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.