Hungarian Winter Stew

Hungarian Winter Stew 1

Although the winter has been unbelievably, wonderfully mild in my little dot on the midwestern U.S. map, my comfort food cravings remain rooted in warming spices — Indian cuisine, Mexican, Moroccan, Hungarian. Curry spice blends, dried peppers toasted and freshly ground, sriracha, harissa, harrisa and more harissa. And paprika.

I’ve been in paprika heaven. This quirky little grocery store about a mile from my house carries the most amazing selection of international victuals. I’m positively spoiled.

And I nearly plotzed when, casually eyeing the sea salts one day, I spotted bright red tin cans of imported Hungarian paprika (both sweet and hot), neglected on the bottom shelf. Authentic versions, impossible to find except online.

I raced home that day and didn’t even remove my coat before ripping off the seals, shaking some from both cans onto a plate and breathing deeply. Yes. That’s the stuff. Deep, rusty red. Rich and peppery, catches in the back of your throat. A lingering scent of chilies picked fresh from the garden. Perfect.

Hungarian Winter Stew 2

From that one amazing find has sprung all manner of delicious, soul-warming dinners, including today’s recipe.

Pepper-heavy, this stew contains both fresh peppers — a sweet bell and a hot Hungarian red wax — and a healthy dose of paprika. (Paprika spice is made from peppers and chilies, which are picked from the fields, hung to dried and then ground into powder.)

Dried porcini mushrooms and a whopping two onions (large, please) round out the savory team. Don’t be concerned about the onions: this stew is braised for nearly two hours, during which the onions will sweeten slightly and break down in the liquids.

I toyed with the idea of calling this recipe, “Three Paprika Hungarian Stew,” but while the three versions do create lovely levels of flavor, it’s not necessary. I’ve made this with just sweet, and it was still wonderful and satisfying.

The paprika on the left, btw, is smoked paprika — Spanish in origin but more than welcome in this stew. Hot paprika sits in the center, with sweet on the right.

Hungarian Winter Stew 3

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Hungarian Winter Stew

adapted from Nigel Slater’s amazing book, Tender (recipe here)

I made several changes to Slater’s recipe in both preparation and ingredients, but I hope the spirit remains intact. His use of porcini mushrooms — not a traditional ingredient in Hungarian cuisine — won me over. Porcinis, although pricey and sometimes hard to find, lend a rich, earthy essence to soups and stews. I serve this with spaetzle, but feel free to substitute egg noodles or pearl couscous.

Prep Time: 20 minutes
Cook time: 2 hours

Yield: 6 generous servings

1/2 ounce dried porcini mushrooms
1 tablespoon vegetable oil or lard
2 pounds beef or pork (or a mix of beef and pork), sliced into 3/4” cubes
2 large onions, diced
1 large red bell pepper, diced
1 hot chili pepper (I used one hot Hungarian wax)
1/2 tablespoon smoked paprika
1 tablespoon sweet Hungarian paprika
1/2 tablespoon hot Hungarian paprika
1 tablespoon flour
1/4 cup red wine
1 1/2 teaspoons caraway seeds (optional: toasted and crushed)
1 (15 oz) can tomatoes, diced or crushed
1 cup beef stock
1/2 cup sour cream
9 ounce box of spaetzle, cooked to package directions (or make homemade: Smitten’s recipe is easy)
salt, to taste

1. Soak mushrooms in 1 cup very, very hot water for a half hour.

2. Preheat oven to 275°F.

3. Heat oil or lard in a large 5 quart dutch oven or oven-proof stock pot over medium until shimmering. Add 1/2 of the meat, and brown on all sides (about 8 minutes). Remove to a bowl. Repeat with the remaining batch.

4. Add the onions and stir well, scraping any browned bits in the bottom of the pan. Allow to soften and turn slightly golden. Add the chile and the peppers, cook briefly until just softened. Add the paprika(s) and stir well to coat the vegetables, cooking for just one minute. Add the flour and stir to coat. Add the mushrooms and their soaking liquid, along with the wine. Stir well to mix.

5. Increase heat to medium-high. Add the tomatoes and caraway seeds. Stir well. Finally add the beef stock. Bring to, as Slater delightfully commands, an enthusiastic simmer. Salt generously, give it one last stir and cover with a lid.

6. Place in the oven and allow to cook undisturbed for 1 1/2 hours.

7. While the stew simmers in the oven, prepare the spaetzle, timing it so that it will be completed in synch with the stew.

8. When the stew is finished, remove from the oven and allow to rest for 10 minutes. Gently stir in the spaetzle (as much as you want; you might not use it all), then swirl in the sour cream. Or, add the sour cream, and serve the stew on top of the spaetzle.

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