Monday, August 23, 2010

Hungarian Paprika and a recipe for Gulyás

Holland has cheese, Germany has beer and Hungary has, you guessed it, paprika. As one of the key producers of sweet and spicy red paprika in the world, Hungary cultivates a large variety of peppers, and therefore produces different types of paprika.


The variety largely depends on the heat of the paprika, on its bite. Édes Nemes is a type of paprika that is bright red, sweet and only with a hint of spice. It's the most popular kind for export, and will be most likely the one you will cook with. But other varieties, although more difficult perhaps to find, sound equally interesting and exciting. Csípös Csmege is a spicier paprika that is very popular in Hungary and in Hungarian cuisine, Különleges is a variety with bright red color and a very mild, sweet flavor. For the brave amongst us, Erös is the hottest variety. Its color varies from rusty red to light brown because yellow and green peppers are used additionally for the production of the paprika powder.

The two regions in Hungary most famous for their pepper and paprika production are Szeged and Kalocsa. Right around this time of year, in September, the two areas start harvesting and processing their peppers. Within a month and a half, from harvest to milling and packaging, paprika hits the stores in beautifully decorated cloth bags, boxes or cans. As you can imagine, it's a great souvenir to bring home if you visit the country and Hungary most definitely will not allow you to forget its culinary pride: there's even a Paprika museum. As the natural spice loses its pungency, flavor and color with time, it is best to seek out the freshest and most recently produced paprika. In America, we will most likely encounter the canned Édes Nemes variety from Szeged, but it would be interesting to pursue the use of other specialties as well.

Gulyás, or goulash, is Hungary's national dish. The Hungarian herdsmen, or cowboys if you will, are credited with creating this dish, a one pot stew scarce in a variety of ingredients but rich in paprika. In an effort to create an original version of this wonderful beef stew, I read many blogs, recipes, translated Hungarian websites and emailed with Hungarian cooks. Not often did they agree on too many of the ingredients or cooking instructions, as can be expected with a dish so universally adopted (and adapted) to different tastes and product availability. The one thing most cooks did seem to agree on, though, is absolutely no tomatoes. The redness and flavor of the sauce has to come solely from paprika powder and, if necessary, paprika paste. But no tomatoes.

As I did not have a traditional bogrács, a traditional heavy pot or cauldron that the Hungarian herdsmen used to cook their gulyás in, I used a cast iron enameled pot which worked just as well. Every household has its own variation of gulyás and therefore I added my own two (euro) cents. I did omit the tomatoes and thus honored the original version, but did add two red peppers for lack of paprika paste, some garlic and a generous dollop of ajvar to spice things up a bit.

Gulyás
4 slices of salt pork (or 3 tablespoons of bacon grease)
1 large onion, diced
4 tablespoons of paprika
2 lb of beef (chuck rib or pot roast)
2 carrots
2 cloves of garlic
2 medium red peppers
2 medium sized potatoes
1 tablespoon of caraway seeds

Optional: two tablespoons of ajvar

Heat your cooking pot and render the fat out of the salt pork. If you have bacon grease you can skip this step. When the fat is hot, remove the salt pork if used and add the onions. Stir until they are translucent. Take the pot off the stove and stir in the paprika. Note: you want the paprika to hit the hot grease and release most of its flavor but you don't want it to burn as it will turn bitter and spoil the dish.

Put the pot back on the stove and add the beef, cut in bitesize chunks. Sauté the meat in the hot fat and mix it in with the onions and the paprika, then turn down the heat and add 2 cups of warm water. Let the beef braise in a covered pot for about a good hour, keeping an eye on the amount of liquid. Make sure you have enough liquid in the pot at all times!

Peel and cut the carrots in bitesize pieces or slices, whichever you prefer. Peel and mince the garlic, and slice the peppers into 1 inch pieces, after removing the seeds. Add the carrots, garlic and peppers to the pot, add three more cups of water and let the stew slowly simmer for another hour.

Cube the potatoes after you peel them and add them to the pot with three additional cups of water. Stir in the tablespoon of caraway seed and simmer until the potatoes are done. On a slow simmer, the potatoes will thicken the stew and bring all the flavors together. Before you serve, taste and adjust with salt and pepper, if needed, and stir in a spoonful of ajvar if you wish. Served best with a big slice of pogacha.

Enjoy your meal!



*The Hungarian paprika was found at Tres Bonne Cuisine, on Overland in Boise.

Ajvar (Roasted Red Pepper and Eggplant Spread)

Ajvar (pronounced EYE-var) is a traditional relish from the Balkan area (Bulgaria, Macedonia, Serbia). It's made from roasted red peppers and eggplant, garlic, olive oil and, for a spicy variant, hot peppers.

It comes in three varieties: mild (pindjur), moderately hot (ajvar) and hot (ljuti or ljutenica). Often used warm as a savory condiment with meat dishes such as cevabcici, it can also be used cold as a spread on wraps, sandwiches or added to flavor soups or sauces. The roasted pepper spread is often served on the traditional pogacha bread as an appetizer.

Ajvar is prepared in the Fall months, when red peppers and eggplant are abundant and at their best. The preparation often involves family, friends and neighbors and is a celebratory event that often lasts two or three days. The red pepper variety is not the sweet, square bell pepper that we know in the United States but it will make a good substitute. The Balkan red pepper is a smaller variety, with a pointed end, that has a certain sweetness to it but also a little bit of a bite, just enough to add an interesting hint of heat.

As with everything that is traditional and home-made, every family or culture has its own way of preparing foods. Some roast the peppers whole, others de-seed them before roasting, some boil the sauce down or add parsley, yet others chop the roasted vegetables up and serve them lukewarm as is. Whichever way you do it, it's all good. Compare it to the way we make potato salad in this country: everybody likes or makes theirs a little different, but after all is said and done, it's still potato salad.

You can chop the ajvar in a food processor, or grind it to a paste in a mortar and pestle. If you plan on canning it, bring it to a simmer and boil it down to about half. Do process this in a pressure canner as the acidity of the vegetables is too low to be safely processed in a water bath canner and keep the jars refrigerated.

Ajvar
Six to 8 large red peppers
1 medium size eggplant
2 garlic cloves
3 tablespoons of olive oil
2 tablespoon of white wine vinegar
Pinch of salt
Pinch of pepper
Parsley (optional)

Roast the peppers and the eggplant on medium fire until they are charred on the outside. Place them in a plastic bag or in a covered bowl and let them sweat for an hour: it will loosen up the skins and will be easier to handle. Peel the peppers and remove the seeds. Chop the peppers into small pieces. Peel the eggplant and remove the seeds, cut the rest into small pieces. Add both vegetables to the food processor and pulse a couple of times. Add the garlic, the oil and the vinegar and pulse again, two or three times, depending on how smooth you want the sauce to be. Taste and adjust seasonings as needed.


Serve warm by grilled meats or cold on bread and cream cheese as a snack or breakfast item.

TIP: The bottled ajvar in the picture was purchased at Bosnia-Express on Emerald and Orchard in Boise, ID.