The essential Hungarian comfort foods are soups and stews, and the single most famous one is called Goulash or Gulyás in Hungarian. Many consider it a soup, others a stew. If I could borrow a term from Rachael Ray, I'd call it a stoup, because it really is a cross between the two. There are so many different ways to make Goulash. Every Hungarian mother will make it with a slight variation. The authentic recipe is the one that is still made today in Hortobágy, part of the Great Plains in eastern Hungary. The cattle herdsman perfected the soup/stew of mainly beef and potatoes, all flavored with that rusty red paprika.
In Hortobágy, Goulash is cooked in a large cauldron (bogrács) over an open fire. It's the kind of meal that sticks to your bones, fueling the hard-working men of the plains. In fact the term Gulyás translates to cattleman or herdsman. They herd the famous Hungarian Grey cattle. Much of Hortobágy is designated a national park and serves as a tourist attraction in Hungary. The area is also famous for its cowboys, known as csikó, who ride and tame the horses of the plains. After a long day on the plains, what could be more comforting than a hot bowl of Goulash? It's the kind of food that's made for winter weather.
The most popular version of Goulash comes from Szeged, which is the third largest city in Hungary and the central city of the Great Plains area. The Szegedi version includes potatoes and lots of vegetables. Typically that is the way Goulash is also made at home. The soup is often made with pork instead of beef, which can be expensive. There's quite a difference in taste between pork and beef Goulash, but either is wonderful. If you want complete authenticity, Goulash should be started with pork fat anyway. The Austrians also have a Goulash of their own, Wiener Saftgulasch. But this is a thick stew of just beef. In Hungarian it would be called pörkölt, which is the word for stew.
This recipe for Goulash soup is based on my mom's, which is what I grew up on. Her way of making Goulash sears the meat first. Traditionally, the onions are cooked first, then the paprika is added, and then the meat. By searing the meat first, a richer flavor and color is extracted. Once the meat simmers for well over an hour, the vegetables are added. This way nothing overcooks. Carrots, parsley root and leaves, celery root, and potatoes are a must. Celery stalks don't tend to hold up, so I leave them out entirely. Handmade pasta called csipetke (like mini spätzle) can be added, but I like Goulash plain and simple. For a nod to authenticity, I serve the soup in a mini cauldron, but a regular soup bowl would work too.
Hungarian Goulash Soup or Gulyás
Note: For some added heat in the soup, a hot wax pepper is simmered along with the other vegetables. It's purely optional. For even more heat, a touch of hot ground paprika or hot paprika paste can be switched out for the sweet ground or sweet paste.
2 tablespoons canola oil
2 pounds beef shank, cut into 1-1/4-inch chunks
2 yellow onions, cubed
1 garlic clove, chopped
1 tablespoon ground sweet paprika
6 cups water
1 teaspoon sweet paprika paste or tomato paste
1/2 teaspoon ground caraway seed
1 hot wax Paprika or Serrano chile pepper (optional)
1 large carrot, peeled and cubed
1 parsley root, peeled and cubed
1/4 celery root, peeled and cubed
2 medium Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled and cubed
1 medium tomato, peeled, seeded, and chopped
6 sprigs parsley
Heat oil in a heavy bottomed 6-quart saucepan or Dutch oven set over medium-high. Sear beef in batches until brown all over. Remove to a plate.
Add onions and sauté until translucent, about 5 minutes. Add garlic and sauté 1 minutes. Add paprika and sauté 1 minute.
Return beef to the pan. Pour in water and scrape up brown bits on the bottom. Stir in paprika cream and add caraway. Season with salt and pepper. Bring liquid to a gentle boil. Cover, reduce to a simmer, and cook until beef is tender, about 1-1/2 to 2 hours.
Cut a slit into the Paprika and add. Add carrot, parsley root, and celery root; cook about 20 minutes. Add potatoes, tomato, and parsley sprigs; cook until vegetables are tender, about 10 minutes more. Check seasoning. Yield: 4 to 6 servings.