Sunday, October 15, 2017

Hungarian roots, part 3: Goulash

When I smell onions and paprika cooking together, I am instantly transported to the family dinners of my childhood at my Grandma Bella's house in New York. Onions and paprika are the base for so many Hungarian classics that you might call them the "holy duo" of Hungarian cuisine. In my opinion, no other dish expresses that unique flavor profile better than goulash.

This slow cooked stew of meat, onions, vegetables and paprika is eaten all over Central Europe, but it originated with cattle herders in Hungary. Its been a staple on Hungarian tables since about the 9th century, although paprika didn't make it to that part of the world until the 16th century. I've always made goulash with beef, but it can be made with pork, veal or lamb. Like any beef stew, the best cuts for this preparation are tough cuts that require long, slow cooking such as rump, shoulder or brisket. Purists will say that authentic goulash has only 4 ingredients - meat, onions, paprika and water - but it was not uncommon for vegetables like celery and carrots to be added. Over time, different ingredients like potatoes, bell pepper, garlic and wine found their way into the goulash pot.

My mother made her goulash with blade steaks cut from the shoulder and it had big pieces of potato in it. She typically served it with brown bread and a green veggie on the side. My grandmother's goulash had a thin, watery sauce and she served it over egg noodles, which is more traditional. But the absolute best goulash I ever ate came from an unlikely place - my ex husband. He was raised by his Austrian mother and grandmother and they were incredible cooks. I will never forget the roast duck they served me with chewy potato dumplings anointed in duck fat and braised sweet and sour red cabbage on the side. My ex husband learned how to make goulash from them and in my opinion it is the gold standard. It is the goulash that every other goulash aspires to be.  

4 lbs of beef - chuck, rump roast or bottom round are the best cuts. 
6 medium onions
3 tbsp of good quality paprika
1 qt. white button mushrooms
1 cup white wine - I like a mild German riesling for this dish
Salt and pepper
Flour for dusting

Chuck on the right, bottom round on the left
Let's start with the beef. The best cuts for this recipe are from the tough, well used muscles of the cow. These cuts have fat, collagen and connective tissue that break down during cooking and add flavor and richness to the dish. Chuck comes from the shoulder and is good for stewing, braising and slow roasting. Brisket also lends itself to long, slow cooking and it has a generous amount of fat that keeps the meat moist and juicy as it cooks. Rump roast or bottom round is a little more lean and is the go-to cut for pot roast. I used a two pound piece of chuck and a two pound piece of bottom round, which I trimmed of excess fat and cut into large chunks. 

Next, lets talk about the onions. The best variety for this dish is the yellow or Spanish onion. This may seem like a huge amount of onions and, to be honest, it is. But don't forget, this dish cooks for two hours and the onions basically cook down to nothing but flavor. They become sweet and soft and they add a ton of beautiful flavor to this stew.  Its kind of a pain in the butt to prep all these onions, but once you get good at it, it goes quickly. Make sure your knife is very sharp to avoid crying while you're slicing them. Cut the onion in half through the root, lay the cut side down and slice the top off. Peel the dark and tough outer layers of the onions, then lay them flat on your cutting board. Cut off the root end and slice each onion thinly. I just happened to have some carrot sticks in the fridge, so I decided to dice them and throw them in. I also really like button mushrooms in this dish. Its not traditional, but it is delicious. They will get added to the goulash half way through cooking. 

Finally, a word about paprika. This spice is made from air dried peppers and there are a surprising array of different kinds of paprika from sweet to hot to pungent. The peppers were not native to Central Europe, but originated in Mexico and were brought to Spain in the 16th century where they spread throughout Central Europe. Hungarian paprika is prized for its unique sweetness and bright red color. Its easy to think that goulash has some kind of tomato product in it because of its deep red color, but that color comes exclusively from the paprika! Look for real Hungarian paprika and invest in a good quality spice. This recipe calls for a whopping three tablespoons of paprika, which also seems like a lot, and it is. But again, after two hours of cooking with the meat and onions, the paprika become mellow and complex. Don't skimp in this recipe. 

With everything prepped, you're ready to start cooking. Put a large stock pot over medium low heat and dump all the onions in with a little bit of butter, about a teaspoon each of salt and pepper and all that paprika. Add about a tablespoon of kosher salt and a teaspoon of ground black pepper to the meat and toss it in. Then sprinkle about two tablespoons of flour over the meat and gently toss to coat each piece of meat with a little bit of flour. Not only will the flour help the meat brown, but it will also add a little body to the sauce. You're going to sear the meat in a hot pan before you add it to the pot, so put a medium skillet over medium high heat. When the skillet is hot, put six or seven pieces of meat in and let it brown. Don't overcrowd the pan with too much meat or your meat will boil instead of sear. Turn the meat over so it browns on both sides, then add a splash of the wine to deglaze the pan. Let the wine cook briefly with the meat, then dump it all into the pot with the onions.  It'll probably take four or five batches to get all the meat browned. Once you get all the meat in to the pot, cover it and turn the heat down to low. Cook it for two hours and half way through, add the cleaned mushrooms. If your sauce looks a little too thin, take the lid off the pot for the final half hour of cooking.

