It’s the start of a bright new year. And what bright, yet wintery dish to ring it in but a paprika-stained stew that’ll feed for many cold nights to come? I have no hard-and-fast rules or resolutions for 2017, but lately I’ve been plagued with wanting to cook things that I know are delicious, comforting, warming and cozy, but don’t get enough time to make so often. Hungarian beef goulash is one of those things.
As I write this I’m listening to one of my favorite records, by Sharon Jones of the Dap-Kings, the lead singer of which passed away in the eve of 2016 quite suddenly. Actually, she was watching the election night coverage on November 8th, and had a heart attack. I had coveted tickets to her “reunion” concert that December in Brooklyn, but the show was cancelled soon after her death. It was a dismal end to the year, to say the least.
So on the first weekend of the new year, I did what any rational person would: I bought some sweet as well as hot Hungarian paprika along with some good beef chuck from a local butcher. I made a big pot of goulash. No, this has no relevance to the singer’s passing, and I have no idea if Sharon Jones would have liked a goulash or had ever had it in her life. But let me tell you—I was just hungry for something soothing, nostalgic and a little bit spicy. Like that wonderful woman of soul’s vocal prowess.
I remember the moment when I learned of her death. My good friend and collaborator (Pete Lee, the photographer of The Food of Taiwan) had texted me late the previous night due to his being in West Coast time something like, “I’m so sorry for you.” Being in East Coast time, I responded the following morning while biting into a toasted buttery everything bagel from a bagel store across the street from my apartment, “What are you talking about?” Then I turned to CNN or whatever on my iPhone and found out what the hell he was talking about. It was a good bagel, but it tasted so damn bad afterward.
They say 2016 was an especially bad year for deaths in the world of popular music. I say that 2017 ought to be a year of many births to make up for it. I am following a few young, rising musicians and hope to support them. Because we need good goshdarn music and seriously good food to keep on.
Likewise, we can only hope to keep food traditions strong by f-ing cooking them ourselves. This is not a joke nor stretch of the imagination, but a dead-serious conviction. If we don’t nurture what incredible foods we are all capable of breeding at home, then what happens? I don’t think you will see beef goulash on too many restaurant menus, either because it isn’t trendy enough or it isn’t amenable enough to restaurant line-cooking. And because chefs are rightly fearful that peoples’ moms’ or grandmas’ versions will be better. There is a whole catalogue of foods like this: the home-cooked prides of the likes of chili, Sunday sauce, gumbo, stroganoff, pozole, jigaes or any red-braised Chinese hongshao stew that I’ve never had better anywhere than in my mom’s kitchen.
I don’t have Hungarian roots in my family tree, but for some reason my dad beef goulash often when I was growing up. This was due to a penchant for making long-simmered stews of any origin (boeuf bourgouignon probably being a gateway) and it’s something I take up in winter almost subconsciously. And I have tried goulash in Hungary and it was great but I longed for smelling it cooking for several hours on the stove. The smoky paprika and beefy odors throughout your home really add to its appeal.
Lastly, there’s one odd ingredient in this recipe that is optional, but stews lend themselves to multitudes of options and extraneous ingredients. I’d seen some recipes that called for a little bit of bacon to sizzle with the onions and stuff, and for some reason I wound up with a link of hot Italian sausage in the aftermath of a New Year’s Eve pizza-making party at my friends’. This was sliced up to add savory, cured-meat flavor and I think the heat of the sausage (and paprika-red color) was an apt addition. Forget this addition or substitute it with whatever the hell is in similar vein in your kitchen instead of it here. It was a welcome surprise to the first day of 2017, finding a cured link of sausage in my purse that morning. Let’s hope there are many more fun surprises to come this year.
Beef Goulash with Spicy Sausage & Mushrooms
(makes about 4 servings)
1.5 lbs beef chuck, cut to about 2” cubes
1 tablespoons flour
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 small link (yielding about 4 oz) dry-cured spicy sausage, sliced to 1/4” discs (or substitute with the same amount of bacon, finely chopped)
1 large onion, chopped
1 large carrot, chopped
1 large green bell pepper, chopped
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon sweet Hungarian paprika
1 tablespoon hot paprika (or substitute with more sweet)
¼ lb button mushrooms, quartered or halved
1 cup dry red wine
4 cups beef stock
1 bay leaf
salt and pepper to taste
½ cup crème fraiche or sour cream (optional)
Lightly dredge the beef in the flour and shake off excess. Heat the oil in a large, heavy-bottomed pot or Dutch oven. Once oil is very hot sputtering, place in the beef so that each piece has direct contact with the pan and don’t move for about 1 minute. Flip each piece once the bottom is lightly browned and brown the opposite sides for another minute or so. Remove beef from pot and set aside in a bowl.
In the same pan, add the sliced sausage and stir a few minutes until fragrant. Add the onion, carrot and green pepper along with a pinch of salt. Reduce heat to low and cook, stirring occasionally, for about 8 minutes or until onions are translucent. Add the garlic and cook another minute. Add the paprika and cook, stirring, until fully incorporated and very fragrant, 2 minutes or so. Return the beef to the pot and stir to incorporate. Add the mushrooms.
Increase heat to high and add the wine. Cook, stirring occasionally, to allow liquid to boil and reduce to about one half. Add the bay leaf and the beef stock and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to a simmer and cover.
Cook covered for 1-2 hours at a gentle simmer. Taste for seasoning, adding salt and pepper as desired. Stir in the optional crème fraiche. Serve with noodles, crusty bread, potatoes or just by itself!
(for 4 servings)
1.5 lbs beef chuck (at $8.99/lb): $14.00
1 small link cured spicy sausage (leftover from party): $4.00
1 onion: $0.25
1 carrot: $0.25
1 green pepper: $0.50
4 cloves garlic: $0.20
¼ lb mushrooms: $2.00
2 tablespoons paprika: $0.50
1 cup dry red wine: $2.00
4 cups beef stock: $4.00
½ cup crème fraiche: $0.50
2 tablespoons flour, salt, pepper, 2 Tb olive oil: $0.50
Seven brownie points: It’s a hearty beef stew, with an extra dose of cholesterol from a bit of cured fatty pork. But a small portion of this intensely rich and flavorful stuff goes a long way. Served with bread or other starch, you can be satisfied from a small portion. It also has a good portion of vegetables, but you might want to have more on the side to round out the meal.
Four brownie points: Beef are pretty high on the carbon toll totem pole—about as high as it gets for a protein. That’s because it costs so much energy and resources to produce (and not to mention, cows release a LOT of methane into the atmosphere, too). So instead of gorging on a huge steak try enjoying beef when it’s spread out more in a meal—stretching its flavor, not plain flesh, for maximum potential. Also, support good practices in the field by buying yours from a trusted local farmer or butcher.