I was fortunate that beef stroganoff was on my mother’s regular rotation of weeknight dinners. It checked all the Points of Deliciousness on my personal deliciousness checklist: It had bite-sized pieces of juicy steak. It had wide egg noodles, great for slurping (though my parents would never have countenanced such an egregious breach of table manners, so any slurping had to be accomplished out of sight). It was delectably creamy. And it contained an entire pound of mushrooms.
As I kid, I wasn’t even remotely curious about the dish’s origins. It could have been invented in Russia or on the moon for all I cared. It could have been invented by my favorite fictional characters, Matthew and Maria Looney, protagonists of the marvelous kids’ science fiction series penned by Jerome Beatty Jr., featuring the adventures of a lunar family.
Dad read me “Matthew Looney’s Voyage to the Earth” when I was 7 or 8 and I was utterly entranced by illustrator Gahan Wilson’s rounded, rubbery cartoons depicting the curious Matthew and his pet murtle. However, if the Looneys had invented beef stroganoff, it would have been called Moonoodles or Crater Tots or Looney Shrooms.
Now that I’m in my 50s, I still adore Gahan Wilson’s style, but I can no longer remain in the dark with regards to the provenance of my favorite foods. Or perhaps I have become curious about Russian dishes because I am reading Amor Towles’ marvelous “A Gentleman in Moscow,” in which a Russian count is put under lifetime house arrest in Moscow’s grand Hotel Metropol.
In any event, beef stroganoff was created not by a Russian cook but by a French chef, Charles Briere, who won a cooking contest in St. Petersburg in 1891. In some retellings of this story, Briere was in the employ of Count Pavel Alexandrovich Stroganov when the dish was invented, but alas, the count died 1817 and did not live to sample the dish that made his name famous.
The important thing is that beef stroganoff exists and it is delicious, and you can make it for dinner tonight. I would like to caution the culinary die-hards that this is not an authentic recipe. Rather, it is one of the many versions that became popular among American cooks in the years after World War II, making use of ingredients like Worcestershire sauce and even cream of mushroom soup. My mother’s version does not use canned soup but it does call for ketchup. Genuine stroganoffs may feature mustard, honey and paprika.
In a large skillet, cook onions in butter until tender, then add mushrooms and cook until just done. Remove them to a bowl and set aside. In the same pan, brown the steak lightly on all sides.
Set aside 1/3 cup of the beef broth and add the rest to the skillet, along with ¼ cup ketchup, 2 crushed garlic cloves and 1 cube beef bouillon. Stir to mix and lower heat to simmer for 15 minutes. While the meat is simmering, boil a quart of salted water and add 3 to 4 cups of wide egg noodles.
Blend reserved broth and flour then stir into meat mixture. Add mushrooms and onions and then heat to boil, stirring constantly. Cook at a full boil for just 1 minute before stirring in 2 cups of sour cream and do a taste-test for saltiness. I didn’t think it needed additional salt, but you do you.
Drain the noodles and pour into stroganoff. Mix well. I served my stroganoff over pappardelle but you can also ladle the creamy beef and mushrooms over rice, kasha (a buckwheat porridge popular in Russia) or mashed potatoes. With half a stick of butter and 2 cups of sour cream, it’s rich and comforting on a cloudy fall day, but I think it would be just as tasty with half the butter and cream. You could even skip the beef, use vegetable broth and add another cup or two of mushrooms for a yummy vegetarian mushroom stroganoff.
I’m not sure what you serve beef stroganoff with. Mom didn’t serve it with anything, but I think it might be nice with a side of sautéed green beans, and by green beans, I of course mean zucchini, since I still have a few thousand in my garden. If I drank wine, I’d opt for a red with high acidity to offset the dish’s creaminess, perhaps a zinfandel or a pinot noir. For dessert, antacids.