- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 26, 2008

For those of you who are fascinated by culinary history, this is the story of beef stroganoff. According to John Ayto in “An A to Z of Food and Drink” (Oxford University Press), “The recipe, which is of Russian origin, has been known since the eighteenth century, but its name appears to come from Count Paul Stroganoff, a 19th-century Russian diplomat. Legend has it that when he was stationed in deepest Siberia, his chef discovered that the beef was frozen so solid that it could only be coped with by cutting it into very thin strips. The first English cookery book to include it seems to have been Ambrose Heath’s Good Food (1932).”

I did not know those facts when I decided to try making this dish as a freshman in college. It sounded yummy and pretty easy to make. I prepared it from the “Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook” — my first. I didn’t know that adding sour cream and heating it can sometimes have unpleasant consequences. It can curdle, but if you add flour and don’t boil the sauce, you will have a deliciously creamy sauce. I made that dish for years — and then it fell out of fashion. Creamy sauces were out.

Recently I prepared this for a group of friends and realized it belongs on the table again. It is as delicious as ever.

The key to enjoying dishes like this is smaller portions and using less cream. This recipe uses a scant 1/3 cup of creme fraiche for 6 people.

Today, many of us prefer dishes grilled with light sauces and marinades, but there are times when a dish like beef stroganoff is just the ticket. I have made a few changes in this recipe that reflect my love for leeks and the brown cremini mushrooms. Slightly browned and caramelized leeks and mushrooms are the flavoring for the tender strips of beef.

Tomato paste, Dijon mustard and a big squirt of lemon juice balance out the beef broth and creme fraiche. I prefer using creme fraiche for this because it has a mild, sweet yet slightly nutty flavor and has less of a chance of curdling when heated. Sour cream is an option.

Serve this on a bed of wide egg noodles in a shallow soup bowl for a pretty presentation.

I like to begin this menu with a salad of butter lettuce and shavings of Parmesan cheese and thinly sliced pears in a lemon vinaigrette. Serve sliced French bread on the side. If you want a green vegetable, a side of braised spinach leaves would be lovely. Accompany this with a Rhone red wine such as syrah or try a cabernet sauvignon.

Help is on the way:

• For an even lighter version, try this with strips of chicken or turkey instead of the beef.

• Use wild mushrooms, if available.

• Serve the stroganoff on a bed of couscous. This should be prepared just before serving.

Beef stroganoff

1/4 cup olive oil

1 1/2 pounds top sirloin, cut into 2-by-1-by- 1/8-inch strips

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

3 tablespoons unsalted butter

3 leeks, light green and white part only, cleaned and finely chopped

1 pound brown (cremini) mushrooms, cleaned and sliced

1 tablespoon tomato paste

2 tablespoons all-purpose flour

2 1/4 cups beef broth

1/3 cup creme fraiche or sour cream

2 teaspoons Dijon mustard

2 teaspoons lemon juice

2 tablespoons finely chopped parsley, for garnish

Heat 1 1/2 tablespoons of the oil in a large skillet on high heat. Dry off the beef with paper towels and season with salt and pepper. Saute the beef in batches, making sure not to crowd the pan, about 1 minute on a side or until nicely browned on both sides and still pinkish. Remove to a side bowl and reserve. Repeat with another 1 1/2 tablespoons oil and the remaining meat. Reserve.

Lower the heat to medium and add the remaining tablespoon of oil and the butter to the skillet. Saute the leeks until softened and lightly browned, about 5 minutes. Add the mushrooms and saute until nicely browned, about 5 more minutes. Season with salt and pepper.

Stir in the tomato paste and cook a minute or until lightly browned. Sprinkle over the flour and cook another minute. Add the broth, turn up the heat to high and scrape up the brown bits with a wooden spoon. Let boil a minute and then reduce the heat to medium. Add the cream, mustard and lemon juice, and cook another minute until nicely blended.

Taste for seasoning. Return the meat and any juices to the sauce and cook no more than 2 minutes or until just hot. Serve immediately over noodles and garnish with parsley. Makes 6 servings.

TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES