Chile peppers flavor European cuisine

Paprika, a savory red spice used in a variety of dishes such as paprikash, paella, deviled eggs, soups, sauces, and a most popular European dish, goulash. While it’s easy to purchase at the local market, or online; what is paprika, and why does it make foods taste so good?

Traveling back to the 15th century, explorers from Spain made their way to what we now call Mexico and Brazil. In these countries were found a variety of chile peppers, from the mildest in heat and flavor, to the hottest that must have come from pits of lava.

Bringing plants back to the Old World, the plants were cultivated, not just for culinary use, but ornamentally as well. Now, who were the specialists who cultivated these pepper plants and discovered their many uses? Monks, men devoted to religion, highly educated, the scholars of their time.

By the 16th to 17th century, chile pepper plants were making their way throughout Europe. In Spain, the peppers were placed upon an open grate which was placed over a smoky oak fire.

In Hungary, the peppers were sun dried; but either method dried out the peppers completely. Then they were ground into a fine powder, ready to be sprinkled onto bread or lard or measured out into soups and stews.

Sweet, bittersweet, and hot are the primary intensities of paprika, and that’s dependent upon which types of peppers are used (single type, or a combination of types).

When someone hears the term “goulash,” the mind usually clicks onto Hungarian Goulash – a simple stew of beef, onions, water, and lard cooked over an open fire by cattle herdsmen. Then came paprika, and a new taste was added to the stew.

By the 18th century, goulash became a staple at inns, filling the bellies of weary travelers. The stew itself was changed by adding carrots, sometimes potatoes, from the back gardens.

Add freshly baked, crusty bread plus a tankard of the inn’s best brew, and the travelers went to sleep sated.

As leaner and more costly cuts of meat began to be used in restaurants, the wealthy were introduced to a “high class” dish procured from a peasant recipe.

In the 1800s, immigration to the United States allowed Hungarians to not just bring their cultural traditions, but also their recipes. As they emigrated across North America, trading and interacting with other cultures, and using “American food sources”, traditional goulash developed into a variety of recipes.

“Mexican Goulash” contains not only beef, but chorizo, and those wonderful chile peppers the Spanish explorers discovered back in the 15th century. So, whomever said “you can’t go home again” certainly was not referring to the foods of the world.

As to a recipe, I will be giving you my own take on the classic Hungarian Goulash, with a bit of influence from my Croatian ancestors. While it cooks up perfectly in a stove top skillet, I personally find that the Dutch oven method makes the meat more tender, sauce thicker, and overall flavor more savory.

It does take about three hours to cook. With prep work, the entire meal can take about four hours to complete, but is worth the work and the wait.

Due to the low and slow cooking technique, cheaper cuts of beef, such as a chuck roast, can be used. The meat comes out so tender it will taste, well, as Guy Fieri says, “That’s money right there!”

A huge thank you to Amy Watkins Kensley and her son Michael for giving me a beautiful Dutch oven last Christmas. With it, I’ve been able to create meals and breads that put stovetop or other baking techniques to shame.

I am sad that COVID-19 is keeping us from our family meal times and holiday celebrations. For everyone, let us all feel positive that 2021 will find us healthier, happier, and, most importantly, wiser.

Beef Goulash

Ingredients:

4 lbs. beef chuck roast, cut into 1-inch pieces (leaner cut of beef can be used); ½ cup all-purpose flour; ¼ cup olive oil, divided in half; 1 large white onion, chopped; 1 large red onion, chopped; 1 large red bell pepper, seeded and chopped; 1 ½ Tbsp. minced garlic; 2 Tbsp. butter; 1 lb. baby carrots, cut in half, at an angle; 1 (15 oz.) can diced tomatoes, drained; 4 Tbsp. sweet paprika; ½ tsp. ground black pepper; 1 (6 oz.) can tomato paste; 2 cups beef stock or broth; 2 Tbsp. Worcestershire sauce; 2 Tbsp. red wine vinegar; ½ cup half and half; 1 cup sour cream

Cooked egg noodles or mashed potatoes to serve over.

Preparation:

Place the pieces of the beef into a large bowl, add flour and coat meat. In a large skillet, in two batches, brown the meat in the olive oil (1/2 portion of olive oil for each batch), over medium-high heat. Drain on paper towels and place meat into large, clean bowl.

At the same time the meat is browning in the Dutch oven, melt butter over medium heat; add onions, bell pepper and garlic, coat with melted butter and cook for 15 minutes to soften vegetables, but do not brown.

Also, in a medium sauce pan, parboil carrots, over medium-high heat, to soften, then strain.

Preheat oven to 275F; lightly spray Dutch oven with nonstick cooking spray (manufacturer’s instructions recommend this).

Into the Dutch oven, add the parboiled carrots, softened vegetables, and browned beef. In a medium size bowl, whisk together paprika, black pepper, tomato paste, beef stock or broth, Worcestershire sauce, and red wine vinegar.

Pour liquid oven meat and vegetables, mix thoroughly together, place lid on and cook for 2 and ½ hours in oven.

Carefully remove Dutch oven, and remove lid (careful, it will be very hot!), stir contents. In a small bowl, stir together half and half with sour cream to form a loose paste, and mix into goulash.

Set lid back on, place back into oven for another ½ hour; cook egg noodles or mashed potatoes during this half hour, and all will be ready to eat at the same time.

For stove top:

Follow instructions except for preheating oven, or coating Dutch oven. Use a 6-quart cooking pot, or very deep skillet, set on low heat, but cook for 3 and ½ hours, add loose paste, and cook additional ½ hour while preparing noodles or potatoes.

With this method, stir mixture every half hour to keep foods from sticking to bottom and sides of pot or skillet.

Makes 10-12 servings (or 8-10 if you live in my home, with two very hungry men who love my cooking).

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