You've decked the table with china and linens and your grandmother's monogrammed silver.
The only thing missing? A gigantic, glistening roast, the ultimate expression of holiday luxury.
"You're serving something that people normally can't afford," says James Peterson, cooking instructor and author most recently of "Meat: A Kitchen Education" (Ten Speed, 2010). "It's a splurge."
But roasts -- whether a standing prime rib, a rack of lamb or a saddle of veal -- can be as intimidating as they are dramatic. Peterson offers a few techniques to help you conquer the beast:
*Make friends with fat.
"People have the common misconception that cooking something with liquid keeps it moist," Peterson says. "What keeps meat moist is fat."
With beef, look for "marbling," fine veins of fat running through the meat. Select lamb that is evenly covered in bright white fat, and pork that's not too lean. Figure on 6 to 8 ounces of roast per person if the meat is boneless, double that if it has bones.
*Toss out the roasting rack.
If you rack your roast, all the precious juices will burn when they hit the pan. Instead, choose a pan just large enough for the meat, line it with trimmings and place the roast on top. "If you don't have enough meat to cover the surface, the juices are going to burn," Peterson says. "And that smoke permeates the roast."
*Just say "jus."
Jus, the concentrated meat juices, intensify the experience of your expensive cut. To achieve perfection, remove the finished roast from the pan, then boil the trimmings until the pan is nearly dry. Pour off the fat, then deglaze the pan with 1/2 cup of water or stock. Do this two or three times to concentrate the flavor, Peterson says, and resist the urge to add more liquid. "You only need a couple tablespoons a serving," Peterson says. "You want it really concentrated."
*Run hot and cold.
Turn your oven as high as it will go and cook the meat until it browns, about 30 minutes. "The high temperature kills all the microorganisms and gives a nice brown crust," Peterson says. Then turn the oven to roughly 325 degrees to cook it slowly, letting the heat penetrate to the center.
*Let it be.
Meat contracts when exposed to heat, so letting it rest before serving is essential to preserving juiciness. "If it's contracted, and you cut it, the juices will just squirt out of it," Peterson says. As the meat relaxes, the juices will return to the muscle. The internal temperature of the meat will also rise about 5 degrees, ensuring your meat is perfectly cooked and thoroughly hot. Meat should rest anywhere from 10 to 30 minutes, depending on the size of the roast.
*Baste not, want not.
Basting lets heat out of the oven. It also keeps the meat from browning and turns the dish into a braise, not a roast. Just don't do it.
1 center-cut beef tenderloin section, about 8 inches long and 2 1/2 pounds, trimmed of fat and silver skin
Salt and ground black pepper
4 tablespoons ( 1/2 stick) butter
2 pounds cremini mushrooms, finely chopped in a food processor
1 pound store-bought all-butter puff pastry, thawed in the refrigerator
1 egg, beaten with a pinch of salt
Season the tenderloin liberally all over with salt and pepper. Set aside at room temperature while preparing the remaining ingredients.
In a large saute pan over high heat, melt the butter. When the butter froths, add a large handful of the chopped mushrooms. Stir for about 1 minute. Continue adding the mushrooms, a handful at a time, and cook, stirring occasionally, for about 15 minutes, or until any liquid they release evaporates and they are nicely browned and dry. Season with salt and pepper, then set aside to cool.
Heat the oven to 425 degrees. Sprinkle a sheet pan with cold water.
Roll the pastry out into a rectangle just large enough to wrap around the tenderloin completely. Spread the cooled mushrooms evenly over the pastry.
Place the tenderloin along one long edge of the pastry, then roll up the meat in the pastry to enclose it completely. Make sure that the wrapped tenderloin is seam side down, then seal each end by folding it under.
Place the wrapped tenderloin on the sheet pan. Using a sharp knife, cut a series of diagonal slashes, about 1/2 -inch apart, along the top of the roll, being careful not to cut into the meat. Brush the pastry with the beaten egg.
Bake for about 40 minutes, or until the pastry is golden brown and an instant thermometer inserted at the center of the tenderloin reads 120 degrees for rare or 125 degrees for medium-rare. (The temperature will rise another 5 degrees as the roast rests.)
Transfer the roast to a platter, tent loosely with foil, then let it rest for 20 minutes before serving. Using a sharp knife, cut into 1-inch slices to serve.
Per serving (values are rounded to the nearest whole number): 471 calories; 236 calories from fat (50 percent of total calories); 26g fat (10g saturated; 0g trans fats); 103mg cholesterol; 24g carbohydrate; 35g protein; 2g fiber; 357mg sodium.
(Recipe from James Peterson's "Meat: A Kitchen Education," Ten Speed, 2010)