Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Cooking. beef Stroganoff.

Impatience is one of my greater faults. This is apparent as much in the kitchen as it is anywhere else. Another one, as my mother tells me, is my lack of consistency, which is why I am not a chef, because as a chef you have to get it right, perfectly, each time. The combination of impatience and inconsistency has probably lead to the majority of my kitchen disasters (aside from the one involving flaming whiskey). Any cookbook will tell you that cooking requires patience - when you are searing meat, for example, and try to move a steak or a piece of fish too soon, the flesh will tear - and most recipes are tested again and again so that when you try them they will work. The danger, for me, is when I step outside of the recipe and start improvising. Which is, of course, just asking for trouble. It can turn out splendidly, or it can be disastrous, and, because it was an improvisation, it can never be replicated.

I can't remember the first time I had beef Stroganoff, but I remember ordering it at a restaurant high in the Swiss Alps when I was in my early teens. (I don't remember whether it was good or not). Later I would order it at the Kaleenka, a Russian restaurant near the market; it came with a choice of fried potatoes (which is the classic presentation), rice pilaf, or kasha (which I preferred). I have always loved beef Stroganoff, with its rich slices of beef, tender mushrooms, tangy, creamy sauce, and something like noodles or rice to sop up all that lovely sauce. Then the Kaleenka became a French café (bar le jour, café la nuit, Le Pichet calls itself), and I had nowhere to go for beef Stroganoff. The only solution, of course, was to make it myself.

I have never followed a recipe for beef Stroganoff because I only make it for myself, and it is hard to adapt a recipe for four or six for one person. It has never turned out the same way twice, and it is not always successful. Sometimes the beef is too tough or the sauce is too soupy. Sometimes my timing is off and the noodles are soggy by the time everything else is ready. Last night's Stroganoff was a combination of all of the above: tough beef, soupy sauce, slightly underdone onions, and soggy noodles; edible but not far from disaster. Having sliced up enough steak, mushrooms, and onions for two meals, I had a second chance to try again. (Because beef Stroganoff does not reheat well, I divide all the ingredients into two equal, single-serving portions, cooking one and reserving the other, uncooked, in the refrigerator).

This time, I would start making the sauce before dropping the noodles into the boiling water. The beef was briefly browned and seasoned, then placed aside. The thinly sliced onions were sautéed until golden, and then the mushrooms were added. When they started to brown around the edges, I added red wine and let everything simmer until the wine had reduced considerably before returning the beef to the pan. The wine had become a syrupy glaze. A few spoonfuls of sour cream were stirred in, until they melted into the wine and became amalgamated into a creamy, thick sauce. I drained the noodles and tossed them with the sauce-slicked contents of the pan, which always tastes better than just pouring the sauce on top of the noodles. Perfect? Not quite - I could have reduced the sauce even more - but there will be other chances. At least nothing caught on fire.

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