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.
4 slices of salt pork (or 3 tablespoons of bacon grease)
4 tablespoons of paprika
2 lb of beef (chuck rib or pot roast)
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!