A week or so ago, while Kathleen was away, I reinvented the wheel. I could have scoured the Internet, I suppose. But it was easier to start from scratch with regard to the recipe as well as the ingredients. I did crib a bit from The Joy of Cooking, but only to jog my memory.

I wanted to make a dish that I had for the first and last time nearly forty years ago, in a dingy off-campus kitchen. As I recall, there were three of us — me, a St Mary's beauty who had a vague reputation for naughtiness, and some other guy whom I have forgotten. Although I knew them both, they weren't people I hung around with, but some improvisation or other brought us together. The girl from St Mary's improvised further. Whether she was making something that she had grown up on at home, or adapting a very fancy dish to our humble resources, she called the results "Hamburger Stroganoff."

It was delicious then and it was delicious a week or so ago. That's undoubtedly because I, too, was improvising. Had I followed some recipe from the Sixties, the dish might very well have been pallid and heavy, as so many old dishes do now that our cuisine has both lightened and heated up. I counted on mustard to keep my "stroganoff" lively; the next time I try it, I'm going to add a whisper of horseradish.

I shall now and forevermore keep most of the ingredients of this skillet dinner on hand at all times. That won't be difficult. There ought always to be a pound of ground beef in the freezer. Beef broth and sour cream are staples as well. The small onion and the handful of mushrooms, if not on hand, can always be picked up across the street.

You can build a nice meal around this dish, with a healthy steamed vegetable or perhaps a salad. (Cranberry sauce will work very well as a side dish.) Set the table and have a lovely glass of good wine. Or you can treat this as a Guilty Pleasure, gobbling it up from a bowl while hunkered over a magazine with a beer.  

Hamburger Stroganoff

Prepare the ingredients: slice five or six button mushrooms and a small onion as thinly as possible, and set aside in separate bowls. Measure out a cup of beef broth and bring it to a simmer. Bring to the boil a large pot of water.

In a large sauté pan, sauté the mushrooms in a knob of butter. Set them aside.

Make a quick brown sauce: melt 1˝ tablespoons butter in the sauté pan, stir in a tablespoon of flour for a moment, and then pour on the simmering broth. Stir vigorously to smooth any lumps. Reduce the sauce until it is thick enough to coat a spoon. Season the sauce with salt and pepper to taste and poor it into a spouted bowl, scraping the pan with a spatula.

Throw a handful or two of elbow macaroni into the boiling water, along with a generous sprinkling of salt.

Without cleaning the pan further, melt a teaspoon or so of butter and gently cook the onion. When it is soft, turn up the heat and add a pound of ground beef, carefully breaking it up and cooking it until it is grey with touches of soft pink. Stir in 3 tablespoons sour cream and a teaspoon or two of Dijon mustard. Blend the sauce into the pan. When the sauce is hot enough, turn off the heat and spoon the beef over the noodles. (December 2007)

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