garlic into the meat, and then liberally sprinkles the beef with salt, pepper and steak seasoning.

"It's going to come out tender and flavorful," he says. "You're going to have a very tender piece of meat."

Next is the searing - the secret, Fahey says, to elevating humble chuck into the stratosphere of chic.

He pours a little oil into a frying pan, cranks the burner heat up to high and drops in the meat. He allows it to sizzle, snap and smoke on each side for about a minute before flipping it with tongs.

"By searing the outer layer, it keeps the juice inside," he says. "If you just threw it in the oven, it would be dry; everything would just come out with the heat. It's one of the first things they teach you in culinary school."

The chef's only caution with searing: Consider the smoke alarm.

Fahey laughingly says he's triggered his own alarm this way more than a few times. "You might want to open a door or window," he says.

After the searing, he transfers the meat to a roasting pan and pops it into the oven, where it will stay for 45 minutes to an hour.

"When you see the finished product," Fahey says, "you'll be like, 'Wow.' "

As the meat roasts, Fahey chops an assortment of vegetables for a side dish that's just as easy, elegant and frugal as the entree.

He's chosen hearty and colorful wintry vegetables - beets, red potatoes, sweet potatoes, carrots and onion - but the combination can easily adapt to any family's tastes. Squash, zucchini, mushrooms and parsnips would all work. Fahey thinks throwing in a few cranberries would be particularly festive.

He tosses the vegetables with olive oil and roasts them alongside the meat in a separate dish for about 30 minutes. He likes to turn on the broiler for the last few minutes so that the vegetables turn an enticing golden brown.

When Fahey pulls the crusty, fragrant roast from the oven, he lets the meat rest for about 15 minutes before he slices it so that, as he puts it, the juices have time to soak back into the meat.

As he starts cutting into the meat, he can't resist a "Wow." It's glistening and browned on the outside, deep pink and juicy inside. "This looks really good. To me, that's a perfect medium rare, a nice beautiful pink."

He creates a restaurant-caliber presentation by slicing the meat thin and fanning about four slices onto a plate. He nestles vegetables next to it and drizzles the roast with a little gravy.

Fahey says that "any gravy from the grocery store" will work with the recipe. Even in a bull market, he's partial to the kind you can make from a packet.

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