fig. a: Hungarian sweet and hot peppers
Did the idea to make Hungarian goulash this past week come from a recent re-viewing of R.W. Fassbinder's The Marriage of Maria Braun? Yes, the film integrates the utter hysteria that surrounded Germany's 3-2 victory over Hungary in the 1954 World Cup final seamlessly into its explosive finale, and, yes, I have been on a real Hungarian kick suddenly, making three Hungarian meals since watching Fassbinder's masterpiece of melodrama, but, c'mon... Truth is, the inspiration behind that goulash had a lot more to do with the current availability of peppers--fresh sweet and hot peppers from Jean-Talon Market, and dried peppers from Olives et Épices, also at the market. The dried peppers--whole Hungarian smoked hot peppers--we'd gotten a while back, and as soon as we gave them a whiff, we turned to each other, gave each other a couple of knowing looks, and uttered the word "goulash" in unison. The fresh peppers in question were Hungarian banana peppers and Hungarian sweet peppers from Birri. As soon as they came into season, I started thinking about all those pepper-heavy Eastern European dishes that I love, like Paprika Chicken, Slovak eggs, Bab Leves, and, yes, Hungarian goulash.
I turned to a recipe for gulyás from Saveur, where, unlike the dish that's come to be known as "Hungarian goulash" in North America, the consistency is more along the lines of a "soup that eats like a meal." The recipe seemed authentic and all--though it does include tomatoes, which some gulyás devotees strictly avoid--so I used it as a blueprint, but I made a few significant changes. First off, I was more in the mood for a stew than a soup (even one "that eats like a meal"), so I cut back on the broth and aimed for a thicker, more stew-like consistency, a somewhat authentic take on the bastardized North American version I grew up with (the kind that tends to get served in the presence of strolling violins). Secondly, inspired by the idea of those Hungarian cowpokes making their gulyás over an open fire, I decided to make an iittala casserole-bound version that could be cooked over an open fire, if you're the kind of ranch hand who takes Finnish designer cookware out on the range, or in our fireplace, if only we had one. Lastly, I left the potatoes out. And then I put them back in (you'll see what I'm talking about momentarily). But mostly I balked when it came to the potatoes. And I'm not 100% sure why. I told myself it was because I knew there was going to be enough to freeze, and sometimes potatoes don't freeze so well, but I never really found that line all that convincing.
So, this particular goulash might not win prizes for authenticity, but, as we all know, authenticity has its limits. The bottom line was that it was delicious--the cubed beef had turned to candy, and it had a deep, rich broth that was utterly irresistible (you know: the kind of dish that you just can't stop yourself from having one more bowl of, even when you're officially "full"). I was downright enthusiastic about my bowl. "This might just be the best goulash I've ever had," I remember thinking.* Then I went back and had three or four more helpings just to be sure. Michelle didn't have her bowl of goulash until she got off from work later that night and I assembled her late-night snack. Now, granted, she hadn't eaten in 12 hours, she'd just come back from a tough shift, and she was maybe just a little delirious, but she wasn't two or three heaping spoonfuls in before she turned to me, earnestly, and exclaimed, "This is my favorite meal ever." Like I said: she was a little delirious. But I knew what she was talking about. That pseudo-Hungarian goulash absolutely hit the spot. It's certainly well worth tracking down smoked hot Hungarian peppers and fresh Hungarian sweet and hot peppers for.
