“It was, at least for me, 1976 all over again. Those ‘tornadoes’ had beamed me back to a time in my life, and, in the evolution of dining, when a plate of food wwas seen not as a source of angst, but as a backstage pass to euphoria.
‘Everything in moderation is fine’ Mr Soltner told me in a kindly murmur. ‘And a glass of red wine helps too’”
Jeff Gordinier, The New York Times
The recipe for today is as comfortable as an old pair of slippers – still popular when the vol au vent was ubiquitous, contemporary with other classic sixties dishes – it first began to appear on restaurant menus around 1860.
The French complain that Englishisms (Le week-end, Le cozy-corner etc) are pervading and besmirching the French language…but what about English? It’s subsumed and integrated words from everywhere, but in the worlds of cuisine and ballet it’s positively bristling with French – we have the bouquet garnis, the pâté foie gras, and we have the tournedos. All three may appear in this dish. It doesn’t take long to make once you have everything assembled – you could listen to one of Rossini’s finest compositions (see Maria Callas, below) while you quickly sear and fry.
The etymology of the tournedos
The tournedos is a small, round slice of beef which should be taken from the end of the tenderloin but often comes from anywhere on that cut. The word comes from the French ‘tourner’, to turn and ‘dos’ meaning back which seems a bit random for a piece of meat and indeed it is. Vitaux and France’s Dictionaire du Gastronome give several explanations for the word, one of which is that:
“the stalls backing onto (tournant les dos) the central alleys in the Paris Halles market were assigned meat and chicken of doubtful freshness. By analogy, the name tournedos was given to pieces of Fillets of beef that had been kept in storage for a few days then became known as ‘tournedos’”.*
An alternative explanation given by Larousse links the name of the beef cut to the great composer. Gioacchino Rossini’s interests lay not just in music – he was also an enthusiastic gourmand (judging by his figure I would say gourmand rather than gourmet). He had many friends who were chefs, and two of these, Casimir Moisson and Marie-Antoine Carême vie for the title of first creator of this dish. It seems likely that Rossini himself may have conceived of it however. Beauvert and Knaup, relate in Rossini, Les Péchés de Gourmandise that Rossini had ordered his fillet with foie gras and truffles. The maître d’hôtel, shocked by the sheer richness of the dish, decided to bring in his order dans le dos (behind the back) of the rest of the diners. But Rossini was proud of this confection of luxury – he instructed “Eh bien, faites-le tourner de l’autre côté, tournez-moi le dos!” – turn around and turn your back on me instead. Tournez-moi le dos, over time became truncated to ‘tournedos’.
The most sublime version of this dish I have ever eaten was at the Garrick Club where it was described as Medaillon of Veal ‘Rossini’. Instead of the tournedos of beef, they used veal which was melt-in-the-mouth tender and which did nothing to detract from the rich taste of the fresh foie gras. Another place to eat sublime fillet de boeuf with foie gras is at the Auberge Sans Nom in Chaource.
How to make a classic Tournedos Rossini
Classic Tournedos Rossini are made with a 3-6 cm/1½-3” thick tournedos fried in butter for a minute or so on each side, then seasoned and placed on top of a piece of golden fried bread cut to more or less the same footprint. This is topped by a piece of fresh foie gras, fried for fifteen seconds, and some slices of truffle (from Périgord of course). It’s served with a rich, shiny Madeira sauce.
Adjustments for those aiming not to bankrupt themselves and to avoid imminent heart attack
A pretty serious dish then – a bit much even for my level of greed and also for my pocket, so I have made some adjustments.
- The truffle oil gives some flavour of truffle, but I have removed the truffle. If you want to strengthen the mushroom flavour, you could add in some rehydrated ceps, using the water you have soaked them in in the Marsala sauce. I have tried this – it makes the dish very rich and strong-tasting – I prefer it without.
- I always have Marsala in my kitchen, and I am not about to buy a whole bottle of Madeira simply for this dish so I have substituted Madeira for Marsala
- I’ve used duck liver pâté instead of the super-rich fresh foie gras
- I’ve made a superficial obeisance to the idea of health by incorporating some spinach.
Recipe for Tournedos Rossini
- 2 x 200g/7 oz beef tournedos (go here to find out more about beef cuts)
- Vegetable oil or olive oil and butter for frying (in an ideal world you would just use vegetable oil as that gets the hottest and allows for the best searing [go here for more on searing] but that lovely rich nutty flavour butter has… it’s up to you
- 2 tsps truffle oil (the type that’s seen a truffle)
- ½ onion, cut horizontally, skin still on
- 120 ml/½ cup marsala
- 120 ml/½ cup beef stock made with one cube
- 115g/4 oz fresh spinach
- 120g/4 oz mousse de canard (duck liver pâté), divided into two slices
- 2 slices of brioche
- Grind a little black pepper over the steaks
- Heat the frying pan to get it really hot and add whatever fat you’ve decided to go for
- Sear the meat on each side for about three minutes
- Smear each with a little truffle oil, cover with foil, keep warm and leave to rest
- In a medium-sized saucepan melt a little more butter, get it good and hot and put the onion in cut side down
- Fry until caramelised and add the marsala and the beef stock
- Continue to cook while you make the rest of the dish
- Cook the spinach in the frying pan for a minute or two until it has cooked down, and season with freshly ground salt, pepper and nutmeg (if you are struggling with your nutmeg grater go here)
- Push the spinach to the edge of the frying pan, add a bit more butter and fry the brioche slices, remove and keep warm
- Briefly warm the duck pâté in the frying pan
- If you want to be smart you can whisk in a little butter into your sauce to make it look professionally shiny
- Then assemble. On each plate put first the brioche, then the pâté, then the steak, then spinach… and over the whole pour the sauce.
*“Selon certaines, son origine viendrait de ce q’au siècle dernier, les places tournant le dos aux allées principals du pavillon de la marée, de la viande et des volailles, dans le marches, étaient affectées aux produits de second choix ou de moindre fraîcheur. On appela ainsi tournedos les bouts de filets de bœuf qui restaient quelques jours á la réserve.
This post is dedicated to Robin Vousden
Maria Callas sings in Rossini’s Barber of Seville