Mr and Mrs Stirling, at whose restaurant The Hat and Feather, in Knutsford, Cheshire, I cooked for a few months in the early 1970s, always relied upon Robert Carrier’s recipe for beef stroganoff. I was bewildered by it. I had spent the previous year in another establishment working from an entirely French repertoire. Steak au poivre, côte de bœuf with sauce béarnaise, entrecôte marchand de vin—these I had all cooked; but never a dish of beef with soured cream. What on earth was soured cream, anyway?
Essentially, Carrier’s recipe instructed you to sautée thin strips of seasoned beef fillet in butter in a heavy skillet until lightly browned, but still very rare. You’d put this to one side, add a touch more butter to the pan, and gently fry thinly sliced onions and button mushrooms until they were golden. The beef was then returned to the pan, where I’d sprinkle over a healthy dash of sweet paprika, and toss the beef, onions and mushrooms vigorously together until they were well mixed.
To finish, I’d quickly stir in two or three generous spoonfuls of soured cream; this novel ingredient was so delicious that some usually went in my mouth as well. It was crucial the cream didn’t boil, or it would curdle, so I just mingled the assembly until the meat was coated luxuriously, before doing a final quick taste for salt. Naturally, in those heady days of exciting garnishes, the dish went out to the dining room strewn with chopped parsley.
Being the thrifty restaurateurs the Stirlings most surely were, they bought good-value fillet “tails” from the local butcher, who collected them over a period of time, froze them, and then alerted Mrs Stirling when he had enough for a couple of weeks of “strog”. This butcher’s leftover remains the best cut to use for Carrier’s method. But recently it occurred to me that a short, braised stroganoff may also work well, using tomatoes and another, more flavoursome cut of beef unfamiliar in Britain until recently: onglet. (This is the French name, but here it is often called skirt steak; the Americans refer to it as hanger.)
I recall seeing recipes for such a thing over the years. The one ingredient I clearly remembered from those older, gentler versions of beef strog was tomato purée: an ingredient vital to many stews and casseroles of the 1960s and 1970s. This ubiquitous paste was almost impossible to avoid: you’d find it everywhere from Hungarian goulash to Italian ways with chicken. And all were always far too red, victims of purée overkill—usually as a result of it not having been cooked-out in oil or butter, which neutralises the raw taste.
Not surprisingly, this purée didn’t appeal as part of my updated braise. Instead, some peeled and chopped fresh tomatoes would, I thought, be ideal. Sliced onions would remain, and a scrap of garlic wouldn’t go amiss, either. To add extra depth of flavour, I planned to replace the blander, cultivated button mushrooms with a healthy handful of pre-soaked dried porcini. I’d still use paprika, though more than before, and also add some dill, a popular herb in Slavic cooking, where stroganoff has its origins.
To make the dish for two, I slowly fried a couple of sliced onions and a little garlic in beef dripping or oil, then added about 400g of beef, cut into largeish pieces. I coloured these a bit, and then stirred in a couple of teaspoons of paprika, salt and pepper, two to three chopped tomatoes and the drained porcini. I let it stew over a very low heat for about 20 minutes, stirring occasionally, before tipping in the porcini liquid and a couple of teaspoons of dried dill. Then it simmered very, very quietly, uncovered, for about an hour.
To finish, I decanted the contents of the pan into a heated dish. I loosened and thinned a small pot of soured cream with a touch of hot milk, then spooned it over the stroganoff, swirling it into the juices and allowing it to sink between the meat. A deft dusting of paprika over the surface prettied the thing. Plainly boiled, buttered potatoes were the only accompaniment needed.
Tails These are the thin, tapering end of beef fillet – ask your butcher to cut some for you, the next time you are in the mood for some 1970s exotica.
Onglet This cut hangs below the diaphragm; a good butcher should be able to furnish you with some, given due notice, but ask to have the central, sinewy strip removed.
Sweet paprika I use El Avion sweet paprika (or pimentón dulce) from Spain, which has a paler colour than Hungarian paprika. It’s available at good delis, Spanish food shops and some supermarkets.
Dill If fresh is out of season, Bart’s jars of freeze-dried dill tops are widely available and very good.