We followed the Danube south as it flows through the center of Budapest up to Marcius 15 – a street lined with centuries-old buildings – to Matyas Pince restaurant, which since it opened in 1904 is almost new in this city of historic culture and architecture.
It was a beautiful evening in Budapest, and we thought we’d sit outside, but the maître d’ insisted we follow him inside – through the first floor with its frescos and lead-glass windows highlighting scenes from King Matthias’ life and then downstairs to a delightful room with brick ceilings and mosaic floors.
This is where, every night, Vilmos Lakatos and his gypsy band play Hungarian songs and two young couples, wearing traditional costumes, did elaborate folk dances which called for a lot whirling and sliding along the dance floor. And for the women (in the way that Ginger Rogers had to do all the dance steps that Fred Astaire did but only backwards and in high heels). the women place flat-bottomed bottles on their heads and including one where the young women dance with flat-bottomed bottles on their head and pirouetted at a dizzying pace.
Did I want to try, one of them asked me, offering the bottle. Of course, I said. She set it atop my head and it immediately started slipping to the floor. Another career that I’m not qualified for, I thought.
The menu was long and complicated, each choice promising classical Hungarian fare. Choosing beef goulash, the first of what would turn out to be many varying iterations of the of the dish which I quickly learned can be served as a soup or stew of different meat and vegetables. My other choice was paprika chicken–chicken paprikash when my grandmother made it when I was young. But she was Romanian and perhaps that’s the difference. Both the goulash and chicken seasoned with a sweet Hungarian paprika – the kind many of us, myself included, use to sprinkle on deviled eggs.
And now we come to paprika. Both dishes were deliciously seasoned with sweet Hungarian paprika–the kind many of us, myself included, sprinkle on deviled eggs.
At home, in my kitchen, I have two types hot and sweet–one in a yellow can and the other in a red. Paprika imparts a deep layer of taste to food, and in Eastern and Central Europe comes in a variety of types, including half-sharp Hungarian paprika (a spicier, hotter version of Hungarian sweet paprika), Spanish smoked hot paprika (aka Pimenton de la Vera) and Spanish smoked sweet paprika (Pimenton de la Vera and Israeli Sweet–I could go on and on.
Later, when visiting a market in Vienna, I would discover bags and bags of paprika, some 30 varieties or so, each individualized according to place of origin, sweetness, heat and smoke, and each prized for its specific use. I buy a couple of bags and whenever I use them in my kitchen at home, the aroma–sometimes sweet, sometime piquant, reminds me of the dancers and the markets and all that I saw. Now if only I could learn to balance that bottle on my head.
4 chicken leg quarters, cut in half at joint (about 3 pounds total)
Coarse salt and ground pepper
2 teaspoons vegetable oil
1 large yellow onion, halved and thinly sliced lengthwise
3 garlic cloves, roughly chopped
2 tablespoons sweet paprika
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 3/4 cups chicken broth
1 can (14 ounces) diced tomatoes
1/2 pound wide egg noodles or spaetzle
1/2 cup sour cream or thick plain yogurt
Season chicken with salt and pepper. In a large Dutch oven or heavy pot, heat oil over high. Cook chicken, skin side down, until golden and crisp, six minutes. Flip chicken and cook until browned, six minutes more. Transfer to a plate.
Discard all but 1 tablespoon fat from pot and reduce heat to medium. Add onion and cook, stirring frequently and scraping up any browned bits with a wooden spoon, until beginning to soften, two minutes. Add garlic and cook, stirring frequently, three minutes.
Add paprika and flour, season with salt and pepper, and stir constantly until paprika is fragrant and mixture begins to stick, one minute.
Add broth and whisk until smooth. Add tomatoes and bring to a boil over high.
Return chicken to pot in a single layer, skin side up, and reduce heat to medium. Cover and cook until chicken is cooked through, 20 minutes.
Meanwhile, in a large pot of boiling salted water, cook noodles according to package instructions. Drain noodles and divide among four bowls.
Top with chicken. Stir sour cream into sauce, then ladle over chicken and noodles.
1 strip bacon
2 onions, medium dice
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 1/2 pounds stewing beef, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
1 garlic clove
Pinch caraway seeds
2 tablespoons good quality sweet paprika
2 cups warm water
2 cubes beef bouillon
2 whole canned tomatoes, chopped
1 green bell pepper
4 or 5 potatoes
2 tablespoons sour cream, plus more for plating
1 pound prepared spaetzle, as an accompaniment
Cucumber salad, as an accompaniment:
1/2 cup white vinegar
1/4 cup water
2 teaspoons sugar
1/8 teaspoon sweet paprika
Pinch dill, dried or fresh (optional)
Dollop sour cream (optional)
Cook’s Note: using good quality paprika is important. After about a year, paprika spice tends to lose its intensity. Use the best quality possible.
In a cold, heavy 6- to 8-quart stewing pot, fry bacon over low-medium heat until fat is rendered, and then discard bacon slice.
Sauté onions in the bacon fat for a few minutes, do not allow the onions to brown. If bacon does not provide enough fat, add a little olive oil to prevent the onions from sticking.
When onions become glossy, add the beef, sautéing with the onions for about 10 minutes, covered, until the meat is browned.
Meanwhile, chop and crush the garlic with the caraway seeds; add to meat and onions.
Remove pot from heat. Stir in paprika rapidly with a wooden spoon. Immediately after paprika is absorbed, add the warm water. The water should just cover the meat, leaving room for potatoes.
Add beef bouillon cubes. Cover pot and cook over low heat for about one hour.
While stew is braising, prepare the tomatoes by cutting into 1-inch pieces. Core green peppers and cut into strips.
After one hour of braising, add the tomatoes and green pepper. Add a little more water, if necessary and a little more salt. Simmer slowly for another 30 minutes.
Peel potatoes and cut into bite-sized cubes and set aside in a bowl of water. Add potatoes, and cook another 30 minutes until the potatoes are fork tender and the goulash is done.
Once goulash is finished, dissolve sour cream and a little of the goulash sauce in a cup. Add to goulash, it should give a creamy consistency. Serve goulash with spaetzle on the side, adding an extra dollop of sour cream to each plate.
Peel and slice cucumbers very thinly. The side of a metal grater with the wide slots works best here, or you can use a mandoline. Place cucumbers in a flat dish and sprinkle throughout with salt, making sure that all the slices are salted. Leave to rest for 30 minutes.
The salt will draw the moisture out of the cucumbers. Cut the onion into paper-thin slices and place in a container. Once the cucumbers have released water, use your hands to squeeze out the excess water and add to the onions. The cucumbers are supposed to be limp, but still crisp.
In a measuring cup, mix vinegar, water, sugar and paprika to create a vinaigrette. Pour over the cucumbers and onions and marinate in the refrigerator for at least 1 1/2 hours.
Cook’s secret: make the cucumbers before the goulash and it will be perfectly marinated by the time you are done making the stew.
Serve with a sprinkle of dill and a little dollop of sour cream, if desired.