The Russkoffs’ Stroganoff

Beef Stroganoff

My mother always had that thing for Russia; or rather Russian, the language. As a young student, when she was preparing her exams to become a teacher, she decided to take it on after English. This was a rare move at the time, but the curriculum offered it. She told me one day,  that most of her classmates got to visit St Petersburg and Moscow, a one in a lifetime travel, and came back with fantastic tales that she cherished all her life; being from a very humble upbringing, she didn’t make the journey… She sure loved whatever came from Russia, the music, the literature, the language and to be honest, while if I have never been, I can say that there is an amazing charm to this nation. I was more interested in the rock band “Center” or “Центр” with their hit song of the 80’s called Привет тебе (Hello to you). I also liked to read a bit of Dostoyevsky and fell in love with one of François Cavanna’s autobiography called “Les Russkoffs”, friendly French slang for Russians. The guy was one of the main founders of the notorious magazine “Charlie Hebdo”. Yes indeed, she had a certain affection for this country; I remember that anecdote, when Sting released his controversial song “Russians” in  1985; the catchy tune finished each verse by saying: “[…] if the Russians love their children too”, to which my mother replied to herself and for all to hear:” Ppfff… Well of course they love their children…”.

My young mother studying

As I was approaching my Junior Cert years, it was time for me to pick a second language. At that stage, English was the normal choice for first, and two years later, most kids would go for Spanish, Italian or German. We had a quick conversation my mother and I, in a purely democratic way of course, and it went like this… I swear!

Mother: “So, come on, I have to write your second language option on that sheet” Me: “I want to do Italian…” Mother: “Why?” Me: “I don’t know, I like the sound of it” Mother: “That is ridiculous… Ridiculous and lazy Franck!!!” Me:” why is it lazy?” Mother: “because it is like French, you just have to put an “i” or an “o” at the end of each word, and there you have it, Italian…” Mother (continuing on her aggravating rant): “I tell you what, you’ll do Russian, like I did, it’s great, you’ll see!!! You’ll love it; there, here is one of my books, you can familiarise yourself with the alphabet, an M is a T, a C is an S, a P is an R, an N is a P and if you see the letters that looks like a “61” well that is pronounced “ey”… What do you say?” Me (under my breath to avoid a slap): “I am fucked, aren’t I?”.

1959 French-Russian dictionary

I was to go and study Russian for the next seven years after that; it was so popular as a second language that I ended up on my own with a Bulgarian teacher for three long years, joined by three other pupils included my sister for an extra four ( ha-ha, she got you too!). Saying all those mean things, and glancing back with a more mature look, I am glad I have done so. It gave my life a sense of self importance, especially at social gatherings where it used to be my party trick, writing my friends names in the complex Cyrillic alphabet, but it also opened a window to another culture. My Mum thought that I would make a career in exports or something, or maybe was worried that Russians might invade us one day, I don’t know. No, seriously, I am glad I did it… But since I work now in the artisan food business, I really miss the fact that I didn’t study Italian… Sorry comrades, but that is the truth.

Haha… No effect on me what so ever …

Food wise, my knowledge of Russian dishes was a bit of an abyss. My Mum brought us one day, myself with Harvey and Gay, brothers with – let’s say – pretty left wing ideologies, my old pal Arny and my Sister tagging along, to a newly opened restaurant in town; she was besides herself with excitement, speaking Russian with the owners, a very friendly couple from Moscow;  great hearty food. An evening of laughter and a sweet memory for me as I could see how happy my mother was; it was her way, I guess, to do that little journey to Russia, a journey prevented by poor but honest financial means at that time of her life. A short few years later, I had moved to Galway; I was amused to see that a lot of the food joints of “The City of Tribes” had beef stroganoff on their menu, heavy with cream and pickled gherkins. I had it a few times, remembering with candour our wonderful meal in Gulia’s. I make it from time to time; the last one was on Sunday, after my friend from Flood’s Butchers in Oldcastle gave me two t-bone steaks. “Try this” he said… “You’re a good man” he said, after I did a small favour for them… It might appear sacrilegious to some but I did it the Stroganoff way, to me the best way to go. And this is how it went:

You’ll Need:

