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Eric Akis: Beef Stroganoff a regal Russian comfort food for a wintry night

When my wife and I were courting, 30-plus years ago, we were fans of the Time Life Foods of the World book series.
For this stroganoff, tender, seared, saucy slices of beef are topped with golden, crispy straw potatoes.

When my wife and I were courting, 30-plus years ago, we were fans of the Time Life Foods of the World book series. It has several titles, with each book showcasing a different cuisine, such as French, Italian and Indian, and being adventurous cooks, we enjoyed learning about foods from around world.

We must still like those books, because they are prominently displayed on a bookshelf in our living room. From time to time, I pull one out, look through it and, just as when I first met my wife, will want to cook something I see in it.

That happened the other day when looking at the Time Life book on Russian cooking, which was published in 1969 and authored by Helen and George Papashvilly. It has great recipes, but the one whetting my appetite was bef Stroganov, a classic dish now made around the world. It is spelled beef stroganoff in most other food books I have, which is how I’ll now refer to it.

In the Time Life book, other authors say the dish was created in the late 19th century for the Russian Count Pavel Stroganov. Some suggest it was a dish that was already being made at that time and was simply refined a bit.

If you have had stroganoff, you'll know it features tender strips of beef in a sour-cream-based sauce. Beyond those key ingredients, what else gets mixed in can vary.

For example, some recipes call for mushrooms, others do not; some recipes add tomato paste, others do not; and some are thickened with flour, while, again, others are not.

The Time Life book says its recipe follows the classic Russian version of the dish, and you’ll find a variation of it here. I say variation because I halved the recipe so it would make two generous servings, perhaps something to serve for Valentine’s Day, and made a few other small tweaks.

For example, instead of just using sour cream for the sauce, I also added a bit of beef stock. I did that because the sour cream in Canada is quite thick, and I wanted the sauce to be looser.

The Time Life book deliciously suggests you scatter servings of beef stroganoff with straw potatoes — thin, crisp, deep-fried strips of potato — and I have included a recipe for them, too.

Beef Stroganoff

Tender strips of sautéed beef simmered a short while in a sour cream-based sauce with mushrooms and onions. Serve the stroganoff topped with straw potatoes (see recipe below) and a green vegetable, such as steamed green beans tossed with toasted walnuts and butter. Or, if desired, instead of straw potatoes, serve the stroganoff with egg noodles, steamed rice or rice pilaf.

Preparation time: 40 minutes

Cooking time: About 20 minutes

Makes: Two to three servings

2 tsp dry mustard powder (I used Keens brand)

1 tsp granulated sugar

2 tsp water

5 tsp butter (divided)

5 tsp vegetable oil (divided)

1/2 medium to large white onion, thinly sliced (about 1 cup)

6 oz. (170 g) white mushrooms, thinly sliced

1/2 tsp finely chopped fresh rosemary or thyme, or pinch or two dried

• salt and freshly ground black pepper

1/4 cup beef stock or broth, plus more if needed

3/4 cup sour cream

4 (3 1/2-oz/100 gram) beef tenderloin steaks, cut into 1/4- to 1/2-wide strips

• chopped fresh parsley, to taste

• straw potatoes (optional, see recipe below)

Place mustard, sugar and water in a small bowl and mix to combine. Cover and set aside until needed below.

Place 2 tsp butter and 2 tsp oil in 10- or 12-inch heavy skillet set over medium heat. When the butter is melted, add the mushrooms, onion and rosemary (or thyme), and then season with salt and pepper. Stir the mushrooms and onions well, and then cover the pan and cook them, stirring occasionally, until very tender, about eight to 10 minutes.

Set a fine sieve over a bowl, spoon the mushroom and onion mixture into the sieve and let sit and drain a few minutes. Place mushroom and onion mixture back in the skillet and set aside for now.

Place the remaining 1 1/2 tsp butter and 1 1/2 tsp oil in a second, 10- or 12-inch heavy skillet set over medium-high heat. When butter is melted, add half the beef strips, setting them in the pan in a single layer. Season beef with salt and pepper and sear about 60 seconds per side, until nicely browned, but still rare in the middle. Use tongs to lift the beef out of the pan and set in the skillet that has the mushroom and onion mixture in it.

Add the remaining beef to the hot skillet and sear it as you did the first batch. Lift it out of the pan and set it in the skillet with the mushroom and onion mixture in it.

Set that skillet over medium-low heat, and then mix in the mustard mixture and 1/4 cup beef stock (or broth). Slowly mix in the sour cream, adding about 2 Tbsp at a time. Bring to a simmer, cover pan, and cook two to three minutes, until the sauce surrounding the beef is hot (don’t simmer too long or the beef will shrink and toughen). At this point, if you find the stroganoff too thick, simply mix in a bit more stock (or broth). Taste and season the stroganoff with salt and pepper, if needed.

Sprinkle servings of the stroganoff with chopped parsley and, if desired, serve with straw potatoes, for scattering on top.

Straw Potatoes

Crispy, thin, golden, deep-fried strips of potatoes you can deliciously scatter over servings of beef stroganoff.

Preparation time: 15 minutes

Cooking time: About 4 1/2 minutes

Makes: Two servings

1 large (about 300 gram, 5 1/2- to 6-inch long) baking potato

• vegetable oil, for deep frying

• salt to taste

Peel the potato, and then cut it in half widthwise. Cut each half potato, lengthwise, into 1/8-inch thick slices. Cut each slice of potato, lengthwise, into 1/8-inch-wide strips.

Set potatoes in a bowl and rinse well with cold water. Drain the potatoes well, then very thoroughly dry with paper towel.

Heat the oil in your deep fryer to 350 F (see Eric’s options). Line a large plate with paper towel. Fry and blanch the potatoes until they start to soften, about 75 to 90 seconds. Lift the potatoes out of the fryer, drain well and then place, in a single layer, on the paper towel-lined plate. Potatoes can be prepared to this point at least an hour before serving.

When ready to serve, reheat the oil in your deep fryer to 350 F. Line a second large plate with paper towel. Add the potatoes to fryer and cook, stirring occasionally, until rich golden and crispy, about two to three minutes. Lift the potatoes out of the fryer, drain well, and then set on paper towel-lined plate. Let sit 30 seconds, and then transfer to a serving bowl or platter, season with salt, and serve.

Eric’s options: If you don’t have a deep fryer, you could very carefully fry the potatoes in a heavy pot on the stove filled with about three inches of vegetable oil, heated to 350 F. Use an instead-read kitchen thermometer to check the temperature of the oil.

Eric Akis is the author of eight cookbooks. His columns appear in the Life section Wednesday and Sunday.