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Published October 18, 2009, 12:00 AM

Hungary for goulash: Traditional dish warms the soul

There seems to be one Hungarian dish that most people know of: goulash. So, it’s not surprising that when people discover I am Hungarian, they assume I am an expert on Hungarian Gulyás.

By: Sue Doeden, Bemidji Pioneer

There seems to be one Hungarian dish that most people know of: goulash. So, it’s not surprising that when people discover I am Hungarian, they assume I am an expert on Hungarian Gulyás.

Actually, Hungarian Gulyás (pronounced GOO-yash) has been a part of my cooking repertoire for only the last few years. I’m sure my Hungarian grandma made the hearty soup, but since she lived hundreds of miles away from the St. Paul suburb where I grew up, I only saw her a couple of times a year. And like many grandmas, she made meals that were our favorites when we went to visit her. Soup was not on our list of requests.

As I began to research Hungary’s best-known dish, I learned that true Hungarian Gulyás is a spicy, rather thin stew filled with beef, lots of paprika, and potatoes as well as other vegetables. Traditionally, it was cooked in a large cauldron over an open fire. Last year at this time, I was touring Budapest and the surrounding countryside. At an open-air market, I watched as a group of jovial Hungarians in traditional dress sang and danced around a pot of bubbling gulyás. Occasionally, one of the merrymakers would stop to give the soup a stir with a very long wooden spoon that looked like a boat paddle. The aroma of sweet paprika and garlic wafted from the steaming brew.

When preparing Hungarian Gulyás in my own kitchen, I cook the aromatic mix very slowly over low heat in a large heavy pot. It cannot be rushed. And the results that come from patience are well worth it. Although I am quite sure my grandma would choose real lard to cook the onions, I fry some bacon in the pot and use the hot bacon fat to cook the onions and beef. The slow cooking of chopped onions in hot fat is a fundamental technique of Hungarian cooking. Use enough fat, keep the heat low and never allow the onions to brown.

Fresh, fragrant sweet Hungarian paprika makes all the difference in this soup. Since my recipe for Hungarian Gulyás calls for 4 tablespoons of paprika, it is well worth your while to buy a new tin of paprika to use in this dish.

Caraway seeds enhance the flavor of the paprika, much as salt brings out the flavor of other foods. I like to toast and grind the seeds before adding them to the soup. Once again, it is best to use relatively fresh caraway seeds for the most exquisite results.

Inspired American cooks have invented scores of variations on the basic traditional Hungarian Gulyás. I prefer it straightforward and simple. The ingredients are readily available. The technique for making the gulyás is easy to master. And the flavor is both exhilarating and slightly exotic while it warms every little inch of the soul on a cool autumn evening.

A good Hungarian Gulyás is a meal in itself, needing nothing more than fresh bread to soak up the sauce. Hungarians you serve will savor the flavors they know so well. Everyone else will wonder how they could have lived without Hungarian Gulyás.

Click on the play button below to watch Sue's short video about the different kinds of paprika.

Hungarian Gulyás
4 slices bacon, chopped
2 medium yellow onions, chopped
1 1/2 pounds beef chuck, trimmed and cut into bite-sized cubes
1 large green bell pepper, chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
4 tablespoons sweet Hungarian paprika
2 teaspoons caraway seeds
1 teaspoon dried marjoram leaves
4 cups beef broth
1 (28-ounce) can diced tomatoes
2 medium carrots, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
1 1/2 pounds red potatoes, peeled, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Sour cream, for serving

Place a large, heavy Dutch oven or soup pot over medium heat. Add chopped bacon and fry until crispy. Use a slotted spoon to transfer bacon to a paper towel-lined plate and set aside. Add chopped onions to the hot bacon grease in pot. Cook, stirring occasionally, until onions are translucent and tender. Increase heat to high. Add beef and cook, stirring only once or twice, until meat is lightly browned, about 6 to 10 minutes. Add green pepper and garlic and cook and stir for about 2 minutes, until fragrant. Stir in paprika, caraway seeds and marjoram. Add beef broth. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low. Cover pot and simmer gently for 1 hour.

Add diced tomatoes with the juice and carrots. Cover pot and simmer for 30 minutes.

Add cubed potatoes. Cover pot and simmer for another 30 minutes, or until all vegetables are fork-tender.

Season with salt and pepper.

To serve, ladle steaming hot Hungarian Gulyás into soup bowls. Put a dollop of sour cream on each serving. Sprinkle with reserved bacon bits.

Tips from the cook

--I always heat broth before adding it to a hot pot of cooking ingredients.

--I prefer to toast and grind the caraway seeds before stirring them into the soup. Toasting the seeds brings out such wonderful flavor. Put the seeds in a small heavy pan and stir over medium heat just until fragrant. Immediately transfer them to a plate to cool. I grind them in an extra electric coffee grinder that I use only for spices.

--Parsnips are always a nice addition to this gulyás. Cube and add with the carrots.

--An overnight in the refrigerator gives the wonderful flavors in Hungarian Gulyás a chance to mingle and develop – another wait that’s worth it.

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