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.

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