European recipes and cuisine always remind me of my grandmother’s recipes. My dad also loved to cook and often looked through Grandma’s handwritten recipes for ideas. “Here’s what we could have for dinner tomorrow night – a nice strong goulash with lots of paprika.” Sure, mom followed her instructions (actually, grandma’s) and made goulash with lots of paprika, but just enough.
When we think of Hungarian cuisine, we usually include paprika as an ingredient. In fact, paprika originated in the New World, not Central Europe. Columbus identified hot peppers on his trip to America and brought some back to Spain. There, the Spaniards cultivated them and incorporated them into their cuisine.
From Spain, these peppers moved to Italy and then to the Ottoman Empire, of which Bulgaria was a part. The Bulgarians learned how to cultivate chili peppers and took this knowledge with them to Hungary in the 16th century.
Peppers and paprika, the ground spice made from dried chili peppers, were always hot until the mid-19th century, when paprika mills in Hungary invented a technique for removing the veins and seeds from peppers (where all the heat is insulated).
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Eight different “heat levels” of paprika are available in Hungary – from mild to very strong. The most notable Hungarian cities that produce paprika are Kalocsa and Szeged. These names must appear on the labels of the best imported paprika.
Hungarians and those from neighboring countries do not sprinkle a tiny bit of paprika on food to color it, as many cooks in this country do. In Central Europe, paprika is used by the tablespoon as the main flavoring – a cross between a flour thickener and a dried vegetable powder. Characteristic paprika dishes include paprika chicken and fish stew. And, of course, the beef goulash.
The flavor of the best paprika is rich and tangy. It should smell and taste like fresh chilli. The texture should be almost as fine as face powder.
Most of the paprika used in the United States does not come from Hungary, but from Spain. Another important supplier is California. Paprika from Spain and California is sold commercially in a range of colors from light red to dark red.
The tastiest paprika, however, comes from Hungary. It is used in cooking and not only as a colorant. When cooking with paprika, remember that it contains a lot of natural sugar and caramelizes and burns easily. It should be cooked over low heat.
Goulash was adapted throughout Central Europe as an indigenous food. As with all indigenous foods, its ingredients and preparations vary according to local traditions. However, it still includes paprika. Authentic Hungarian goulash is hotter and uses more onions.
Goulash, in addition to being an excellent food, is a very practical dish. It is economical, easy to make and reheats easily. It’s a great party dish. You can use either beef, veal or pork. I prefer the veal, as it has a milder flavor.
There are many variations of goulash. Each family has its own. Even at home, Grandma’s version was different from Mom’s.
2 pounds veal shoulder, cut into 1-inch cubes
2 teaspoons sweet Hungarian paprika
Cook the salt pork in a kettle until golden brown. Remove pork. Brown the meat all over in the remaining fat in the kettle. Add the onions and cook for 5 more minutes. Add the paprika, vinegar, ½ teaspoon of salt, broth and tomato sauce. Cover and simmer for 1½ hours or until the meat is tender, adding a little stock or water, if necessary. Just before serving, stir in the golden pork and sour cream. For 6 persons.