fig. b: Goulash à la AEB
Goulash à la AEB
2 strips of thick-cut bacon
1-2 tbsp vegetable oil
2 yellow onions, peeled and chopped
2 1/2 lbs beef chuck, cut into 1" cubes
1 carrot, peeled, and coarsely chopped
1/2 tsp caraway seeds
3 cloves garlic
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 tbsp sweet high-quality Hungarian paprika
1 rounded teaspoon ground smoked Hungarian hot peppers (optional, although you could use a high-quality smoked Mexican chile in its place if those are more readily available--either way, this touch really gives the goulash depth, it also gives it an unexpected, well, kick)
4 cups beef stock, warm
1 medium tomato, peeled, seeded, and coarsely chopped (optional if you're one of those that believes that tomatoes have about as much place in a gulyás as they do in a chili)
3-4 fresh Hungarian sweet peppers
1-2 fresh Hungarian hot peppers
2 strips thick-cut bacon
1 tbsp vegetable oil (if necessary)
1 lb. boiling potatoes, peeled and cubed
4 scallions, chopped
1 generous pinch paprika
1 small pinch smoked Hungarian hot pepper
salt and freshly ground black pepper
In a large pot, fry the bacon strips, rendering their fat. Remove the bacon, and dice the strips. Reserve. Add 1-2 tbsp vegetable oil, bringing your total amount of fat in your pot to 2 tbsp (or just over), and heat over low heat. Add the onions and cook, stirring occasionally, until soft, about 20 minutes. Add the cubed beef, the carrots, the fresh peppers (both sweet and hot), and the reserved bacon, and continue to cook, stirring occasionally, until beef is no longer pink, 10-15 minutes.
Preheat your oven to 300º F.
Meanwhile, toast the caraway seeds in a small skillet over low heat until fragrant, about 1 minute. Crush the toasted caraway seeds in a mortar, add the garlic and the salt and crush some more until you have a paste [everyone knows about goulash and paprika, but this combination of garlic, caraway, and salt is just as essential]. Remove the pot from the heat, add the garlic/caraway paste, the paprika, and the smoked Hungarian hot pepper to the beef mixture and mix well.
Add the stock to the beef mixture, stir, and transfer to an oven-ready casserole. Add the tomatoes, stir, and cover. Put the casserole in the oven. Bake for 1/2 hour at 300º F, then lower the heat to 250º and bake for another 2-3 hours.**
While the goulash is simmering to perfection in the oven, giving off the most other-worldly aroma, make the potatoes. Boil your cubed potatoes in salted water until just tender. Meanwhile, fry the bacon until just crispy in a good-size skillet, remove them from the heat, and chop them into thin strips. If necessary, add 1 tbsp of oil to the bacon fat and bring to temperature over medium heat. Add the potatoes and fry until they begin to turn golden on all sides, about 5-10 minutes. Add the paprika and the hot pepper and stir for another 2 minutes. Add the scallions and stir for another minute. Add salt and pepper to taste and set them aside, leaving them at room temperature. The potatoes should have "character," but be careful not to over-season them, because you're going to be adding them to your perfectly seasoned goulash momentarily.
When the goulash has finished simmering to perfection, season to even greater perfection with the salt and freshly ground black pepper. Place a spoonful of the potatoes in each of your bowls and ladle the goulash overtop. Serve with crusty bread (real rye makes for a particularly good combo). This is a no-no in some camps, but I like my goulash with a small dollop of sour cream.
Serves 6-8 hungry souls.
NOTE: Goulash often tastes even better on Day 2. I wouldn't necessarily recommend making it a day in advance, because, personally, I wouldn't be able to restrain myself, but, if at all possible, try and keep some as leftovers for lunch or dinner the next day. You'll be happy you did.
[adapted from a recipe in Saveur's "Food for the Holidays" Winter 2004 special issue]
If you have anything you'd like to add (or subtract) or if you've got a family recipe for goulash you'd like to pass along, please drop us a line, either via the comments function or via the miracle of electronic mail.
* I spent a good week in Budapest, Eger, and northern Hungary more generally many years ago now, but I was a vegetarian at the time, so the only goulash I experienced was served to me by Hungarian hippies, not the mustachioed gents you see tending their cauldrons in this photo.
** If you would rather make a stovetop version, keep the proto-goulash in your large pot and simmer it as gently as possible for a good 2-3 hours. This slow, gentle simmering is what turns lowly chuck to "candy."