Winter kitchen smackdown: From Russia with love

It’s wintertime, when our thoughts turn to cocooning indoors with a loved one and gorging on hearty food.

And who knows more about hearty cold-weather eating than the people of Russia, where the winters are long, the vodka is flowing and nothing warms your insides like a steaming bowl of borscht?

Welcome to this long-delayed edition of our ongoing husband-wife cooking competition, where we duke it out over a pair of classic, Russian-flavored dishes: beef Stroganoff vs. chicken Kiev.

First, some quick background: If you’ve been a CNN consumer for several years you may remember our monthly cookoffs on the Eatocracy blog, where we faced off over everything from cocktails to chili. Well, after 11 rounds we were deadlocked at five wins apiece, with one tie. And then, for a variety of reasons, we took a long break.

But nobody likes a tie. Which is why we agreed to resurrect our running feud one more time to declare an overall winner.

So let’s get ready to rumble, Russian style. Spouse vs. spouse. Man vs. woman. Boris vs. Natasha.

Kristy: Nothing says “I love you” like cooking a nice dinner — to beat your husband in a food competition.

When we decided to put a new spin on a classic I chose beef Stroganoff because — well, I like it. My main idea with the dish was to take the beef out of the sauce — why smother a fine cut of meat when it can stand on its own?

I spent some time perfecting the sauce (the choice of whether to use sour cream or crème fraiche turned out to be a doozy). And I decided to add some goat cheese cakes and a roasted-garlic truffle paste as little flourishes on the side.

The result was an interactive, fun dish that let you mix and match the beef with noodles, sauce and the other stuff to create new flavors with each bite. And it was tasty.

We invited four friends over for dinner as judges. I was feeling pretty confident the night of the competition because I had bought the beef at a high-end butcher shop. But when I took my beef out of the oven I realized I had a problem: It was fatty and chewy. After taking the first bite, I literally turned to my husband and congratulated him. There was no way I could win if the beef wasn’t really, really good, since it was the centerpiece of my dish.

It was stressful because our guests had been waiting for an hour and were getting antsy.

But I didn’t give up. The flavor of my ingredients was still strong. So I carved the beef carefully, working around the fat, and hoped I could still make it work.

Brandon: I’ll admit right now I knew almost nothing about Russian food. But when Kristy announced she was making Stroganoff, there was only one other Russian dish I considered.

Chicken Kiev is one of those venerable entrees that was fashionable in the mid-20th century at places like New York’s original Russian Tea Room. It’s not the healthiest thing in the world, but when made right, it’s a crowd-pleaser. You slice open a breaded, deep-fried chicken breast to reveal a hidden pocket of melted herb butter, which oozes out on the plate and adds decadent goodness to every bite.

At least that’s the way it’s supposed to work.

During my two rehearsals the butter kept leaking out in the oven. Short of stitching up the chicken breast, heart-surgeon style, I didn’t know how I was going to keep the butter in the bird until it reached the plate.

Eventually, I hit on a solution, and a twist. First, I served the herb butter on the side in a little ramekin. It lacked the same Wow! factor, but it was less risky and would allow our guests to dip each bite. And second, instead of herb butter I made an orange-rosemary dipping sauce. It lightened what was a heavy dish and gave it a citrusy tang.

After weeks of running scared, I began to feel good about what I was cooking. My wife should know by now never to count me out.

Honey, as Drago said in “Rocky IV,” I must break you.

The judging:

We had four dinner guests/judges (the fifth one passed out around 8 p.m. after drinking too much milk — she’s a year old), all of them with discerning palates. Our judges — Leigh, Michelle, Kelli and Max — tasted the two dishes, with wine pairings, without knowing who had made what.

One judge liked the “healthy” take on the orange chicken Kiev, while another thought the orange slices and sauce lent “vibrance” to the dish’s presentation.

But our judges were more complimentary of the beef Stroganoff’s “depth and complexity of flavors” and the “original” way it was deconstructed on the plate.

When we tallied the scores, there was a clear favorite.

Winner: Kristy’s beef Stroganoff

Overall score to date: Kristy 6 Brandon 5, with one tie

Parting thoughts:

Kristy: For almost three long years I’ve had to live with this terrible tie; after all, I cook far more often than you do. So I wasn’t going to show any mercy. No more hints about ways to improve your dish, even if you looked sad and worried.

Brandon: Oh, I know how competitive you are. Is that why you did 17 rehearsals of your dish? I thought the trial runs of your goat-cheese garnish were a little much.

Kristy: I only had one trial run with the goat cheese, thank you very much! And I really thought I was going to lose this one once I tried the meat. But my trimming skills saved me. I will admit you were very sweet during my trimming process by not rushing me; I think you even offered to help.

