A few days ago I heard a local meteorologist describing the future forecast as “Sweater Weather,” and I thought how nice it is that we’ve started describing the weather by what’s appropriate to wear. But he was right! Yesterday was, by far, the coldest day of the season. I knew the temperature was going to drop because the normally calm afternoon winds took a turn and started swirling about harshly from the north, sending dried leaves and tumble weeds flying in all directions. Our house happens to face north and, as much as I love its odd, old quirks, it’s very drafty. In winter, the wind whistles and moans on the eaves above the front door and the cold air always manages to find its way inside, probably using the same hidden cracks and holes that the spiders and crickets use to find shelter from the rain.
The kids felt the change in the air, too, and decided to wear their pajamas turned inside-out and backwards to bed. Now, if you don’t have kids then I should explain that this is the standard trick kids use these days to ensure they’ll have a snow-day in the morning. But there’s a twist; it only works if they also place a spoon underneath their pillows and flush a few ice cubes down the toilet – the ideal number of ice cubes, as far as I know, has yet to be determined, but that’s where I drew the line. Things have gotten so complicated! When I was a kid we had to cross our fingers and hope for the best. They went to bed late, but not before each grabbing a spoon from the silverware drawer and grumbling about the ice cubes I didn’t let them flush. Sure enough, when they woke up there was a fresh blanket of snow on the ground. Or, perhaps a “blanket” is being a little generous. It was more like a sheet – a thin, icy sheet. Just enough to make the morning commute a little tricky but not enough to cancel school. Naturally, they blamed the ice cubes for this unfortunate outcome.
That afternoon, just the sound of the wind outside the front door had me reaching for my favourite sweater. I feel a bit like my grandmother with a big sweater on. She always wore one – even in the summer. In her opinion, all weather was “sweater weather.” Hers was mustard-yellow, with a tie around the waist and big, deep pockets for things like tissues and pennies and a candy mint and maybe a band-aid. The essentials. Mine is green, doesn’t have pockets, and the elbows are so worn that I’m seriously considering sewing on little leather patches to extend its life. The funny thing is that the thought of turning into my grandma doesn’t bother me at all. On the contrary, it’s rather comforting because, if there’s anyone who knows anything about comfort, it’s a grandmother! Mine was always so worried we would be cold and catch the flu. She’d zip our jackets up to our chins before we went outside, or wrap a blanket around our shoulders when we were watching tv. She always had a pot of hot tea at the ready and if we couldn’t sleep, she’d quickly bring us a mug of warm milk. And, of course, she’d serve us the most delicious, rich and satisfying comfort food whenever we came to visit. Chicken noodle soup, pot roast with turnips and mashed potatoes, buttery bread sticks, herbed noodles in broth, and one of my favourite comfort foods ever – beef stroganoff!
I spent a lot of time in my grandmother’s kitchen as a child. Her stove was old, her kitchen was ancient, her wooden spoons were burnt and her pots and pans were dented and stained – there was absolutely nothing new or shiny in that kitchen, save for the few pieces of glass and crystal she kept locked safely away in a glass cabinet for special meals like Christmas or Thanksgiving or, her favourite holiday, St. Patrick’s Day. I remember looking at the pots she was using. These old, discoloured aluminum things with wooden handles that were charred, oil-stained and practically falling off – and thinking, If only these pans could speak to me! They must have the most amazing stories to tell!
People often say, “If these walls could talk what secrets would they reveal!” But wouldn’t it be even better if old pans could talk? Imagine all they could share with us! All those lost family recipes! The ones we remember from childhood but have never been able to re-create exactly? Or the dishes that turned out perfectly once, and got rave reviews at the dinner table, but which, in the excitement, we forgot to write down?
“Psst…” I’d imagine one of the old pots whispering to me from the back burner. “Turn the heat to medium,” it would instruct. “Now add the butter, just a little. Make sure it’s at room temperature and stir it so it doesn’t burn. And while you wait for it to melt, pour yourself a cup of tea and throw on your warmest sweater….”
These old pots would most certainly have known my grandmother’s recipe for beef stroganoff by heart! She made it so often, especially when the weather began to turn cold. Here are a few secrets they would tell:
Anchovies: Anchovies are a cook’s best friend. Once they’re cooked into a savory sauce, they don’t taste fishy at all, but add a certain, depth of flavour that you can’t get from anything else. You could use anchovy paste, however it’s much more economical to buy a tin or jar of anchovies (and they taste better!) Generally there are about 10 – 12 filets in a standard tin, so when you only need to use one, lay the others in a single layer inside a zip-top bag. Press the air from the bag, seal and place flat in the freezer. Once they are frozen you can easily pop a single anchovy filet out the next time you need only one, and nothing goes to waste.
