Tuesday, March 29, 2011

When you are Hungary

Since I changed apartments and neighborhoods, my diet has changed as well. This reflects the fact that my local resources have changed, giving me access to different products. When I changed employment a few months later, I had to pay closer attention to what was in my immediate area and forced me to explore and exploit those local resources.

I have a pretty wide culinary palate. I don't restrict myself to my cultural base and try out ethnic products and dishes, which are themselves comfort foods of those people. One ethnic group in my new stomping grounds are Eastern Europeans: Russians, Poles, Romanians, Hungarians and Jews. They bring a whole new dimension to tastes and preparation, and are a great source for delicious delicatessen. Its a nice change from the Italian/French/German fare I was used to up to now.

Of the delicious preparations I have since adopted and adapted to my repertoire, goulash and sauerkraut make a regular tour of duty on my dinning table; they are simple to make and use those types of spices that you may have lying around and have never quite figured out what to do with, until now.

First off, goulash. Goulash is a traditional Hungarian dish, mostly served as a soup (according to wikipedia, that is) and occasionally as a stew. For now, we're going to do the simple, and more flexible thing and make it a stew.

There are three basic elements to a goulash: meat, onions and paprika. Overall, its a simple dish, simple to make and inexpensive. How inexpensive? I can make a large goulash out of a small pork shoulder (about two and a half pound) for about seven dollars. And that's a lot of meat servings.

So first, you need some meat; how much meat and what kind entirely depends on your tastes, dietary requirements and supplies. Traditionally it made with beef or veal, but after trying out the beef, I don't like the taste or texture, so I'm more for pork or lamb, but if you have it on hand, you could do it with chicken, or for the vegetarians, potato and beans. Go for meat that is fairly fat and requires some cooking; my go-to choices are pork shoulder (at about thirty percent fat, this is what is used to make sausage) and lamb or goat cubes, on the bone. Generally those will be of the tougher, longer cooking variety, less popular, and thus cheaper, which is a win-win situation, as they are better tasting. Depending on your supplies, have them at about an inch to an inch-and-a-half cubes, but mostly try to keep it of a fairly consistent size.

You'll need some onions; for this you can very well use your traditional yellow onions, as they are very cheap and easily available. You'll want a good amount, at least two baseball-sized, split in two and sliced, but you can use as much as you want, say as much as you have meat, which could be a good way to stretch it.

Now that you've got your two leads, you need the supporting cast: some cooking fat, enough to slowly soften up the onions while leaving some to build your sauce. The character actor of this play is the paprika. Get some good paprika, preferably Hungarian, but use what you've got on hand. You could well add nothing more than salt and pepper to the mix and it'd be fine (and very traditional), but I like to build a mix myself, by adding on ground cumin and turmeric, also known as cucurma. Its not traditional, but cucurma is a great flavor enhancer, necessary for mixing up some curry, and is one of those natural health booster that's so handy to eat. I would also recommend adding some garlic, sliced or crushed, to the onion. The last item is some cooking liquid, whether its stock, beer, wine or just good old water. Not too much, just enough to nearly cover the cooking mixture.

First, you warm up the cooking fat; this is a good time to use the trimmings from your meat, or leftover bits of bacon or ham. Toss in the onions and cook over moderate heat until they soften and become translucent; there should be some fat left in the cooking vessel to build your sauce on. If you add garlic to the mix you'll want to add it to the onions a couple of minutes before the onions get to the right spot.

Take the pot off the heat and add in your spice mix; you should have a couple of table spoonfuls. Stir it in the fat and onion mix until well spread out and add in the meat. Stir to cover throughout and return to the heat. Keep stirring the mixture to make sure that the flavors get well spread out throughout the whole preparation and add the cooking liquid. Bring to a boil then reduce the heat to simmer and cover. Cook until the liquid is mostly gone, leaving a fairly thick sauce.

Serve with potatoes, perogies, egg noodles, boiled veggies, whatever you have on hand. You can cut the middleman by cooking your veggies at the same time as the meat, tossing in carrots, potatoes, parsnips, rutabagas, and for a bit of variety, peas.

As a variation, you could cut your pieces of meat smaller, add in your veggies cut in about the same size and enough cooking liquid to more than cover; simmer at low heat and you've got yourself a nice hearty soup, perfect for those nasty winter months where shoveling snow and dragging fire wood in an everyday thing.

And then, we have sauerkraut. Properly, sauerkraut is fermented cabbage, which probably sound scary and disgusting, but is actually very delicious and is one of those wonderfoods. Proper 'kraut is soft and not soaked in vinegar, so unless you are lucky, it isn't found in jars or cans. If you get your sausage at a proper ethnic deli, then most likely they also offer homemade sauerkraut, a totally different beast.

Those of you who have a world palate and have tried Korean foods may be familiar with kimchi; its actually the Korean cousin of sauerkraut.

So, lets look at making something good even better, shall we?

First, you'll need some 'kraut. Two to three cups is a good place to start. You'll also need an onion, halved and sliced, as much garlic as you love (the more the merrier, I say), a chunk of good cured pork belly or good Eastern European sausage (bratwurst, frankfurter and knockwurst are good choices), some spices and some beer. Sure, you could do without the beer, but it really makes it better.

What kind of spices do you need? A pinch of salt, some black pepper, cumin, mustard powder or seeds, and a bay leaf or two all combine to make an excellent brew. If you use seeds you'll want to roast them briefly in a dry pan before adding in anything else. It helps release the flavors (and prepares you for preparing Indian spice mixes.)

So first, heat up some cooking fat and soften up the onions. Add in the meat cut in mite-sized chunks and brown, allowing the flavors to develop and the fats to be released. When the browning action is well on its way, add the spices, except for the bay leaf. Stir a few seconds and add the sauerkraut. Stir to mix well, add the cooking liquid and the bay leaf. You don't need a lot of liquid, just enough to wet the mix; you have to pour just enough to keep it moist, so as soon as you can see the liquid, its enough. Bring to a boil and lower the heat to simmer, covered, until most of the liquid is gone.

Serve with mash potatoes and/or perogies, with a spoonful of sour cream for the mash or dumplings. If you skip the meat part in the 'kraut, you can well serve the sausages boiled or grilled with some simple yellow mustard, or some boiled ham. Alternatively, you could simply serve it with some good fresh bread, or use the 'kraut as a sandwich filled: take a sub roll, open it and grill it crunchy, stuff with the sauerkraut with a bit of mustard to taste.

Delicious stuff.

1 comment:

  1. I make Goulash quite often. It is something so easy and simple to make but is so rich in flavor.