  • Two T-Bone steaks, boned and cut into strips
  • A wee tray of mushrooms, washed and stalks removed ( as much as one likes mushrooms)
  • Three shallots
  • Three medium carrots chopped
  • Two cloves of garlic roughly crushed
  • A dash of balsamic vinegar ( or a glass of white wine)
  • 25 cl of good beef stock
  • Fresh thyme
  • A tbsp of tomato purée

How To:

Once the meat has been stripped off the bone and cut into strips, sauté in a hot pan with olive oil; once it starts to go brown, add the carrots and stir. Pour a good dash of balsamic vinegar and let it reduce, then pour the beef stock and let it reduce. Add the tomato purée, stir, add salt and pepper and cover with water. Let it simmer gently until reduced by half. In another pan, sauté the shallots with the whole mushrooms; once golden, add to the main pan with the beef. Let it simmer for a bit, the whole operation should take about 30 to 40 minutes. Remember to season to taste and that it is not quite a stew!

Stroganoff in the making

To serve, I like a bit of cucumber, sliced and mixed with yogurt, olive oil and lime juice with fresh herbs like mint and fennel. I serve it with good quality rice, but this one is up to you. I guess it is lighter in summer. But not freaking pickled gherkins… Come on!

Homegrown cucumber
Cucumber, yogurt, lime and fresh herbs from the garden

I tried to remain faithful to an original recipe, without cream and even paprika like one can see sometimes. It is easy, very satisfying, and other steak cuts can be used. If you get a chance, browse around what traditional Russia has to offer in terms of food, it is quite interesting and definitely inspiring!

Beef Stroganov
Stroganoff in the making

Keep Well and Eat Happy

Slán Tamall


12 thoughts on “The Russkoffs’ Stroganoff

  1. Hi Franck! Nice recipe, of course, as often, but your way of telling this family story is even nicer. I envy your ability to tell stories from the past with such intensity, an intensity that you seem to actually find within the simplest facts and memories. I also had my minute of laughter when you mentioned your sister being caught into the same Russian class trap, haha! What’s also interesting (to me) about your story and you studying Russian, and the more “mature look” you have now on this, is that I have experienced your situation the complete other way around. Back in high school, I chose Chinese as 3rd language (not 2nd, okay) because I wanted to open my mind to something exceptionally different, and I dreamed about working in the export business or for an NGO or as a shrink for foreigners only (I was 14, okay?!!). At that time, my parents were surprised by this choice of mine and could not believe I wouldn’t go and study sciences (I come from a family of doctors and dentists, exclusively). They tried to talk me out of it when I decided to study it at University but I stood up for my choice. Years later, while working in China in the export business (hehe!), they couldn’t show more pride about what I was doing for a living in such an amazing country, but they were proud as well about the fact that at such a young age I had been able to see and go for something that was pretty unusual back then. As you said, it opened a window, and I’m so glad it did. Anyway, you and I had different paths, but I still totally understand what you meant in your story (and I also experienced the party trick, writing in Chinese etc). Eat well, as you say!

    1. Dear friend, thank you so much for your comment; it has touched me. This is is isn’t it. Understanding people no matter what. Culture brings understanding and tolerence, even if I don’t like the word “Tolerence”. You get me, and that is what it is all about! Thank you so much Sophie, this is very touching! Fairplay to you for standing up! 😀

  2. I absolutely loved this story. I absolutely love Russia – her people, her literature, her culture, her soul. I know many find this odd but I do and that’s that. I also learned Russian for 7 years. I would love your mum, this I know and I will also love that stroganoff when I make it tonight for my husband and our young guest at table. It feels the right thing to do. By the way the first book I have published in France is called ‘Russians Love Their Children Too’ …

    1. Aw Osyth, this is so touching! What a small world! She would have loved to meet you too, that is for sure! Russia has a great culture, may people like it or not, it cannot be dennied. That is a book I have to get; can I find it in Ireland? Or Amazon? I’d love to read it… I couldn’t stop smiling when I wrote this, there was something very innocent about that statement about Sting’s song! 😀 Thank you so much again, that has made my evening! 😉

  3. Damn, what the hell am I thinking? Why do I read your stories and recipes just before lunch? I’m starving and I know it’s going to be a dry ol’ beef sandwich or beans on toast again! P.S. sorry we didn’t make it back into the shop – we go waylaid, as you do.

      1. Cheers, my man. We did sneak back in again and get some lovely pasta, pesto and chorizo, but everyone had (quite rightly) headed home.

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