Anna Tobias’s Slavic stews
Serbian cooking may not have the come-hither look of Mediterranean food, but it makes up for it in flavour. Try putting a gentle spin on classics, like goulash made with smoked pork, or creamy stroganoff spiked with cornichons
All they need is something good and plain to mop up the sauce. A boiled potato is your ally ...
I’m a second-generation Serb. Even though my Mum was born and raised in London, family life is still punctuated throughout the year by Serbian celebrations, for which religion and food provide a reason. Orthodox Easter is one: we dye eggs red, play a game a bit like conkers before the meal, and my mum makes reformtorta, an Easter treat beloved by my brother and uncle – layers of hazelnut sponge and chocolate cream. Every year, many Serbian households also observe slava, which is when we mark our families’ patron saints on their traditional feast days. Ours is St Nicholas, so we celebrate on 19 December, and mum and I bake a bread and a cake to take to church in honour of the dead.
There is definitely a quiet competition at the church bread-table – who has mastered the decoration techniques? Whose bread is burnt round the edges or a little lop-sided? And who bought in their breads? (Serious cheating).
When I think of eastern European food, however, more than bakes and cakes, I think of stews rich in paprika and caraway, garnished with dill and served with pickles. The summer’s glut of vegetables preserved, yoghurts soured and meats smoked or dried, all to see families through a year’s eating.
Eastern European food might not have the “come-hither” attraction of Italian cookery, flirting with the eyes of the eater, but what it may lack in looks, it certainly makes up for in flavour. Nowhere is this truer than with stroganoff and goulash, two stalwarts of the Slavic kitchen, which I’ve adapted for you today.
I make my goulash with pork, more of a German way than Serbian, but I love the yielding quality of slowcooked pig’s cheeks alongside the smoky sausage, paprika and caraway – delivering flavour in every corner of your mouth. I’ve also tweaked the classic stroganoff recipe to echo my mum’s. I only recently found out that she adds cornichons to hers – which, when I challenged her on it, she supported with an old French newspaper cutting which instructs the cook to add a handful before serving. So, I tried it, and like how the bite, crunch and pickle of the cornichon offsets the cream. And somehow means you can eat more of it ...
I would like to encourage the practice of “leaving well alone” to
borrow a maxim of Elizabeth David’s. Here are two dishes delicious as they are: all they need is something plain for you to mop up the sauce with. A boiled potato is your perfect ally.
It might seem extravagant to be using fillet (and it is!), but, as you’re cooking the beef so quickly, it really makes a difference – the meat stays so tender. I’ve specified tail as this was traditionally a less expensive cut used for stroganoff – you could try to convince your butcher to sell it cheaper on that basis.
1kg beef fillet tail
1 tbsp vegetable oil
Half a bunch of dill, stalks and fronds 300g button or chestnut mushrooms, thinly sliced
1 tbsp sweet paprika
200ml double cream
Juice of half a lemon
2 tbsp cornichons, chopped
Salt and black pepper
1 Cut the beef into 1cm strips. Season with salt and pepper.
2 Melt half the butter with the oil. When it’s hot and fizzing, add the beef and fry hard and quick, so that the meat browns on the outside but remains rare inside. Set aside.
3 Slice the onion and finely chop the dill stalks. Add to the pan with the rest of the butter and cook until soft, then add the mushrooms and cook for about 10 minutes, or until slippery. Stir in the paprika and return the beef to the pan. Add the cream. Heat through. Squeeze in the lemon and add the cornichons.
4 Chop the dill fronds. Sprinkle on top. Serve with boiled, buttered potatoes.
Pork goulash Serves 4, generously
1kg pork cheeks or pork shoulder 100g flour
1 tbsp olive oil
4 smoked sausages (chorizo also works very well), cut into chunks 2 onions
4 red peppers
2 garlic cloves, sliced
1 tbsp sweet paprika
1 tsp hot paprika
2 tsp caraway seeds
1 large glass of white wine 1 lemon
1 bunch of chives, finely chopped 200ml sour cream
Salt and black pepper
1 I think it’s nice to leave the meat in quite large pieces, so leave the cheeks whole or, if using shoulder, then cut into 100g pieces. Season the flour and toss the pork in it.
2 Heat the olive oil in a heavy-lidded casserole pot (Le Creuset or the like) and brown the pork, then set aside. Brown the sausage in the same way.
3 Preheat the oven to 160C/325F/gas mark 3. Peel and slice the onion, then soften in the pan. Use a potato peeler to peel the peppers – they don’t have to be perfect, just so there won’t be too many shards of skin at the end. Slice the peppers and add to the onions. Season your vegetables. Cook for 5 minutes or until they start to soften.
4 Add the garlic, paprika, caraway, wine and the juice of the lemon.
5 Reintroduce the pork and sausages, stir together. Put the lid on and put in the oven. Check the pork after an hour; it’s surprising how much liquid the peppers and onions let out but if it’s looking a little dry then add some water. The sauce is the most delicious part of this dish, so you want to make sure there’s plenty of it. Put back in the oven for another half an hour or so. The meat should be tender and giving.
6 Finely chop the chives. To serve, put a generous dollop of sour cream on the pork with a good sprinkle of chives on top. Serve with some plain, boiled, buttered potatoes.
Fillet might seem extravagant but it makes a difference – the meat stays so tender