Remember Beef Stroganoff? Many moons ago, my mother had a fledgling enterprise selling pre-cooked dinner party food to local housewives who couldn't be bothered to cook. Dishes were rustled up ahead of time, frozen, and then delivered to her clients in our rusting Lancia. I suspect there was quite a bit of fibbing going on, and the naughty dinner party hostesses would pretend that they had cooked it themselves. It was all very Stepford. From memory, Beef Stroganoff was one of the best-sellers on her menu. Strips of filet beef, cooked briefly, and bound in a mustardy sauce.
What exactly is Beef Stroganoff? That's a very good question. In the authoritative The Prawn Cocktail Years, Simon Hopkinson and Lindsey Bareham reckon that the origins of the dish are suspect, and about as Russian as I am Chinese. My own guess was that it might have had something to do with that fascinating post-Revolutionary period in America, when Hollywood was awash with dubious Russian counts and every exile worth their salt was cousin to the Tsar. Wikipedia, however, is a mine of information on the subject, pin-pointing the birth of the dish to Elena Molokhovet's classic Russian cookbook of 1861: "Beef à la Stroganov with mustard, a simple concoction of fried beef cubes in a mustard and sour cream sauce". Stroganoff also appears in the 1938 edition of Larousse Gastronomique, but with the addition of onions and the option of tomato paste.
Here's my recipe for a classic Beef Stroganoff. I'm of the opinion that you need to cook the beef very quickly; the steak needs to be tender, rather than chewey. It's not really a stew. This should make enough for about four people.
You take 600g or so of filet steak, and cut it into slivers. The meat is seasoned and fried very quickly in a hot frying pan, until it's browned, but still relatively rare. Don't crowd the pan, otherwise the beef will stew, rather than fry; for the best results it could be a good idea to fry the meat a few pieces at a time. Take out the browned meat, and set aside on a plate.
Add a knob of butter to the pan, and cook some finely sliced onions until golden. Take them out of the pan and set them aside. Add a further knob of butter to the pan and add 350g of sliced button or baby mushrooms. Once cooked through, remove and add to the onions.
Turn down the heat, and carefully spoon 400ml of soured cream into the pan. Mix in a generous dollop of French mustard, and a small spoonful of tomato paste for colouring. Simon Hopkinson and Lindsey Bareham add paprika at the mushroom stage (cooking the spice in the hot butter for a minute or so), and there's nothing wrong with that. But The Greasy Spoon version is, perhaps, the more authentic and I don't think the dish should be too spicy. Is it possible to make a virtue of the bland?
Warm the sauce through, and combine the cooked mushrooms and onions back into the pan. Simmer the Stroganoff very gently for around ten minutes. I really do prefer the beef to be rare- but I understand that this is very much a matter of personal taste.
To finish off the dish, check the seasoning, and stir in generous amounts of freshly chopped dill and a squeeze of lemon juice. You serve it with plain rice.