Monday, February 16, 2009

Dinner with Norpois (V): Beef Stroganoff

“Now, that is something you can’t get in any public eating establishment, not excluding the very best: a dish of braised beef, with aspic that doesn’t smell like glue, in which the meat has absorbed the flavor of the carrots—quite magnificent! Do allow me to have a little more,” he added, with a gesture that requested another helping of the aspic. “I would be interested to see how your Vatel would acquit himself of quite a different dish—beef Stroganoff, for example.”

—In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flour 30

After having tasted Françoise’s fabulous boeuf mode en gelée, Norpois’s curiosity is piqued. Beef stroganoff comes into the ambassador’s mind. However, the culinary origin of beef stroganoff seems to suggest that the appearance of such a dish in Proust’s text is either a pure accident or, very possibly, another illustration of Proust’s brilliant craftsmanship in intertextuality. Probably unknown among most Proust readers, beef stroganoff is “named after 19th century Russian diplomat Count Paul Stroganov, this dish consists of thin slices of tender beef (usually tenderloin or top loin), onions and mushrooms, all sautéed in butter and combined with a sour-cream sauce” (Food Lover’s Companion 666).

If the allusion to beef stroganoff is intended by the author, I cannot help but wonder why a French diplomat, like Norpois, would mention a dish that was created in honor of another diplomat, a contemporary Russian fellow; or why the narrator would mention Norpois’s mention! Might Norpois (or a real French diplomat in Proust’s time, if such a figure as Norpois was created out of a real French diplomat) possibly have met Stroganov previously? Is Norpois’s suggestion of such a dish out of his own personal experience of having tasted it before? Or does his mention both of the dish and of the Russian diplomat allow him to flamboyantly display both a professional and personal experience he does not really possess? By gossiping at the dinner table about “the sesquipedalianism of a certain politician known for preposterous utterances larded with mixed metaphors” and “the epigrammatic brevity of a diplomat who was a master of elegant Atticism” (30), Norpois, through the narrator, shows himself to be much like the boeuf mode en gelée—larded by his own statements, in an effort to look impressive but actually becoming preposterous in the presentation. Similar to his hollow and insubstantial comments on the boeuf mode en gelée, Norpois’s mentioning of beef stroganoff may again suggest his shortage of understanding how this dish is made and, in this case, even his shortage of familiarity with the Russian diplomat. Mentioning the famous dish named after what to Norpois would be a famous diplomat may show Norpois’s own jealousy. Perhaps, Norpois has neither ever tried beef stroganoff nor met Stroganov. Yet, by having the chance to try Françoise’s masterpiece version of this dish (the chance to even mention a desire to have the dish), Norpois again demonstrates his performative skills by realizing his own opinions into the truth, as iterated from a supposed gourmet’s perspective. Thus, as the narrator might have insinuating, “truth” is constructed out of ignorance.

Of course, if, instead of the undertone created to undermine Nopois’s fragile authority, this dish is selected by the author for its totally different preparation as compared with boeuf mode en gelée , I, after my own experimenting on this dish, can understand Norpois’s (or Proust’s) good knowledge in different culinary skills and knacks. Compared with boeuf mode en gelée which can only be made out of many steps, enormous amount of time and intensive labor, beef stroganoff can be prepared more quickly and with fewer steps. It qualifies as one of the most representative dishes in the under 30-minute meal category. However, a dish requiring significantly shorter cooking time doesn’t mean it is simple to make. The challenge of this dish, as I foresaw and was later forewarned by Julia Child, lies in the proper timing and controlling of heat when browning the sliced beef tenderloin. As delicate as slices of beef tenderloin tend to be, any minor error in timing and heat can overcook the meat. In contrast, the slowed cooked boeuf ά la mode—marinated for several hours in a red wine/brandy mixture before browning and braising—which eventually transforms into boeuf mode en gelée by means of reducing the gravy and introducing gelatin to the liquid, can turn out well even with some “mistakes” along the way. Indeed, slightly overcooked braised meat would not jeopardize the dish, whereas overcooked beef stroganoff would definitely result in a failed dish.

Sauté De Boeuf À La Parisienne [Beef Sauté with Cream and Mushroom Sauce]
(Adapted from Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child et al.)

This sauté of beef is good to know about if you have to entertain important guests in a hurry. It consists of small pieces of filet sautéed quickly to a nice brown outside and a rosy center, and served in a sauce. The following recipe can easily be prepared in 30 minutes, or in less than half the time if the meat has been sliced and the mushrooms sautéed ahead. In the variations at the end of the recipe, all the sauce ingredients may be prepared in advance. If the whole dish is cooked ahead of time, be very careful indeed in this reheating that the beef does not overcook. The cream and mushroom sauce here is a French version of beef Stronganoff, but less tricky as it uses fresh rather than sour cream, so you will not run into the problem of curdled sauce.

Serve the beef is a casserole, or on a platter surrounded with steamed rice, risotto, or potato balls sautéed in butter. Buttered green peas or beans could accompany it, and a good red Bordeaux wine.

½ pound sliced fresh mushrooms
A heavy 9- to 10-inch enameled skillet
2 tablespoons butter and 1 tablespoon cooking oil
3 tablespoons shallots or green onions
¼ teaspoon salt and a pinch of pepper
2 ½ pounds of filet of beef; the tenderloin butt and the tail of the filet are usually used
2 tablespoons butter and 1 tablespoon cooking oil, more if needed
¼ cup Madeira or dry white vermouth
¾ cup good brown stock or canned beef bouillon
1 cup whipping cream
2 teaspoons cornstarch blended with 1 tablespoon of the cream
Salt and pepper
2 tablespoon softened butter
Parsley sprigs

Sauté the mushroom in the skillet in hot butter and oil for 4 to 5 minutes to brown them lightly. Stir in the shallots or onions, and cook for a minute longer. Season the mushrooms, and scrape them into a side dish.

Remove all surrounding fat and filament, and cut the filet into 2-ounce pieces, about 2 inches across and ½ inch thick. Dry thoroughly on paper towels.

Place the butter and oil in the skillet and set over moderately high heat. When the butter foam begins to subside, sauté the beef, a few pieces at a time, for 2 to 3 minutes on each side to brown the exterior but keep the interior rosy red. Set the beef on a side dish, and discard sautéing fat.

Pour the wine and stock or bouillon into the skillet and boil it down rapidly, scraping up coagulated cooking juices, until liquid is reduced to about 1/3 cup. Beat in the cream then the cornstarch mixture. Simmer a minute. Add the sautéed mushrooms and simmer a minute more. The sauce should have a slight liaison (be lightly thickened). Taste carefully for seasonings.

Season the beef lightly with salt and pepper and return it to the skillet along with any juices which may have escaped. Baste the beef with the sauce and mushrooms; or transfer everything to a serving casserole.

When you are ready to serve, cover the skillet or casserole and heat to below the simmer for 3 or 4 minutes, being very careful not to overdo it or the pieces of filet will be well done rather than rare. Off heat and just before serving, tilt casserole, add butter to sauce a bit at a time while basting the meat until the butter has absorbed. Decorate with parsley, and serve at once.

1 comment:

  1. I had rarely cooked at home, so at college I had to take a crash course in cooking. Luckily I attended the American College in Paris. I rented a bedroom from a lady of diminished means, as did my fellow college student and an interpreter at the American embassy, Leonard Radlo. Leonard taught us our first sophisticated dish. Quickly brown thin slices of veal and remove from the pan. Add more butter and saute sliced mushrooms and onions until they gave up most of their moisture. Return the veal to the pan and add a large dollop of creme fraiche. Let the flavors meld for a minute or two. Serve with pasta, rice or potato.