One of my friends traveled to Hungary this summer, and since then, she’s constantly raved about goulash. She even brought back some adorable sachets of Hungarian paprika (since everyone knows I’m kind of obsessed with Hungary) and requested that I attempt to recreate the goulash she had in Hungary.
As I set out to make the dish, I realized while I have blindly followed recipes for dishes I’ve never tasted before, this was the first time that I was attempting to recreate another person’s memories. I searched “goulash recipes” and one of the first hits was Paula Deen’s goulash recipe, whose ingredients include soy sauce, Italian seasoning, and elbow macaroni – all of which I’m pretty sure are not featured in Hungarian cuisine, and all of which sounded eerily like American chop suey, a.k.a. the worst cafeteria food ever created. So I put the goulash project on the back burner and kind of hoped my friend would forget about it.
For weeks, nothing. And just as I sighed relief, she brought it up again, and I knew that I had to at least try.
Among all the so-called celebrity chefs, Paula Deen ranks pretty high on my “human joke” scale. The irony of getting diabetes after decades of decadent butter consumption (as well as her whole racism debacle) makes it difficult to take anything she does seriously. However, the Italian seasoning in recipe did give me an idea: I might not have ever experienced gulyás or pörkölt, but I had had excellent beef stews before, namely beef ragù. The recipe, a mix of familiar components and new flavors, began to take shape.
Even buying the ingredients wasn’t easy – I rarely eat beef, so I basically went through the beef cuts and picked the one that looked the “meatiest” (I think it turned out to be chuck roast or something). Then I realized there’s marjoram leaves and there’s marjoram seeds – still have no idea what the difference is. After finally acquiring all the ingredients, I tackled the dish itself, and three hours and a few “experiments” later, I finally had something to put on the table.
I looked anxiously at my friend as she took her first bite – I thought it tasted good, but would it taste right? She nodded her head. “Tastes like Hungary.” Recreating another person’s memory is a funny thing – I strayed from the “authentic” recipes and even ended up taking some inspiration from an unexpected source, all to chase after my idea of what she had experienced when she ate goulash. At the end of the process, I was glad to have taken on the challenge, and I hope that one day, I will be able to travel to Hungary and create my own memories of gulyás and pörkölt and all the other flavors of Hungarian cuisine.
Goulash/Porkolt (adapted from Saveur, Kitchen Riffs, and Food 52) – makes 8-10 servings
1 1/2 lb beef chuck, cut into 1in cubes
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Mirepoix: 1 large yellow onion, chopped, 1 cup carrots, shredded or diced, 1 cup celery, diced
1/4 cup sweet paprika
2 tsp marjoram (I used dried leaves)
2 tsp caraway seeds
2-4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
4 tbsp tomato paste
1 cup red wine
White pepper (optional)
2 bay leaves
1 1/2 lbs new potatoes, cut into 1/2in cubes (peeling optional)
1 14-oz can diced tomatoes (I used crushed tomatoes…still worked)
1 Italian frying pepper (light green pepper shaped like a jalapeno)
Heat oil in a pan (not non-stick) over medium high heat. Make sure the beef chunks are dry, then season generously with salt and pepper. Brown beef chunks in batches, making sure not to overcrowd the pan.
Move browned beef to a large pot, then deglaze the pan with beef broth. Pour deglaze and additional beef broth into large pot until meat is just covered. Simmer the meat, covered.
Return the pan to medium heat, then add mirepoix. Cook until onion is translucent. Add the garlic and cook until fragrant. Create a hot spot in the center of the pan by pushing vegetables to the sides, then place tomato paste on the hot spot and stir until caramelized. Combine with vegetables. Add paprika, marjoram, and caraway seeds and stir until fragrant. Add red wine to deglaze and cook until liquid has been mostly absorbed by vegetables.
Stir vegetables into large pot. Add potatoes, 2 cups of crushed tomatoes, and place bay leaves on top of the mixture. (Optional: season with white pepper for a little pungent kick.) Add more beef broth if necessary, then simmer, covered, for 40 minutes to an hour, until beef is tender. Halfway through, slice deseeded pepper lengthwise and lay on top of the stew.