Stroganoff and the Philosophy of the Primitive Kitchen

©1991, 1998 by Charles M. Nelson

As an anthropologist, I've been sensitized to many a strange dish and not a few philosophies of eating. Eskimo say that Dog People (that's us) are fools. "They stop eating when they're full!" But try eating three pounds of meat and a couple pounds of fat for dinner, even on a very cold winter day, and you will understand why there's more than one philosophy of eating.

We often say "You are what you eat," but the !Kung of the Kalahari Desert say "You eat what you are." They would also say that you eat Thanksgiving and Christmas. By this they mean that sharing food is at the heart of any small-scale social undertaking. In 1980, in the China which was beginning to emerge after Chairman Mao's death, I was hustled about Beijing one night to talk to a Chinese anthropologist about the possible subversive idea of cultural evolution. I asked my friend if this guy could be trusted. He replied: "During the Cultural Revolution I ate with him." Nothing further had to be said; I understood that this gentleman could be trusted implicitly.

Well then, the primitive kitchen is that place in your heart where food really counts. It doesn't depend on fancy technology, but contemplates the perfection of cooking with what you have when you have it for those that really matter. Count Sergi Stroganoff understood this perfectly. He had an army to motivate if Russia was to survive Napoleon. You might think of it as the primitive kitchen vs. Haute cuisine. Of course, we all know that Napoleon ended up on Elba where the chief spice in his food was arsenic.

When inhabiting the primitive kitchen, you shouldn't think of a recipe, but rather of an approach -- the philosophy which underlies any universal dish such as Stroganoff. Yes, there are as many Stroganoffs as there are seasons of the year and countrysides in the world. You can make it any time and in any place there are cows. If Napoleon had only seen this simple truth, cattle would be extinct in eastern Europe and the French might still rule the world. But onward to the strogie.

Strogie has five components: sour cream, stock, meat, vegetables and spices. You must have the sour cream and you need three of the four remaining items. Lets consider each in the philosophical mode of the primitive kitchen.

SOUR CREAM is a fabulous medium for cooking because it interacts with other ingredients in so many different ways. It's like one of those Zen sayings which reflect many levels of reality. Indeed, in the Near East where cattle were domesticated 8,000 years ago, sour cream has become a religious experience in its own right. The most important thing in using sour cream is how long and hard you cook it.

Uncooked, it is a common base of chip dip. This is because it magnifies flavors, even very subtle ones, so long as you don't boil it. If you want to know the flavor of a spice, just mix some with sour cream, let it stand a while a room temperature, and heat it in a sauce pan until it's about to boil. Remove it from the flame and let it cool a bit and taste. You will find that even paprika and turmeric, spices often treated as coloring, have interesting and distinctive flavors when you make this test. This important because it defines one of the three main types of Stroganoff: the one in which the sour cream is added after all the other main ingredients are cooked and then heated just short of boiling. These are the subtle strogies, like mushroom and paprika with diced chicken.

The other two main approaches to cooking Stroganoff involve bringing the mixture to a simmer in an open pan for between one and five minutes, and baking the ingredients in a closed pan for between 15 and 45 minutes. The simmer technique is used for dishes in which you want partial blending of robust flavors and the baking approach for a well blended sauce with large chunks of food with highly distinctive flavors of their own. For example, many tanduri sauces from India are really highly spiced Strogies.

STOCK is the next most important ingredient. This transmutes the flavor of the sour cream just as the unboiled sour cream amplifies the flavor of spices. Cream stocks are generally the best, and of these cream of chicken and cream of mushroom soup the most versatile. Use more delicate stocks with subtle spices and robust stocks with more robust spices like tarragon.

SPICES are next in importance. And here you must think of the concept of spice in its broadest sense. For example, two of the principle spices used with Stroganoff are butter and yogurt which are important flavorings especially effective in the baking approach. If you begin a Stroganoff by cooking sliced mushrooms in bacon fat, a hardy richness is imparted to the sauce.

Pepper and garlic are the two most generally employed spices, but many others can be used to produce a kaleidoscope of flavors. For example, two or three tablespoons of paprika added with the sour cream at the very end produce a rosy, delicately flavored sauce. Or you can take tablespoons of coarsely ground or crushed cumin seeds and fry them in peanut oil until they are a rich brown color. When the oil begins to smoke, add mushrooms or strips of meat and sear. The meat, mushrooms and sauce base will acquire a very delicate nut-like flavor.

MEAT is optional, but customary. It can be ground, finely chopped or slivered for use as a spice, or become partners with a sauce as in a baked Stroganoff with chicken breasts. Remember that meat often adds fat to the sauce. This will separate as a clear yellowish or brownish fluid and form puddles on top. Is this a problem? Perhaps, but if you're an Eskimo or my great grandfather who loved salted goose grease on his black bread, its just a tasty opportunity. Simply stir the fat into the sauce and enjoy the way it enhances all those saucy flavors. If you feel guilty about engaging in such hedonistic practices, then use an ample amount of garlic when cooking the meat and blending the sauce. Garlic is a natural emulsifier and will bind the fat and sour cream together so that the fat becomes invisible. Then again, if you really don't want the fat, simply use lean meat.

VEGETABLES add flavor, color and texture. You can use any veggies which don't add an excessive amount of liquid. For example, fresh tomatoes should be avoided. Onions, leeks, celery, carrots, radishes, cabbage, peppers, turnips, parsnips, fungus and ferns all work very well. Vegetables can be the main theme or simply delightful accents. You can add them any time in the cooking process or as a garnish before serving. If you have leftovers, throw them in at the beginning and they will have disappeared by the end.

Stroganoff can be served on rice, noodles, potatoes, and hard crackers. Or you can scoop the sauce up with fresh sour dough bread. The more delicate sorts can even be used as fondue dips.

And remember, Strogie can be as simple or as complicated as you like. On the trail, all you need as a pan, a fire, sour cream, a can of soup and leftovers to make a very appetizing meal. In a kitchen -- well, all things are possible in the kitchen of your imagination. It's a simple matter of philosophy.