Peruse the Internet, and you’ll find thousands of recipes for gulyás (goualsh). Some of them even claim to be authentically Hungarian. Sometimes, you find modern recipes for goulash with ground beef (what?), tomato sauce (huh?) or… macaroni. Putting macaroni in goulash is like putting tomato sauce on a sock and calling it lasagna. Stop it.
I learned how to make goulash like most people in Hungarian-Canadian households. By watching my parents in the kitchen and sort of taking it all in by osmosis. My late father was very picky about making gulyás. And, if the weather was good, he’d insist on making it outdoors, over open flame.
There are two things you need for goulash: Proper ingredients and a sense of timing. The order in which you add the ingredients is as important as the ingredients themselves. To make a good stew, you need to build the base, slowly. Tossing all of the ingredients in at once and walking away to watch Netflix? Really, people; do the world a favour and order out.
So work with me. My dad used to say “a good goulash puts hair on your chest.” So, make this if you want hair on your chest. If you don’t want hair on your chest, too bad — make this, anyways.
INGREDIENTS (SERVES 4)
2-3 cloves garlic
Salt, to taste
2 bay leaves
2 tbsp caraway seeds
1/4 dried, hot pepper
1 yellow or white onion
1 sweet pepper (red or green)
Container of Hungarian paprika
7-8 tbsp marjoram
1 package stewing beef
1 package stewing pork
1 can/bottle of beer
2 tbsp red wine vinegar
4 potatoes, medium
Before you start, set up a playlist on your phone or laptop. You need the music. Place a mobile speaker in the kitchen, but nowhere close to where you’re likely to spill something. Do not listen to soft, soothing music. Hungarians believe themselves to be the descendants of Attila. Would Attila the Hun listen to smooth jazz? No.
Then, you need to put some oil in a large pot, just enough to cover the bottom. Turn heat on low. Add a couple of shakes of salt, a couple of garlic cloves.
Hungarians tend to be obsessive about growing hot peppers in the garden, then drying them. These are usually found hanging from a string nailed to a wall of the kitchen. The pepper-string will accent the obsessive number of decorative plates. If there are more plates on the wall than in the cupboard, you’re in a Hungarian kitchen. Basically, we’ve always got dried hot peppers on hand. Some European markets in town also sell the dry peppers. I generally take about a quarter of a dried pepper, break it into tiny pieces, and add it to the pot. If you see a bit of red bleeding from the pepper into the oil, good job. If you don’t have dried hot peppers, you can use a couple of slices from a fresh one. It’s OK, I won’t tell.
Now, add about two tablespoons of caraway seeds. They are vital. This isn’t something where you say, “I don’t have those, I can skip this step.” Don’t substitute.
Add a couple of bay leaves, too.
Now, add one finely diced yellow or white onion. You then add one diced red or green sweet pepper. Hungarian food isn’t Hungarian food without peppers and onions as the base. Once the pepper and onions are in there, you can turn up the heat to medium and let your base sizzle while you prep the meat.
Now, add some oil to a frying pan, add a couple of dashes of salt, then brown one package of stewing beef, and another package of stewing pork. As you’re searing the meat, keep showering it in marjoram. You should use enough to make the kitchen smell like a flower shop. When the meat browns, transfer it from the pan to the stew pot. If your pan isn’t big enough to brown all that meat in one go, buy a bigger pan. Or, you don’t have to brown it all in one go. Brown, empty, brown some more. (Of course, don’t forget the marjoram.)
Vegetarian option? There are no vegetarian options. Your vegetarian option is a lecture from your Uncle Nándor on why you look so gaunt.
Once the meat is in the pot, cut up two medium tomatoes and add them to the pot. Don’t use tomato sauce.
Now we get to the important part: Paprika. You can find Szeged or Házi Arany in some Edmonton stores (Budapest Deli or Italian Centre are good options). Don’t have Hungarian paprika? That’s OK, what you do is take the pot off the stove, look at what you’ve done, and toss the contents in the garbage. There is no point going on. Ponder the hopelessness of life. Substituting supermarket yellow-bag paprika for proper Hungarian paprika is a cultural crime.
“Oh, but I have the smoked Spanish stuff.” Sure, remind me to add Polish sausage next time I want an authentically Italian dish.
Got the good stuff? Pop it open, and sprinkle a liberal helping onto the stew. All of the meat should be coated in glorious red powder. Give everything a good stir, but don’t leave it too long; if paprika starts to blacken, you have to start over. Seriously.
Open a bottle of beer. Start drinking. Open another bottle of beer, and pour about half of it into the stew. Then, as the stew starts to boil, add a bit more liquid, till the bottle is empty. You only add liquid a little at a time.
Coarsely chop about three carrots and four medium potatoes; add them. Don’t overdo the carrots. A lot of people overdo the carrots. You’re not a rabbit. Toss in a couple of tablespoons of red wine vinegar.
Now, it’s just a matter of slowly adding water, about a half-cup at a time, till it all starts to bubble again. Add water, wait for it to bubble. Add a bit more. Do this until all your ingredients are submerged. This process will also help you understand if you’ve used a big enough pot.
Once you’ve topped it up, allow it to simmer till your carrots and potatoes are nice and soft. While you wait, work on your appreciation of Hungarian culture. Fiddle with a Rubik’s Cube. Go on the Internet and watch water polo. Pick up a smoking habit.
Salt to taste.
Now, you should have a rich broth, but you’re missing the final holy Hungarian ingredient: Sour cream. We put sour cream on anything. It is arguably mankind’s greatest food achievement. Don’t even think about getting away with the low-fat stuff. Sour cream should come out of the container in a healthy dollop. You can worry about losing weight when you make food you don’t really like. Once you’ve got a serving into a bowl, it’s time to stir that glorious sour cream in there.
Now, eat. And finish that beer you’ve got in the fridge. It’s not going to drink itself.
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