When the meat is cooked properly, it will shred easily into that luxurious red sauce. Using two forks, shred the meat and mix it into the sauce being careful not to break up the mushrooms. The onions and other vegetables will have cooked completely into the sauce and combined with the paprika create a deep and complex flavor that is just heavenly. Serve your goulash over wide noodles with a dollop of sour cream on top and a crisp green salad on the side. This dish is like getting a warm Hungarian hug from the inside. I think my ancestors would be pleased. 

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Hungarian roots, part 2 - Chicken Paprikash

Kate and Isadore Segall - great grandparents
After a completely authentic Hungarian dinner at Jozsa Corner last month, my culinary thoughts have turned to the dishes I grew up with, the food of my heritage. On my mother's side, my family lineage is Hungarian and Romanian. My great grandparents Isadore and Kate Segall came to this country as teenagers in the late 1800's and married and raised a family in New York City. Kate taught her traditional recipes to my Grandma Bella, who passed them down to my mother Bonnie. Mom was a wonderful cook and when I prepare these recipes at home, I imagine the women who preceded me, the European wives and mothers who passed these recipes down from generation to generation. When I cook my favorite Hungarian family dishes, I can feel my ancestors looking over my shoulder and guiding my hand. 

Some of these dishes I can prepare without thinking and these are the recipes I turn to time and again. They are peasant dishes with no frills, no fancy ingredients and no complicated cooking process or special equipment. They are the meals I ate as a child, the comfort food of my people, and one of my favorites is chicken paprikash.  In fact, it is the national dish of Hungary! It’s kind of a chicken and onion stew that is ripe with paprika and it’s typically served over spaetzle or egg noodles, which absorbs the sauce. Because it cooks quickly, this was a go-to weeknight dinner for my family and the leftovers were even better the next day. 

Although I saw her prepare it hundreds of times, my mother taught me to make this dish over the phone. Not long after I moved away from home, I had a craving for chicken paprikash, so I called her to get the recipe. She told me to basically throw everything in a pot, cover it and walk away for half an hour. I couldn't believe it was that simple. I asked "How do you make the sauce?" and she said "It makes its own sauce". What??!! No way!! But when I followed her instructions, it totally worked. Over the years as I've learned more about technique, food chemistry and the finer points of cooking, I've modified this dish to my own liking. I hate to say it lest I insult my ancestors, but I think I've improved this traditional family recipe. Grandma Bella, please forgive me!! 


1 whole chicken, cut into pieces
1 large onion
2 tbsp sweet paprika
1 cup of white wine or chicken broth
Flour for dusting the chicken, salt and pepper to taste

When cooking peasant dishes like this one, it’s important to remember that they all have regional differences and most of them were created based on what was available to people at the time. I have read dozens of recipes for chicken paprikash and very few of them are exactly the same as this one. I've seen recipes that call for some kind of tomato product, which is not traditional at all. Some recipes call for adding sour cream to the sauce, which we never did in my house. You may read this and think "that's not at all how I make it", but this is exactly what I grew up eating. My mother told me to slice the onion, saute it briefly in a deep pot, toss in the chicken pieces, sprinkle the paprika on top, cover the pot and simmer it on medium low heat for about half an hour. That produces a thin and watery sauce and chicken with flabby skin. Needless to say, I made some modifications. 

If your chicken breasts are big, you can cut them in half so that all the chicken pieces are roughly the same size. I typically don't use boneless chicken for this dish as it dries out and no matter how much sauce you spoon on it, it will be stringy and tough. My preference is bone-in thighs and legs, which stay moist during cooking. Give the onion a rough chop and saute it in the bottom of a large pot. You want a tall pot for this recipe as it creates steam, thus retaining all the moisture and that's how this dish makes its own sauce, although the wine helps. Here is where my preparation departs from my mother's. I season the chicken then dust it generously with flour and once the onions start to turn soft and brown a bit, I move the onions to the side of the pot and brown the chicken. The more you brown things, the more flavor your dish develops. In addition to helping the chicken brown, the flour thickens the sauce. Brown the chicken until the skin has rendered some of its fat and is golden brown. Also, if you're concerned about the fat and calories, you can remove the chicken skin and it'll turn out just fine.

Turn the chicken over and sprinkle the paprika over the top. This may seem like a lot of paprika, but it mixes into the sauce and blends with the onions and wine. Trust me, I promise it's not too much. Pour the wine or broth in, put a cover on the pot, turn the heat down to low and simmer the chicken for about half an hour, which gives you enough time to boil some wide egg noodles. To check for doneness, stick a knife in the bottom of one of the chicken thighs. The knife should slide in easily and the juices from the chicken should run clear and not pink. Fill a bowl with egg noodles, place the chicken pieces on top and pour the sauce over the top so it runs down into the noodles. I like to serve mine with a green salad on the side. This is simple Hungarian home cooking that speaks to my soul. Sometimes, there's nothing better.