Beef Stroganoff may be a nostalgic relic of the 70’s, but I think of it as a timeless classic. I’ve always made it for my family, just as my mother made it for her family. Strogonoff is said to have originated in 19th-century Russia before travelling to China in the early 20th-century and later to America with Chinese and Russian immigrants as well as US servicemen. The early Russian version was a beef stew made with mustard, bouillon and sour cream (and sometimes tomato). As it made its way around the world it was adapted to suit local cuisines. At some point on its travels it picked up mushrooms as a key constituent, while as it passed through Eastern Europe it may have also picked up paprika. Our mother made it without tomato, mustard or paprika and added extra pepper and tarragon, just as I usually do. Our paprika-free version becomes steak in a mushroom and sour cream sauce, flavoured with wine, pepper and tarragon. It’s a flavour combination that is hard to resist and easy to cook. To me these flavours are the signature tastes for a Stroganoff and the basis of many of my recipes.
The Stroganoff paper bag story
Early in our marriage and at the very beginning of my cookery journey, we entertained my wife’s good friend and her husband. She was a home economics teacher and a highly accomplished cook, he was a rather serious mathematician. Although I had eaten many of my mother’s beef Stroganoffs, I never cooked cooked one myself. Still, I thought it would be good to demonstrate my interest in cooking and volunteered to make it for our guests. At the time, the traditional way to prepare the steak for Stroganoff, was to cut the meat in cubes (not strips) and coat in flour using a paper bag. I duly put a little flour in a paper bag, followed by a big handful of wet cubed steak. The flour only helped to clump the meat together in a large sticky ball, which immediately attached itself to every part of the paper bag. Aghast at my ineptitude – and the calamity unfolding in my hands – I started to panic, just as our guest, the expert cook, popped into the kitchen for a chat. Not wanting to confess my predicament, or expose my nascent cookery skills, I attentively engaged in a friendly conversation, all the while, nonchalantly picking tiny pieces of paper bag cemented to the messy mass of meat, hoping that I could pass it off as normal technique for making Stroganoff. Happily the final dish turned out fine. We were all too polite to discuss the incident during the meal, however, in later years we would often remember the time I tried to flour steak in a paper bag and end up in fits of laughter. It was one of the most embarrassing moments in my life – but also one of the funniest.