Beef Stroganoff, Bolsheviks and The Grand Duchess Anastasia

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Grand Duchess Anastasia

I’ve always loved beef stroganoff. When I was a kid, my mom would make large pots of the stuff and I would happily eat leftovers for days. As an Italian kid, it was exciting to eat a dish whose name ended with an "f" instead of an "i." Stroganoff! Plus there was my mad obsession wondering what happened to the Russian Grand Duchess Anastasia. I was convinced, in a way that only young girls can be, that she had eluded execution and was living an undercover life somewhere. Taking small bites of beef mixed with egg noodles and sour cream, I would daydream about the life I imagined she had after escaping the terrible fate of her Tsar father and family, murdered by Bolsheviks. Did she marry a farmer and everyone but her husband was ignorant to her true royal identity? Was she living in Paris under an assumed name? The list of possibilities was endless and oh so very romantic to a young girl wishing to escape her own reality of a stucco house in North County San Diego.

But the beef stroganoff of my youth was vastly different than anything they served in Russia when Anastasia was alive. After all, my Neapolitan mother who had been raised in the Bronx hadn't even heard of the dish before she was at least 30. Like many Americans, the recipe for my first taste of this dish came from the back of a Campbell's soup can. Mixed with button mushrooms, sliced onions and sour cream, the mix of savory beef flavors and the velvety texture of the sauce both tingled and soothed my taste buds. Say what you will about Campbell's cream of mushroom soup, I loved every bite.

After awhile I forgot about this dish. I didn't eat a lot of beef in my adult years until I became pregnant (at which point I craved it constantly). But when my daughters were young, I remembered how much I loved this stew when I was a girl and so wanted to share it with them. Using Campbell's soup was out of the question, however. As much as I loved that dish as a kid, I knew there had to be a more authentic way to make it that also contained less sodium. I read somewhere along the way that a traditional stroganoff uses mustard. Although they probably used mustard seed back in pre-Soviet Russia, I started adding a teaspoon of Dijon to my dish instead, and was happy with the nice little kick it gave to the sauce. I then opted to use both dried and fresh mushrooms in place of the cream of mushroom soup. Dried porcinis are my favorite, but any dried mushroom steeped in water will infuse the dish with a deep and subtle earthy complexity needed to round out the flavors. And, although some recipes use heavy cream for the sauce, I've stuck with sour cream because I love the tangy flavor in the rich gravy.

Beef stroganoff has become one of my daughters' favorite stews -- like mother like daughters, I suppose. Last week, both my girls devoured every morsel in front of them and one even licked the plate clean -- I'm not exaggerating. As I watched them eat, I began to wonder if they knew of Anastasia's story or if they'd even care about it as much as I did when I was their age. But how could they not? The fated end of the Russian Tsar and his family combined with a hearty beef stew is an irresistible match and bound to capture their imagination. Maybe next time I'll have to share a little Russian history over dinner.


beef stroganoff

Beef Stroganoff

Enough for 6-8 people

2 1/2 lbs beef chuck or tenderloin cut into strips or 1-inch chunks
1/4 cup flour
2 large white or yellow onions roughly sliced
1 cup dried porcini mushrooms
2 cups sliced mushrooms (I used a mix of brown and shitake, but you can use whatever you’d like)
1 Tbsp Worcestershire sauce
1/4 cup Cognac or sweet wine (like Madeira)
1 tsp Dijon mustard
3-4 cups beef broth
2 tsp dried thyme or 1 Tbsp fresh thyme
1 tsp paprika
Salt and Pepper to taste
3 Tbsp vegetable oil
1 cup sour cream
Freshly chopped parsley for garnish
Cooked wide egg noodles

1. Place dried mushrooms in a bowl and cover with boiling water (enough to just cover the mushrooms). Let sit for at least 10 minutes.

2. Sprinkle salt, pepper and 1 tsp thyme on uncooked meat. Sprinkle with flour to lightly and evenly coat each piece.

3. In a large dutch oven, heat 1 Tbsp oil on medium high. When oil is hot, place half the meat in the bottom of the pan, being sure not to crowd the bottom (crowding will make the beef steam instead of sear, and you want each piece to brown to seal in the juices).

4. Sear meat on all sides without cooking through and then remove from the pan. Add another 1 Tbsp vegetable oil and repeat with the remainder of the meat.

5. Remove all the meat from the dutch oven and add in the last tablespoon of oil. Sauté the onions for five minutes.

6. Roughly chop the now hydrated porcini mushrooms and add to the onions. Reserve the mushroom water. Add the cognac or Madeira wine, Dijon mustard, paprika, the remaining 1 tsp thyme, Worcestershire sauce and a bit of the mushroom water if needed. Sauté for another five minutes.

7. Add the meat to the onion and mushroom mixture and then mix in the remainder of the mushroom water, 3 cups of beef stock and some freshly ground pepper. Be sure to scrape the bottom of the pan to deglaze the caramelized goodness.

8. Bring the pot to a slow boil and then reduce heat to simmer. Cover pot and simmer for one hour.

9. After an hour, check stew and add the last cup of beef stock if the stew seems too dry. Add in the fresh mushrooms.

10. Simmer for another 30-60 minutes (the longer the better).

11. Cook noodles in salted water according to package directions.

12. Mix about 2 Tbsp flour with enough water to make a slurry and add to the stew. Simmer to thicken the sauce to make a glossy gravy.

13. Remove some of the gravy from the pot and add it to a bowl along with the sour cream. Whisk together and then add it to the larger pot and mix in.


14. Set noodles on plates and then ladle on the stew. Serve with chopped parsley.