Brandon: That’s because I thought I was going to win. But to be honest, you deserved it. In the end, I basically made orange chicken from Panda Express.

Kristy: I knew eventually this moment would come. I rule!

On to the recipes!

Kristy’s interactive beef Stroganoff

Serves 4

This is a multiple-step recipe. Do the sides first, because they can be set aside, and let the sauce simmer before starting the meat.

For the garnishes:

1 garlic bulb

½ teaspoon truffle oil

1 block of goat cheese

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Trim the top of the garlic bulb so the tips of the cloves are exposed. Fill the bottom of a small tin roasting pan with a quarter-inch of water. Place the garlic in the pan and drizzle with olive oil. Roast until they are soft and slightly browned, about 40 minutes.

When the garlic is done, let it cool and then mash up the cloves in a bowl, stirring until a paste forms. Add the truffle oil and stir to combine. Set aside.

Using your fingers, mold chunks of the cheese into round patties about the size of a quarter. Refrigerate.

For the sauce and noodles:

1 onion, finely chopped

4 cloves of garlic, finely chopped

1 tablespoon olive oil

2 tablespoons butter

12 ounces mushrooms, sliced

2 cups beef broth

3 tablespoons vermouth

Blend of seasonings to taste (I used pinches of sea salt, garlic, basil, rosemary, black pepper, lemon peel and nutmeg)

½ cup sour cream

½ cup crème fraiche

1 tablespoon Dijon mustard

Lemon juice


12-ounce package egg noodles

In a large skillet, melt the olive oil and butter and add the onion and the garlic. Cook on medium heat for five minutes, stirring often. Add the mushrooms and cook until they sweat and the liquid is reduced by half.

Add the beef broth, vermouth and seasonings blend. Simmer 10 to 15 minutes to burn off the alcohol (you can begin prepping the meat now). Then add the sour cream, crème fraiche and Dijon mustard (tweak these last three ingredients to taste). Season to taste with salt, pepper and lemon juice and continue to simmer.

Boil water for the egg noodles

For the meat:

1 pound prime rib or filet mignon, trimmed

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 tablespoon butter

Salt and pepper

Take the meat out of the fridge 30 minutes before cooking it to bring it to room temperature. Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Season the meat with salt and pepper. Using an oven-safe pan, heat the olive oil and butter over medium-high heat until the pan is very hot. When the butter and olive oil begin to bubble, place the meat into the pan.

Sear one side for three minutes, then flip and sear the other side for one minute. Place in the oven for six minutes (this should produce a medium-rare result; adjust your cooking time accordingly).

While the meat is cooking, add the noodles to the boiling water. Cook according to package instructions.

Remove the meat from the oven and pour the drippings into the simmering sauce. Continue to let the sauce simmer on very low heat. Carve the meat into 2-inch long strips and place three to four pieces on each plate. Place the goat cheese and garlic paste next to the meat, scoop a cup of noodles onto the plate, then ladle the sauce over the noodles. Top with a sprig of dill.

Brandon’s orange chicken Kiev

Serves 4

For the chicken:

Four boneless chicken breasts

1 box panko bread crumbs

Four eggs

1 cup flour

Orange slices for garnish

For the dipping sauce:

1/2 cup butter

1/2 cup chicken stock

1 cup fresh-squeezed orange juice

3 sprigs rosemary, with more for garnish

1 tablespoon chopped tarragon

1 tablespoon honey

1/4 teaspoon salt

Pinch ground black pepper

1 teaspoon zest of orange peel

Rinse the chicken breasts, remove excess fat and pat dry. Crack eggs into a bowl and whisk until a little frothy. Arrange bread crumbs in a flat pile on one plate and do the same with the flour on a second plate. Dip chicken in eggs, then roll in flour and finally in bread crumbs until completed covered. Can be covered and refrigerated for several hours before cooking.

Peel rosemary off stalks. Add butter, chicken stock, orange juice, honey and rosemary to saucepan and simmer on low heat. Season with salt, pepper and even more honey, depending on taste. Simmer for 15-20 minutes, adding chopped tarragon and orange peel zest at last minute for extra flavor.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Heat 1/2 inch of oil (sunflower or vegetable oil will do) in a pan on medium-high heat and cook the chicken breasts, about 3-4 minutes on each side, until golden brown. Transfer to a tray and then bake in the oven for 10-15 minutes or until cooked through.

Slice chicken breasts in narrow parallel strips and arrange on plates with orange slices for garnish. Pour sauce into four small ramekins and garnish with sprigs of rosemary.

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