(The same thing works for tomato paste, by the way. If you purchase tomato paste in a can, but only need one tablespoon, the rest can be portioned out in tablespoon-size dollops inside a plastic bag and frozen flat. Then, whenever you need a tablespoon of tomato paste you can grab a pre-measured blob from the freezer.)
Mushrooms: Most beef stroganoff recipes call for cooking the mushrooms in the sauce along with the meat, however, I prefer to cook them separately, over very high heat on the stove just before serving and then place them on top of the stroganoff. This prevents them from becoming mushy and adds so much flavour! When cooking mushrooms, they will first act like sponges, absorbing all the butter or oil from the pan. Then they will gradually start to release it back. When you have nearly as much fat in the pan as you did when you started, you know the mushrooms are done.
Slow-Cooker Beef Stroganoff with Brown-Butter Egg Noodles
There are about as many variations of beef stroganoff as there are tricks to make the snow fall. This version can either be cooked in a slow cooker or in a dutch oven inside a very low oven. I like to prepare it in my slow cooker since I am out most of the day, but if you’re preparing it in a dutch oven, cut the cooking time to about 2 hours and check it every once in a while to make sure it doesn’t dry out.
for the stroganoff:
1 large yellow onion, sliced thinly
4 TBSP butter (divided)
2 TBSP extra virgin olive oil (divided)
3 – 4 cloves of garlic, sliced thinly (divided)
10 eye of round steaks
1/4 cup flour
1 tsp paprika
1 anchovy filet
1/2 cup dry red wine
1 cup beef stock
1 cup sour cream
16 oz. baby Portobello mushrooms, sliced in half
salt and pepper, to taste
chopped flat leaf parsley to garnish
for the noodles:
16 oz. wide egg noodles
4 TBSP butter
2 TBSP flat-leaf parsley chopped
salt and pepper
Turn your crock pot to low to begin preheating. In a large pan over med-low heat, melt 2 tablespoons of butter. Add the onions and a large pinch of salt and cook, stirring occasionally until the onions begin to caramelize (about 20 minutes). Low and slow is the key to great caramelized onions.
Meanwhile, mix the flour and paprika together. Season the meat with salt and pepper, and dredge in the flour mixture.
When the onions are nicely browned, add half the garlic and cook 2-3 minutes longer. Spread the onions and garlic evenly into the slow cooker.
In the same pan, add a tablespoon or two of olive oil and brown the meat in batches. When the meat is brown place it on top of the onions in the slow cooker. (If there is any flour leftover, pour it into the pan to brown along with the meat.) When all the meat is browned, add the anchovy to the fat in the pan and break it up a bit with the back of a wooden spoon. Pour the wine into the pan and bring to a simmer. Add the stock and stir, scraping up the browned bits from the bottom of the pan. Pour this sauce over the meat in the slow cooker. Cover and cook on low 6 – 7 hours, or high 4 – 5 hours (or until the meat is very tender).
One hour before serving stir in the sour cream. Cover and finish cooking.
Just before serving, cook the mushrooms and bring a large pot of salted water to a boil for the noodles. To make the mushrooms, heat the remaining 2 Tbsp butter in a skillet until very hot but not burning. Watch it carefully! Add the mushrooms and cook, shaking the pan once in a while, until they are golden and caramelized on one side. Stir and cook until they are soft. At first the mushrooms will absorb the butter in the pan, then they will begin to release it back into the pan. This is when you know they’re done. Add the remaining sliced garlic and cook a minute or two longer. Remove from the heat and set aside.
Cook the egg noodles in the boiling water according to the package directions. While they cook, heat the butter in a small pan and cook, stirring occasionally, until lightly brown and nutty. Remove from the heat. Drain the noodles and place in a large bowl. Toss with the browned butter, parsley and salt and pepper to taste.
To serve, place the meat on a serving platter and top with the mushrooms. Spoon over a little sauce and place the remaining sauce in a sauce-boat to be passed at the table. Serve on top of the noodles and sprinkle fresh chopped parsley over everything.