Unfortunately, it looks like summery really is over. The weather is so chilly and rainy and grey that I feel like warmth and comfort dishes. This is exactly what I want to tuck into when I am so cold and in need of energy. I have always eaten it, I have always cooked it. It is one of the few meat based food I prepare regularly and I often fall back on it when I have to feed the crowds. It is surprisingly adaptable to different occasions, from the home meal to the formal dinner. Everyone seems to like it.
I had never realized just how widespread this dish is. It is probably one of the staples in central Europe. Funny enough, outside its ‘natural’ area of diffusion, it is not an easy dish to come by.
Goulash is a soup or stew with hungarian origin, or at least, solidly, a Hungarian name. I was vaguely aware it does not classify as ‘standard Italian cooking’, but it was quite common at my home. But actually my mother is quite an adventurous cook, who was preparing chinese food in Milan in the eighties way before it was a common thing to do, and is now perfecting her okonomiyaki making skills. Anyway, at that time goulash did not sound adventurous. It is one of my childhood flavours.
Then I ate it on several occasions on holiday – in Prague, in Austria, in Slovenia… It is more often than not a soup more than the stew I am used to, and I have seen it served with starchy items whose nature varies greatly, from the little milk and egg based spaetzli, to potato gnocchi, to simple boiled potatoes, to bread gnocchi ((sammel)knoedel or canederli). Here in Germany rinder gulash is pretty common. I ate it around a couple of times. It is ok though not impressing – the one I had in Prague was more flavourful, the one in Italy richer. When I moved away, I asked my mother for the recipe. She told me I already had it – it was in the always useful “Talismano della Felicita”.
On the Talismano, the recipe starts with a short description:
“Gulyas is a famous hungarian preparation based on meat, onions and paprika. In order for the dish to turn out properly, don’t overlook paprika, who needs to be sweet, perfumed and brightly coloured.
For the meat, the hungarian formulation makes use of neck, shoulder or breast; but any good meat cut can be used.”
Further research has highlighted the fact that the Italian version often includes a bit of tomato sauce. I usually omit it though: I find the final result to be a bit sweeter and less incisive, so to speak. I think this is one of the occasions where keeping the ingredient list short pays off.
The recipe I am sharing is the way I prepare it nowadays. Some recipes include flour to dust the meat with before browning it, and in principle you can cut the long cooking time by using a pressure cooker. I prefer to avoid flour as the sauce gets thick enough if you choose a meat cut with connective tissue, and floured meat burns more easily so you have to mix more often. In general, also, although I am a huge pressure cooker fan, I always finish up cooking this one on my pressure cooker, which has a great thick bottom, but without pressure. I am a bit faint hearted when it comes to cooking meat, so I can’t really face cooking the stew with the traditional meat fat; I usually use my passpartout olive oil instead of more traditional options.
For these reasons I make sure to choose a meat cut with connective tissue and some fat on it. Lean cuts tend to get too hard. If you realize after some cooking you choose too lean a cut, don’t despair. You just need to add a lot of water and make the whole lot cook for a few more hours. You’ll get something thinner and more soup-like, but it will still taste great. And do listen to the Talismano, use the best sweet paprika you can find.
Ingredients (serves 4 – can accommodate 6)
about 600gr beef meat, cut into 3×3 cm cubes
same volume of onions (4 medium large ones), or even more to taste, sliced
1 tablespoon sweet paprika (spanish pimenton works great as a substitute)
pinch of paprika flakes, optional
1 teaspoon kimmel (caraway seeds, substitute with cumin if you hate them or leave out)
salt, black pepper
1 tablespoon olive oil, or lard
In a heavy bottomed, large pan warm the oil and brown the meat on it. Make sure you don’t overcrowd your pan, making a few batches if need be.
When all meat cubes are browned remove them using a slotted spoon, lower the heat to medium and sautee the onions, mixing until they get soft and transparent. You don’t want to brown them. Add the meat, salt, pepper, a tablespoon of paprika, cumin and about a liter of water (you can use stock if you have any at hand, but it is not necessary). Bring to the boil then lower the heat and let the stew simmer, adding now and again a little water if needed. It will take about two-three hours to get ready. It works great if you cook it some time one day and some more time the next day, actually it gets better. The onions will completely melt, and the meat should be very tender. Taste the sauce and make sure you added enough paprika and salt; add more to taste.
Serve with any starchy item (picture: mashed boiled potatoes).