It’s a mean, cold, wet day as I write, but I know Spring is here because morels have begun appearing. Tom and I dreamt about morels all winter long. We’d been planning an experiment of substituting wild mushrooms for the beef in a Stroganov recipe, so when we saw plump, pale golden ones in a good grocery store, we snatched some.
There are many “stroganoff’ recipes floating around, some pretty dismal – calling for things like canned cream of mushroom soup. The one I make is from the Russian Cooking volume of the ever-reliable Time-Life Foods of the World series. It’s billed as the classic 19th-century recipe for bef Stroganov, named for the great Stroganov family of imperial Russia and very different from the many European and American versions of the dish. It uses a technique I’ve not seen in any other recipe, and the results have always been delicious.
Now, morels are marvelous to eat but tricky to buy, because insects find them as tasty as humans do. I’m squeamish about creepy-crawly things wriggling out of my foodstuffs, so it’s Tom’s job to wash, halve, and carefully inspect all morels that come into our kitchen. Happily, this batch was very clean. We sautéed them in butter until not quite done and set them aside.
Next was more work for the knife man. He thinly sliced half a pound of white mushrooms and two cups’ worth of Spanish onions. Most recipes call for proportionately fewer onions, and most just sauté these vegetables. For our recipe, we put them in a pan with just a tiny bit of oil, covered the pan, and let it simmer over very low heat, stirring occasionally. After half an hour, when the vegetables were completely soft and the onions had exuded a lot of liquid, we dumped them all into a large sieve and let the liquid drain away. (Knife man was half-tempted to save it for soup, but he didn’t move fast enough.)
Then we combined the onions and white mushrooms with the morels and a little paste made with Coleman’s dry mustard, stirred in some sour cream, and let it all simmer, covered, for just a few minutes. And that’s it: It was done.
Another unusual thing about this recipe is that it doesn’t call for serving the Stroganov over noodles or rice, as others do. It recommends straw potatoes. So my faithful knife man reduced a big russet potato to 2½ by ⅛ inch strips and we deep-fried them – twice; for less than a minute each time.
Finally, we plated the Stroganov, surrounded it with the crisp straw potatoes, and were ready to eat.
Don’t judge this dish by my less-than-prepossessing photo. Yes, the soft ingredients are all in muted gray-brown colors, more or less mushed together, with the straw potatoes offering the only visual contrast. It may have been a food stylist’s nightmare, but it was a gastronome’s dream to eat. The morels provided their characteristic and unmatchable woodsy flavors – a totally satisfying substitute for beef – and the onion-mushroom base provided an ever-so-slightly sweet and subtle background for them. The crunchy potatoes gave an essential textural contrast and pulled the whole dish together as a vegetarian delight, even for confirmed carnivores.