Important things I have learned about Hungarian food in the 17 years I've lived with (and 13 years I've been married to) a Hungarian:
- It involves lots of peppers, both fresh and dried - you've heard of the famous Hungarian paprika, I assume. It's in everything. And the stuff you get in the grocery store labeled "paprika" is just red dust. It tastes nothing like actual Hungarian paprika, which you'll find at gourmet stores or which a Hungarian will be proud to smuggle into the U.S. for you among the dirty socks in her suitcase.
- At some point, if you know any Hungarians, someone will try to feed you korozott (pronounced KOO-roo-zoot, more or less). You must like caraway - really like caraway - to like korozott, a sort of cheese spread with many family variations. I've seen it most often with cream cheese, sour cream, paprika, and caraway, always caraway.
- The savory dishes generally don't take that long to prepare, but they often need to cook unattended for a while - lots of variations on stew.
- Every culture has its pancakes and dumplings. I have learned to make good palacsinta (like crepes), although my mother-in-law's are better.
- Hungarians really like dessert, which often involves ground nuts in some way.
- I'm not a huge fan.
The stew pictured above, however, is another story. We went to a potluck a few weeks ago, and our neighbor Larry showed up with a huge Dutch oven full of it. My in-laws were with us at the party and recognized it immediately - szekelygulyas, a pork stew with sauerkraut.
Larry, it turns out, is not Hungarian. But he grew up in New York, in the Yorkville section of Manhattan's upper East side, way over near the river in the 70s and 80s (the streets, not the decades). He lived near Paprikas Weiss, then a famous Hungarian deli and food importer, and his neighbors, mostly Hungarians, taught him to make this dish, which he carried with him to southern California.
I love cabbage in all its variations, and Larry's stew had a soft coral-colored sauce and tiny nuggets of tender pork. I had to have it. I had to make it. Here's my version, which, truth to tell, was not as good as Larry's. But I'll work on it.
Szekelygulyas - Hungarian pork stew with sauerkraut
- 2 Tbsp oil
- 3 large onions, diced
- 3 lbs pork shoulder or butt, cut into 2-inch cubes
- 3 Tbsp sweet Hungarian paprika
- 2 Tbsp tomato paste
- 3 large (32 oz) jars sauerkraut, rinsed and drained
- salt and pepper
- 2 cups sour cream
- 2 Tbsp flour
Now add water to come about halfway up the meat, bring to a simmer, cover the pot, and let the stew cook until the pork is tender, about 2 hours. The exact time will depend on what kind of meat you used and what size you cut it, so check it after an hour and a half, but honestly, there's really no way to overcook the meat. It will just get better.
When the meat is tender, add the rinsed and drained sauerkraut, stir to combine, bring back to a simmer, cover again, and let cook another 45 minutes or so. Taste and add salt if you need it, plus lots of freshly ground black pepper. Turn off the heat and move the pot off the hot burner. Stir the flour into the sour cream, then add the sour cream to the stew. It's important to do this off the heat or the sour cream will curdle; you want the sauce to be nice and smooth.
Serve over hot buttered noodles. This dish is far better the second or third day; just make sure when you reheat it that you don't let it boil, or, as I said earlier, the sour cream will curdle.