Before we invented Thanksgiving, dooming millions of turkeys each November, the feast of choice at holiday celebrations was rib roast. Once you've had the real thing, it's easy to dismiss all thoughts of bird and see why fifth-generation meat cutter Evan Lobel elevates prime rib to more than beef: "It's tradition. The aroma brings the family around the table."
The secrets of the perfect rib roast feast involve a holy trinity of meat selection, preparation and presentation.
Prime rib should be truly prime (less than 2 percent of all beef is so graded) with its signature high-level marbling. The streaks of fat within the eye of the roast lubricate the beef, while it cooks, and provide a burst of flavor. Lobel's of New York (www.lobels.com) dry ages its corn-fed prime beef as it creates a flavor that Lobel compares to a rich sauce reduction with an intense concentration, accompanied by an aroma of nuttiness.
Pasture-raised beef makes a tasty alternative to prime. At Montana's B Bar Ranch (www.whiteparkbeef.com), the rare breed of White Park cattle graze on five types of grass and two varieties of clover, as well as alfalfa. Ranch manager Wes Henthorne pastures his White Parks for up to 30 months, nearly twice as long as corn- or grain-fed cattle. "You get a wider palate of flavor from age," he says. "And we harvest cattle in late summer and early fall, when our grass is as good as it gets and cattle are gaining weight. That makes for our tenderness." Bar-B also dry ages its beef.
Rib roast deserves careful cooking. Executive Chef Hans Aeschbacher, of Smith & Wollensky Chicago (www.smithandwollensky.com), recommends seasoning with a mix of paprika, garlic, salt and pepper. He sets his beef in a pan lined with rock salt. "The salt adds flavor while keeping the beef juicy," he explains.
Cook at 325 degrees. A cut this fine warrants accurate monitoring with a meat thermometer. Remove the meat when it registers 120 to 125 degrees for rare, or five degrees more for medium. (an eight- to 10-pound roast will reach 120 in about two to two-and-a-half hours.) Now let it stand for up to an hour as it continues to cook. Condiments? Whip heavy cream and blend in horseradish. Or mix chives and horseradish into sour cream.
Late arriving guests do not worry this chef. He returns a "set" roast to a 145-degree oven. It will stay warm for hours while retaining its original degree of doneness.
Of course, a rib roast does not remain a table's centerpiece for long. Aeschbacher's serving directions: "Use an absolutely sharp knife and carve like you're playing a violin with long, gentle strokes."
Now, which trencherman gets the first slice with a bone?