March 23, 2012

Hungarian style goulash

Hi everyone! I've been busy, but I'm happy to be back so we can talk about Hungary's fantastic beef dish called goulash. This is a cold-weather staple for us so I figured I ought to post it while we still have to wear jackets here. 

When I was researching goulash for this blog post, I realized that goulash is to Hungary as chili is to Texas. Goulash and chili are both spicy beef braises, left to simmer by cowboys while they were chasing after cattle. And in both places, variations on the original dish  became popular in the surrounding regions. For example, Texas red + beans + cinnamon and cloves and chocolate + spaghetti = Cincinnati chili. Hungarian goulash + tomatoes + caraway seeds = Austria's take.

The most amusing similarity is that both Texans and Hungarians can be intense and protective about their beloved dish. All over the internet, people are calling out other people for adding weird crap to chili or goulash. For instance, adding tomatoes and bell peppers to goulash is objectionable to Hungarian cooks. And Texans, as you may or may not know, often take it as a personal offense if you add beans to chili. A former co-worker informed me that you forfeit your right call chili "chili" if you defile it with beans. As quirks go, this one is at once annoying and endearing.

This recipe is a riff on one of the simplest recipes I found on the internet, via a recipe blog edited by a lady of Austro-Hungarian descent. Did I make changes? Of course, but I didn't stray too far. (Authenticity is a noble goal, maybe, but notoriously hard to define. I don't lose sleep over it.) My changes: I caramelize the onions for deeper flavor. I decrease the water to get a thicker stew. I add a dab of tomato paste and a dribble of vinegar for acidity. I leave the potatoes in bite-sized chunks rather than dice. Finally, I let it braise in the oven instead of the stove. 

What you end up with is tender chunks of beef and potatoes in a thick, savory paprika and onion gravy. It's hearty, and I recommend making it heartier. Step one: work up your appetite with a day of hard labor. Step two: eat goulash on a bed of starch (egg noodles, spätzle, dumplings, etc.). Step three: top with a spoonful of sour cream. Does that sound like overkill? It's not. It sounds heavy and leaden, I know, but it's honestly so good.

Hungarian goulash, spaetzle

Beef goulash, adapted from June Meyer 

The most important ingredient here is the paprika. What you want is imported Hungarian sweet ground paprika, preferably not a tin that's been sitting on the shelf for years. I am still working my way through my stash from Budapest, but before that, I used a brand called Pride of Szeged. Their sweet paprika works pretty well, and the tin is cheerful. Otherwise, Penzey's is said to be reliable and fresh.

Hungarian paprika

If your store is well-stocked, it will have hot paprika and sweet paprika. (It might also have Spanish smoked paprika but that's not what you want.) I love spicy goulash, so I use a slightly hot paprika, but I recommend you start out with sweet paprika. You can always sprinkle on a bit of hot paprika at the end if you want some additional heat. 

2 pounds well-marbled beef chuck, chopped in 1 1/2 inch cubes 
2 teaspoons kosher salt
2 large yellow onions (about 3 cups or 1 1/2 pounds)
2 tablespoons lard, schmaltz or vegetable oil
2-3 tablespoons imported Hungarian sweet paprika
1 tablespoon tomato paste 
1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon rice or white vinegar
1 large russet potato, peeled and chopped into 1 1/2 inch cubes (about 3/4 pound)
2 bay leaves
full-fat sour cream for serving

Preheat the oven to 275 degrees F. Heat a heavy, oven-safe French oven with cover over medium heat.

Quarter the onions, then thinly slice. Add lard to the pot and allow to melt before adding the onions. Stir to incorporate the onions with the fat and cook 6-8 minutes, until onions have exuded most of their liquid. A brown residue should appear on the bottom of the pan. Add 2 tablespoons of water and deglaze the brown bits by scraping the end of a flat wooden spoon through the onion residue. Continue cooking, stirring every so often, until brown residue builds up again. Repeat deglazing process and cooking steps at least 3 more times, until the onions are a deep brown color.

This is the first four steps of the onion browning. In the third picture, lots of fond has built up on the bottom, and the last picture is what it looks like after deglazing with water. You want your onions to be quite a bit darker than shown here; I repeated the deglazing process 4 times before my onions reached that deep brown color I like. 

browning onionsonions, cooked down

When the onions are ready, clear a spot in the pot and add a drizzle of oil and then tomato paste. Let it sit and caramelize (30 seconds or so) before stirring in. Remove the pot from heat and let it cool 2-3 minutes. This is so the paprika won't burn when you add it to a very hot pot. Add the paprika: 2 tablespoons sweet paprika will yield a medium paprika flavor, but I like to add 3 tablespoons. Stir well. Add the bay leaves, salt, and 2 cups of water. Return pot to medium/low heat and bring to a boil. Put the lid on and transfer to the oven. 

Braise for 2 hours. At the 2 hour mark, taste your beef -- it should be tender but not completely falling apart. If your beef is still chewy or at all tough, put it back in for another hour or so. When the beef is tender, return the pot to the stove and switch off the oven. Add your cubed potatoes to the mixture and bring to a low simmer. Cover and cook until potatoes are tender, 20-30 minutes. Taste; you might need to add salt or a dash of white vinegar if the gravy tastes flat. If the gravy is too thick, dribble in a bit of water. 

To serve: I'm a horrible carb addict, so we like to serve this with plain, handmade spätzle (Melissa Clark's base recipe) even though it is perfectly fine on its own. Wide egg noodles would be excellent, and dumplings are traditional. Serve, garnished with sour cream, chopped parsley and extra paprika if you like. You need a salad too, like cucumbers with a tart vinaigrette and chopped dill.


Lauren said...

This sounds yummy, Kim. And by the way, as a native Texan, I actually do prefer beans in my chili, even if I am, perhaps, shunned. :)

Liz said...

Have been craving beef stew, but wanted something different from my normal wine/beef combo. Paprika beef sounds good, and I like that you say to add vinegar if it tastes flat at the end. I always do this too!