November 9, 2016

Dear friends,

I’ve had a crush on goulash since I was 5 years old, when a pot of goulash on the stove at a playmate’s house drove me wild with desire. I wouldn’t leave until I at least got the name of the dish from my friend’s mother. The aroma alone was killer.

Despite my age at the time, I clearly remember that Mrs. Lee’s goulash was the American version made with ground beef and noodles. Years later I was thrilled to try the real thing on a ski trip to Austria. I learned goulash has many variations. In Innsbruck, entire menus were devoted to the dish and its permutations.

So I can appreciate a good goulash craving as much as anyone, but I have no idea why Tony started pestering me for goulash last week. I had never made it for him. I took him to the New Era in Akron, but we picked the wrong day for goulash; it’s a Saturday special. By that time I was hungry for goulash, too, so searched for recipes in cookbooks and on the Internet.

I was surprised most goulash recipes are so simple they don’t even call for browning the meat. That makes sense, since the dish was originally made over campfires by shepherds in Eastern Europe. That would never do for me, though. Browning the meat gives a stew or fricassee a depth of flavor that can’t be summoned any other way.

I noted many other variations: the meat ranged from veal to pork to beef to venison, the seasonings from paprika alone to a hodgepodge of herbs, and the additions from chopped tomatoes to wine to beef broth to sour cream.

I decided to pick and choose. The recipe I ended up with does not require a lot of prep time (my knee isn’t 100 percent), yet produces a suave, robustly flavored goulash with classic sensibility. In other words no wine, no herbs, no French accents.

I used venison, but beef would work just as well. I served the goulash to Tony Tuesday after a chilly day of deer hunting. He loved it, but apparently not enough to satisfy his craving. Yesterday I caught him searching for goulash restaurants. Bring ‘em on. I’ll put this goulash up against anyone’s.

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HEARTY VENISON (OR BEEF) GOULASH
2 1/2 lbs. venison or lean beef (such as bottom round)
1/4 cup vegetable oil
3 cups chopped onions
2 red bell peppers, slivered
1 tbsp. sweet paprika
2 tbsp. tomato paste
1 cup hot water
2 large potatoes, peeled and diced

Trim meat of all fat and cut in 1-inch cubes. Season with salt. Heat oil in a wide, squat kettle or large Dutch oven and brown meat in batches. When the edges are dark brown, remove with a slotted spoon before continuing with next batch.

In the same pan with more oil if necessary, sauté onions and peppers over medium-high heat, stirring frequently until limp. Return meat to pan. Stir in paprika and 1 teaspoon salt. Add tomato paste and water, stirring over high heat to scrape browned bits from bottom of pan.

When water comes to a boil reduce heat to low, cover and simmer very slowly for 1 ½ hours. Stir in the potatoes, cover and simmer 1 hour longer. Makes 4 to 6 servings.

TIDBITS

Pumpkins, butternut, dumpling, Delicata, acorn and probably a half-dozen other kinds of winter squash are on display now in food stores. The common denominator for most of them is a hard shell that’s the devil to peel off.

A knife may be a requirement for making jack-o-lanterns but it’s the wrong tool for paring a hard-shell winter squash. Instead, use a sharp vegetable peeler.

You don’t even have to do that if you plan to cook the squash in order to mash or puree it (for pumpkin pie, for example). Cook the whole pumpkin or squash in boiling water until a knife pierces the flesh easily, then cut it open, remove the seeds and strings, and scoop out the flesh.

Or you could cut the pumpkin or squash in half (or leave it whole), place on a baking sheet and bake at 400 degrees until soft.

Delicata, an oval yellow-and-green-striped squash, has a tender skin that may be eaten, so peeling it is unnecessary. You shouldn’t peel spaghetti squash, either – just boil or bake it whole until tender, then cut it open and rake the flesh into strands with a fork.

In the winter a butternut squash or two is always nestled in a hanging mesh basket in the corner of my kitchen. For longer storage they should be kept in a cool place such as a basement, but mine seldom last longer than a couple of weeks.

My favorite way to prepare butternuts is to peel with a vegetable peeler, cut in half horizontally, and cut the bulbous part in half vertically to expose the seeds. I scoop out the seeds, cut the squash into 1-inch cubes and roast on an oiled baking sheet at 400 degrees for about 30 minutes or until tender. If I’m feeling sybaritic I dot the squash with butter and sprinkle with brown sugar before baking. I’ll toss in some dried cranberries, too.

THE MAILBAG

From Jan Cramer, Uniontown:
After all the questions about this recipe, I happened to find the original tucked away in a folder. I am pretty sure this is the one from the Greek restaurant that was in a plaza in the Montrose area.

Dear Jan: I’m pretty sure your recipe is from the Montrose restaurant, too. This was published in Beacon magazine:

PAPAS’ GREEK SPAGHETTI
1 lb. spaghetti
1 bunch green onions, trimmed and washed
3/4 cup (12 tbsp.) butter, oil or margarine
Salt, pepper
Garlic powder
Dried oregano, crumbled
Lemon juice
1/4 cup Chablis (dry white wine)
2 cups (about 1 lb.) grated Kasseri cheese (a hard Greek cheese available in Mediterranean grocery stores)

Cook and drain the spaghetti. Chop the green part of the onions, reserving white part for another use. Melt 5 tablespoons (1/3 cup) of the fat in a large skillet. Sauté the onions until limp. Add the spaghetti and mix well. Season to taste with salt, pepper, garlic powder, oregano and lemon juice.

Add remaining fat and toss with spaghetti mixture. Immediately add wine and mix, boiling off alcohol. Transfer to four pasta dishes and top each portion with one-half cup cheese. Serves 4.

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