Monday, 30 July 2012

Good old goulash

Next up in my Villa Serena recipe series is beef goulash. It's a dish that couldn't be more synonymous with Hungary. My mum always cooked it for us at home; she favoured a soupy version which we'd hunch over, blowing on our spoons and dipping hunks of bread. In Hungary I've eaten goulash from a battered tin pan at a dusty roadside cafe, and I've had it served in a Herend porcelain bowl by a black-jacketed waiter at a refined Budapest restaurant. Whether it's street-food or fine dining, goulash always tastes the same to me. Robust. Fiery. Salty. Sweet. And full of heart.

In The Book of Summers, Erzsi remembers Marika making a wickedly hot goulash just to put the frighteners on her English relatives... "On the rare occasions that my aunt visited, Marika used her extra hot paprika in the goulash soup she made, and filled the house with gypsy music that made the cobwebs tremble." 

I think a recipe should be a starting point for inspiration, rather than something to be followed slavishly, and goulash is a great dish for freestyling. Despite what the purists may say, for me the only essential ingredients are beef and paprika... after that, it's a case of adding lots of what you fancy and less of what you don't. So if the inclusion of lard in the list below makes you balk, just swap it for a good splash of extra virgin. Or if you're not keen on the reedy taste of celery, throw in some more onions. I like my goulash to have a real kick but milder versions are good too - just add your chilli and paprika according to taste. I also prefer it to have the consistency of a stew rather than soup, but if you like the latter, just add more liquid. Here's beef goulash the way I make it...    

Ingredients (to serve 4):
Lard - a golf ball sized hunk (or however much your conscience can take)
750g-1kg beef (depending on how greedy you're feeling) - stewing steak or casserole
2 x large onions - chopped finely
1 x teaspoon of dried chili flakes (or more... )
3 x stems of celery - chopped chunkily 
2 x cloves of garlic - finely chopped
2 x heaped tablespoons of paprika* (medium strength)
Beef stock - approximately 1 pint 
2 x red peppers - sliced lengthways
1 x yellow pepper - sliced lengthways
1 x dried or fresh chili pepper - thrown in whole for extra heat (optional)
Chives & sour cream for garnish
Salt and pepper for seasoning

*I also like to use a spoonful of hot paprika paste (see jar in picture) - you can buy this from specialist Hungarian delis online.

Use a nice big heavy-bottomed pan. Melt your lard (okay, okay, or oil!) then fry the hunks of beef in batches until nicely browned. Once done, remove from the pan and set aside. Next fry the chopped onions, celery and garlic until glistening. Then add in the red and yellow peppers, and the chilli flakes, and fry until softened. Next, stir in the paprika, then get your beef back into the pan. Combine it all nicely, and then pour over your beef stock until everything is just covered. Add a little hot water from the kettle if you need more liquid. Bring to the boil and then turn it down to a simmer. If you've managed to get hold of the paprika paste, here's when I'd add it. After seasoning generously, now all you do is leave it to cook in. Turn the heat down as low as it'll go, put the lid partially on, and let it cook for about 1.5-2 hours (or until you can't resist the smell any longer). I sometimes like to leave it even longer, so that all the peppers and onions entirely break down and the sauce becomes really thick. To serve, scatter chopped chives and add the requisite dollop of sour cream.

I like my goulash accompanied by gnocchi - a little Italian-Hungarian combination that works brilliantly - and a zingy side of cucumber salad. This might seem like a wintry dish but to me it says 'summer'; hot sun on your skin, fire on your tongue and in your belly. And if you're serving your goulash at lunchtime there's nothing more perfect for dessert than an afternoon snooze in the shade. Jo étvágyat!