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The Red Bird's Jim Tracey has your entrée
On a recent, brisk fall day, the Red Bird Restaurant kitchen begins to warm as staffers bustle around, preparing for dinner service. There's jazz on the radio—a sweet clarinet emits an upbeat bebop—as Red Bird co-owner and executive chef Jim Tracey points to a large, golden-brown tenderloin, two thick slabs of pâté, duxelles—made with mushrooms, shallots, butter and Madeira wine—and a flat slab of puff pastry that will, when our cooking lesson is complete, envelop our beef Wellington in a flaky crust.
People think beef Wellington is hard to make, Tracey says. "But it's not."
There's some dispute about this dish's origins, but most culinary historians agree that it's named for Arthur Wellesley, the first Duke of Wellington, who led the English Army when it helped trounce Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo. In any case, the dish is exquisite.
Topped with rich and buttery Madeira sauce, beef Wellington comes across as fancy—as something you labored over all day. Yet it's an entrée that just about anyone can make. It gives even novices like us a chance to flex our culinary muscle.
Tracey says his mom used to make beef Wellington for Christmas. The man who oversees one of Missoula's most esteemed restaurants grew up surrounded by people who loved to cook. His grandparents' house in southern New Jersey's Sea Isle City was always filled with the aroma of a pie baking in the oven, he says, or of a sauce simmering on the stove. His paternal grandmother was Italian, he explains, and she carried with her a love of sharing good food. "Every time anybody would walk in the door, she'd go make them something."
Tracey says his mother further expanded his culinary horizons. She'd gladly try new dishes and then carefully replicate them at home. His mother and grandmother cooked for days to prepare for huge parties they'd have around Christmas, Thanksgiving and New Year's Day. He was reared surrounded by four sisters and dozens of family members. Holidays were a time when they all came together and feasted for hours.
Tracey was just a kid when he first went to work in a kitchen, helping in his great-grandfather's restaurant in Sea Isle City. Later, when Tracey moved west, to Colorado, he worked in restaurants to pay his way through college. When he made his way to Missoula to attend the University of Montana, he met Christine Littig while working at the Old Post Pub. When Littig moved on to launch the Red Bird in 1996, Tracey went with her. (Littig now owns Bernice's Bakery with her husband, Marco.)
It was Littig's vision that drove the Red Bird, Tracey says: using locally grown food to craft upscale cuisine. "It's just kept evolving from what she started."
In 2001, Tracey and his wife, Laura Waters, were looking to start their own restaurant, eyeing Whitefish as a potential launching ground. At the same time, Littig, who had just had her second child, decided she wanted to sell the Red Bird, he says.
"She offered the place to me. I thought about it. And I was like, 'Why would I started a new place when I could just do this?'"
He and Waters jumped in. They've continued to cultivate the Red Bird's reputation as a warm and welcoming spot to enjoy locally raised food prepared with five-star flair. Five years ago, they launched the Red Bird's wine bar, which offers a separate and more casual menu from the dining room, with burgers that many say are among the best in Missoula.
The wine bar has helped sustain the enterprise as the local and national economies linger in the doldrums and people eat out less, Tracey says. "It just brings in a completely different crowd."
Tracey, 38, is something of a self-made man. He never went to a culinary school. Instead, he's enlarged his knowledge and feel for food over the years through books, colleagues and, like his mother, sampling food wherever he goes. "Everything taught me," he says.
It's also his knowledge of the Missoula community that helps sustain the Red Bird. He understands, for instance, the Garden's City's appreciation for homegrown cuisine and the people responsible for growing it.
Jim Tracey's Beef Wellington
1/2 cup butter
1 cup diced shallots
6 cups diced mushroom, button or shitake
1 tablespoon thyme
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup Madeira
Remove mushroom stems and set them aside (you'll need them later). Dice mushroom tops. Sauté shallots in 1/2 cup of butter until they're translucent, not brown. Add mushroom tops. Cook mushrooms and shallots until the liquid is gone. Be patient. ("Keep stirring it and stirring it," Tracey says.) Add fresh thyme, black pepper, salt and Madeira. Cook until liquid is reduced.
1 garlic bulb
2 tablespoons flour
2 tablespoons tomato paste
stems from mushrooms
1 cup Madeira wine
5 cups beef stock
Cook butter, onion and carrots on low until they're caramelized. Add one whole garlic bulb cut in half. Stir in two tablespoons of flour—a roux, "which is basically a thickener," Tracey says. Add two tablespoons of tomato paste and cook the sauce for five minutes before adding mushroom stems left over from the duxelles and one cup of Madeira. Reduce again until nearly no liquid is left. Then add five cups of beef stock. Simmer for a while, then strain, and "you're good to go with the sauce," Tracey says.
- Photo by Chad Harder
- Jim Tracey and his Beef Wellington
Egg wash ingredients
1 tablespoon milk
1 tablespoon water
Mix egg with 1 tablespoon of water and 1 tablespoon of milk. That way your egg doesn't get gunked up.
Center cut beef tenderloin
Pâté—You can skip this ingredient, or substitute with another. Tracey say prosciutto is a good option.
Puff pastry—Make it yourself, or buy the shell in the grocery store's frozen food aisle.
Putting it all together
Preheat oven to 400 degrees and place pâté on the flattened puff pastry. Spread the pâté across the pastry with a spoon, then sprinkle duxelles on top of the pâté before placing the tenderloin on top. Wrap pastry around the meat and brush egg wash along the pastry edges to seal the pastry shut. Roll the wrapped tenderloin over, so the seam is at the bottom.
Cut a couple of slits in the dough on top of the uncooked Wellington—this allows steam to escape when cooking and better ensures the Wellington doesn't get soggy. Use the remaining puff pastry to cut out decorations, like a Christmas tree, if that suits you. Apply decorations on top of the Wellington.
Bake at 400 degrees. Check temperature with a meat thermometer—Tracey serves the dish when the meat is cooked to about 130 degrees. Let it sit a few minutes before serving.