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Thursday, December 21, 2006

Mom's Goulash

My mother was never very interested in cooking. It might have been otherwise, as she was highly creative, but she died in 1976, just as the food revolution was getting under way. Nevertheless, all the things that she did cook - and she cooked the same few things over and over again - were wonderful. This beef goulash was one of her specialties. I'm not sure why it was called "goulash" - it has no paprika. It's really just a stew - an extremely simple one - containing beef, onions, carrots, tomatoes, salt, pepper, and, the secret ingredient - sugar. The magic is all in the technique.

First, the beef. She would use chuck or round steak interchangeably - ordered in those pre-supermarket days from a reliable butcher, of course. Nowadays I tend to use half chuck and half boneless short ribs - my own decadent modification. Cut it up into smallish cubes- one inch or less is good - and pat dry with paper towels. Next, the cubes need to be browned in a little fat. Mom used Wesson oil, or sometimes even - gasp - Crisco; I use canola, which would have been unknown then. The meat has to be REALLY browned - no joke - on a high flame in a heavy pan, and the disconcerting result would always be a kitchen full of black smoke. Recently I've found a way around this: I do the browning - in small batches - in a closed 500-degree oven, using my favorite giant-size iron skillet (a yard sale find of over forty years ago). It's easier to self-clean the oven than it is to degrease the entire kitchen.

As each batch is finished, transfer to the Dutch oven or other heavy pan that you plan to cook the goulash in. Add a few halved, peeled onions (no need to chop - they will break down), and some carrots, peeled and cut in narrow lengthwise pieces, about 2" - either halved (bottom end) or quartered (the fatter top end). For some reason it's critical that the carrots be in that shape. It wouldn't be "Mom's Goulash" with ROUNDS of carrot!

And now the secret step: into the pan with the meat/onion/carrot combo, sprinkle about 1/4 cup of white SUGAR. Put the pan on the stove over a medium-high flame, toss the mixture well with a spoon, then cover it tightly with a lid and let it cook undisturbed for about 15 minutes. This will caramelize the onions and carrots, as well as allowing all the flavors to blend. I've never seen this technique used anywhere else - and I have been collecting cookbooks and recipes for over forty years - but trust me on this and just do it! **

Now all that remains is to add a good shake of salt and fresh ground pepper and a can or two of whole peeled tomatoes. Stir it all up gently, cover, and cook SLOWLY - either in the oven (300 or so) or on top of the stove, preferably on a flame-tamer if you have gas - for several hours. You could haul a pressure cooker into service at this point if you have one. Then - did I remind you to start this a day ahead of time? - put it in the refrigerator and reheat the next day. If you must, you may eat it right away, and it will be delicious. But it will be beyond heavenly if you wait. All you need to serve with it are buttered noodles - the old-fashioned broad kind - which, for some reason, can be a little hard to find nowadays. So stock up when you see them. Or try some home-made or good-quality pappardelle.

General proportions (can be multiplied or divided easily)
2 lbs beef, in 1" chunks
4-5 onions, halved
5 large carrots, peeled, cut into narrow 2" chunks
1/4 cup sugar
2 large cans whole peeled tomatoes - (I use Muir Glen; Mom would have used any old supermarket kind. But don't use the kind that come packed with basil or other seasonings.)
salt and pepper to taste
** At the point where the sugar is added, you'd be adding some sweet Hungarian paprika in a more normal recipe. Maybe some family member (Mom?) way back when didn't have any paprika and decided sugar would be just as good? Who knows. This is how great family recipes are sometimes born.
Why am I posting this now? Well, for one thing, we often had it on Christmas Eve. And, for another, it's what we had at our at-home wedding feast on December 23, 1963 - 43 years ago. I made a batch last week and took some to H&D; they can't get enough of it.


Blogger SuperMom said...

Mom made this all the time for us too, though never as holiday fare.

In the version I have Mom still had the sugar measurement noted as "1 Pyrex bowlful-- Mom's [Grandmommy's] measurement."

I think Mom always thought it was a longstanding family recipe that went back to Marie, but it sounds like Grandmommy invented it from what you've written.

Either way, looks yummy! I know I would have posted this on my food blog at some point since I make it all the time too.

5:02 PM  
Blogger AlexanderTheGreat said...

mmmmm, I miss Mom's goulash :( Definitely a staple of our childhood.

9:46 PM  
Anonymous sue gleason said...

Pru, your voice really comes across in this blog. Especially the recipe, I can just hear you saying it. I can smell the smoke and taste the goulash!

8:21 AM  

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