- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 16, 2006

At the small New England school where my husband teaches, graduation week is one of the most anticipated of the year.

You can feel the buzz on campus. Seniors walk with a certain swagger. They’ve just finished four years of hard work, reading an infinite number of books, cramming for lab tests and pulling all-nighters to get papers in on time.

Finally, it’s time for celebration.

I often get calls from students (especially those who love to cook) asking for advice both about planning graduation parties or what to serve, and I love helping. For large fetes, I suggest that they keep the menu simple by grilling burgers and sausages and rounding out the offerings with robust salads.

For a small gathering, I might propose something more elegant, such as the delectable recipe for stuffed beef tenderloins that follows.

I found it in “Seasonal Southwest Cooking,” whose co-author is my friend Barbara Fenzl (Northland Publishing). She teaches cooking in Phoenix, and her culinary expertise in Southwestern cuisine is well established.

From the minute I spotted the recipe, I knew I would love the enticing combination. Small steaks are slit and filled with grated Monterey Jack and toasted pine nuts, then marinated in red wine and balsamic vinegar along with a hint of habanero chili. The marinade is turned into a delicious sauce, and the steaks are quickly pan-seared, then finished in the oven.

Tender green beans and a salad with sliced avocados and cherry tomatoes would make simple sides to serve with the steaks. For dessert, a cake or cupcakes from a good bakery inscribed with “Class of 2006” would make a fine finale.

Beef fillet steaks stuffed with Monterey Jack cheese and pine nuts

This recipe was adapted from “Seasonal Southwest Cooking.”

6 5- to 6-ounce beef tenderloin steaks (filet mignons), about 1 inch thick

1 tablespoon kosher salt

½ cup merlot or other dry red wine

½ cup balsamic vinegar

2 teaspoons fresh thyme leaves, chopped, plus 6 sprigs for garnish

1/4 teaspoon finely chopped seeded habanero chili or scant 1/4 teaspoon hot red pepper flakes

1½ cups grated Monterey Jack cheese

6 tablespoons toasted pine nuts (see note)

2 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided

1 tablespoon olive oil

Fit a baking rack inside a baking sheet with sides. Set aside.

Cut a slit horizontally through each fillet to form a pocket. Rub salt onto outer surfaces of steaks and place in shallow glass dish. Refrigerate uncovered 1 hour.

Combine wine, vinegar, thyme leaves and chili or hot red pepper flakes in a blender or food processor and puree. Pour marinade over fillets, rubbing salt off into marinade. Cover and refrigerate 1 hour.

Remove meat from marinade and pat dry with paper towels. Reserve marinade. Stuff about 1/4 cup cheese and 1 tablespoon pine nuts into pocket of each fillet, and press together to keep filling in.

Put 1 tablespoon butter and olive oil in a large skillet set over medium-high heat. When hot, add steaks and sear until brown, about 2 minutes. Turn over and cook on other side until brown, another 2 minutes. Remove meat to baking sheet fitted with rack.

Pour reserved marinade into hot skillet and cook over high heat, scraping bottom of pan to incorporate any small bits, until marinade is reduced to about 3/4 cup. Strain into a saucepan and add remaining 1 tablespoon butter. Keep warm.

Bake steaks in preheated 300-degree oven until internal temperature of steaks reaches 135 degrees for medium rare, about 5 minutes or longer. Watch carefully. Remove from oven and allow to cool 5 minutes. Put each steak on a dinner plate and spoon a few tablespoons sauce over. Garnish with a thyme sprig. Repeat with remaining steaks.

Makes 6 servings.

Note: To toast pine nuts, spread them in a single layer on a rimmed baking sheet and place in center of preheated 350-degree oven. Bake until golden brown, about 5 minutes. Watch carefully, since they can burn quickly. Remove and transfer to a plate to cool.


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