Cooking is fun to me, but I am usually too distracted by my hunger to spend a lot of time with it. I’ll heat some pasta sauce, add some extra spices, throw it on some chickpea pasta and I’m in my happy place. Fortunately, my wife’s cooking skills, bound with love for her family, have progressed by leaps and bounds from our newlywed days. Hailing from New Orleans, she always insisted on flavorful food; it took some hard work when she finally insisted on it from herself. Now, her skills, flavors, and healthy options are usually blue-ribbon winners every time.
But we learned early on that the holidays are too much pressure for just one lone chef. A few of us will pitch in with various dishes or help out in the kitchen as needed. My job for several holiday dinners has been to manage the protein dish. I’m not scared of touching raw meat! I can peel shrimp and cut up a chicken, so for Thanksgiving or Christmas, I usually am responsible for the turkey and gravy.
Using a tabletop roaster oven, I have been very successful with turkeys. But when we moved from a house to an apartment, the roaster got “downsized.” We’ve either eaten the large holiday meals out with family at a restaurant or found a way to do something simpler.
Having done the Westin hotel restaurant meal on Thanksgiving this year (2021), we were hoping that my daughter’s new house would be fully constructed and ready to host for Christmas day. No such luck. At the time of this writing – January the first – they are still in a rental, waiting for the final punch list to be complete.
What to do? Can we host 11 and possibly a 12th in our two-bedroom apartment on Christmas day? Can we artfully prepare festive food for picky and food-sensitive folk (myself included on the latter)? KK believed we could, if my son prepared a couple of dishes, and if I returned to protein duty. I had muscled through Beef Wellington 3 or 4 times before, with only one dud. (Don’t substitute sirloin for tenderloin!). She found gluten-free pastry sheets to wrap around the beef, and I had had success in the past producing this crowd pleaser.
Pressure situations kick my autism into high gear. Just like the RPMs on the Mini when I need to shift gears, my tachometer started to spike on the big day.
The morning of Christmas, I realized that I would be baking/roasting the Beef Wellington without the tabletop roaster, instead using our kitchen’s regular oven. Yikes! Is that going to work? Will the meat be done? Will the pastry get too brown? Life Stress Units (LSUs) started to pile up.
Then, I struggled with answering my wife’s questions, as legitimate as they were, about oven entry and exit times. After all, other dishes would need some oven time before the meal started at 2 pm. The recipe — which I had not reviewed for about 3 years — had a disclaimer about oven variability, stating it could take as much 55 more minutes than the original 40 minutes at 425 degrees. That was a huge stressor for me – at least a few LSUs.
Do we still have a food thermometer? More LSUs.
The gluten-free pastry shells were thicker than the phyllo dough ones we usually used, and they were breaking as I tried to open them! Still more LSUs on my plate.
My wife and my son and huddled in our tiny kitchen and they talked me down the LSU ladder to where I started to feel safe and calm once again. I began to microwave the pastry sheets for a few seconds to soften them — and that worked great.
The duxelles – a minced mushroom paste that I made from scratch – sauteed well and became the right sticky consistency for “gluing” the pastry onto the seared beef tenderloin.
We found the food thermometer, about 10 minutes before the moment we needed it.
It got to the right internal temperature in the 40 minutes, but after the test slice, we decided that several of our visitors could not handle beef quite that rare. 20 more minutes in the oven did the trick. It wasn’t picture perfect, but it ate extremely well. Nothing but rave reviews, including my three-year-old grandson, who told me it was the best beef he had eaten “in the whole world.” I’ll keep him.
I really can’t take much credit for this dish’s success. My wife had to figure out that I was having “a moment” and spent time helping and reassuring me. Beef tenderloin is usually excellent meat – which is the main magic for this dish. My son came in and helped with assembly. The recipe is straightforward, for what the author calls a “hard” recipe, and once I got over myself – I did what I what usually works for me. I followed the instructions. We adjusted the pastry to make it gluten free, which ensured that my daughter-in-law and I could enjoy it guilt-free.
I needed my family to win this Christmas road race. It could have easily become a demolition derby if I hadn’t done some deep breathing, and heard and believed my family’s reassurances that the holiday was not in danger – and neither was I. I don’t want to cause trouble for everyone. I don’t want to make a scene, unless I’m telling a joke or making a point. With a little help, both human and divine, I was able to shift into the right gear, and avoid a wreck – instead of tumbling out of control and injuring other drivers.
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year! Let me know about any cooking situations that have either gotten out of control or those that have gone extremely well. Maybe you know what it feels like to be “in the pressure cooker,” so to speak, whether you are on the spectrum or not. I hope you remember my Beef Wellington, and keep shiftin’.