Shakshuka Revisited

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Back when I was still a wee little college junior, I started this blog to help me reconcile with some big changes in my life. I had just returned from a life-changing summer in China, recently become single, and was living in a pseudo-apartment for the first time. One of my goals for junior year was to become a decent cook – it didn’t start out pretty, but I’d like to think my cooking skills have improved, even if my food photography skills remain as questionable as ever.

I once totally screwed up Shakshuka in a classic example of a beginner cook overeager to use fancy machines for cooking. I blended three beautiful tomatoes into pulp, then threw in some eggplant, and served the watery mess to my friends. (Sorry guys!) Well this summer, I’ve had nothing but time, which has, among other things, allowed me to take the analog approach to cooking. (That and my blender, the only electronic equipment I brought with me, broke en route to Boston, kind of forcing my hand.)

It’s also allowed me to reflect on what lies ahead as my friends and I move away from Boston and to different corners of the world (…but mostly New York and D.C.). I fulfilled my goal of learning to cook, but for a while now, I’ve been a little lost, consumed in filling out assignments and checking off tasks (with an unhealthy dose of life drama on the side).

I can’t go back and fix all the mistakes (perceived or real) that I made in the past and dwell on all the lost relationships I had, but I can work on moving beyond them. Cooking has become therapeutic, a challenge with each new dish, but also comfort in repeating the familiar. And so I don’t gain like 100 pounds, long bike rides and not-so-long jogs are also calming in their own way, as I focus on the rhythm of my breaths and the constant motion of my legs and clear my head.

And so I’ve revisited Shakshuka, that dish I made as a cocky fledgling cook that reminded me that I still had so much to learn about cooking. (1. Always read through the recipe carefully. 2. Always read through the recipe carefully. 3. Don’t make changes to recipes when you have no idea what you’re doing.) And I think I finally got the hang of it! Now it remains to be seen if I can get the hang of life goals…

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Goulash

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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.

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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.

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