I sometimes wonder if the concept of long, slow cooking didn't develop in the bleak mid-winter. There's something about filling your home, hour after hour, with the aromas of something tasty bubbling away in a kettle. One such dish that I try to make at least once a winter is goulash, that soul satisfying stew of slowly cooked beef and onions...and of course a bowl full of spices. And Chef Jerry Pellegrino of Schola Cooking School can vouch for this, it should come as no surprise that goulash comes in about a million different versions, as is typical of most simple, irresistible dishes.
Goulash originated in Hungary, a millennium ago, and is today the unofficial "national dish". Back in the 9th century shepherds and herdsmen would carry a pack of dried meat with them that could be re-hydrated in a pot over an open flame.
Of course it didn't take long for those medieval cowboys to start adding an onion or a carrot or a potato to fill out the grub.
With the arrival of the spice paprika in the 16th century goulash got its signature profile. One thing that is thought to be commonplace today, tomatoes, has absolutely no historical precedent... just as proper Texas chili has no beans or tomatoes.
Today there are dozens of basic versions, but they all involve the slow cooking of beef, veal, pork, or lamb. For best results, tough cuts of meat, well endowed with fat, connective tissue and other forms of collagen. As the meat slowly cooks, the collagens are converted into gelatins which give the stew a rich, lip-smacking texture.
You can cook the meat in water, but stock is preferable. The first additional ingredient is sliced onion... lots of sliced onion, and then, naturally, paprika. Hungarian and Spanish are the two great paprikas in the world, and both can be used with confidence. Very old-timey recipes also allowed garlic, caraway seed, carrots, celery root and small egg noodles. As the centuries rolled by cut up potatoes also began to appear, adding starch to the broth for thickening.
A list of modern Hungarian versions of goulash play mix and match with such ingredients as sauerkraut, sour cream, kidney beans, peppers and red or white wine.
National variations exist as well. In Croatia they add bacon, mushrooms to wild boar or venison. In the Czech Republic dumplings make an appearance alongside beer for the broth and fresh sliced onions for the garnish. In Germany red wine is an important part of the broth, while potatoes and pasta provide starch. And in Slovenia you are expected to use the same weight of onions as meat. Only in the United States will you find recipes calling for tomatoes.
My approach to making goulash is to get simple stew meat, often just a big chunk of chuck roast cut up. You can shop locally at Roseda Beef, Albright's or Liberty Delight Farms and score some premium protein. As a variation, I'm planning to make a lamb goulash this winter and I will be asking my friends at Woolsey Farm to provide me with a shoulder roast that I can cut up. This tough but flavorful cut is perfect for the long slow approach.
The key piece of equipment is a Dutch oven with a tight fitting lid. You can use it right off the bat on the stove top to sear your meat chunks, which I dust with seasoned flour. I use a generous pour of olive oil, because just as soon as the meat is browned, I'm tossing in about five or six good sized onions, peeled and coarsely chopped. A good sprinkling of salt and pepper gets the ball rolling. One of the most appealing things about goulash is what happens to those onions: three or four hours of slow simmering completely melts them and they form the base for the thick flavorful broth that will develop.
After the onions are translucent, I may toss in some carrots and a few chopped up jalapeno peppers (seeds removed). Then I hit it for the first time with the paprika, which I stir in over heat. Next, it's time for my beef broth, which should be plentiful and well flavored. I add enough to cover about 3/4 of the meat and onions. I cover the Dutch oven up, stick it in a 300° oven and go read a book for five or six hours.
Actually, you'll want to start checking in about once an hour to make sure you haven't run out of cooking broth. And it's a great time to add a little more paprika. My belief is that you cannot overdo the paprika, so buy lots of it.
Some people may like goulash as a stew, others as a soup. So obviously, the amount of broth you develop makes the difference. In looking at various recipes on-line, it appears that the soup version has a lot more ingredients and strays farther from the old original than the simpler stew version. So the choice is yours.