I grew up on my mother's family farm in Guilford, Connecticut. I have fond memories of rushing to the breakfast table to pour the cream off the top of the milk and into my cheerios. Most of what we ate came from what we grew or raised or what we bought from the neighboring dairy farm. We typically sold the best cuts of meat, so our freezer was full of tongue, liver, horse meat and other bits-and-pieces that you'd probably rather not think about. My father's family was from Brooklyn, and my great-uncle served in the OSS with Julia Child. My grandmother loved foods with butter, sherry and spices she brought home from her travels. Is it any wonder food made such an impression on me?
The truth is, we ate a lot of weird food. And no matter how weird it was we were required to have a "no thank you" serving. While I may have rebelled against that when I was younger, especially when Brussels sprouts were on the menu, I'm glad I was exposed to so many unusual dishes. And I'll still try just about anything.
One of the simpler dishes I enjoyed in my childhood was Hungarian goulash. I remember plates full of paprika-infused beef, wide egg noodles and sour cream. It was the perfect meal on a cold winter's night. I wanted to recreate the meal of my childhood, so I started doing a little research.
Traditionally, Hungarian goulash was a thick stew made by cattle herders and stockmen. These stews don't rely on a flour or roux for thickening; they rely on collagen, which is converted to gelatin as the meat is cooked. For the best flavor and thickening power, you want a lean cut from a major muscle, like a shoulder or top round, which is often referred to as London broil.
A lot of the recipes online look more like a soup than the thick goulash of my childhood. And some include carrots, peppers and potatoes or are made with white wine. None were quite right. Finally I turned to my small but growing collection of vintage cookbooks.
I found what I was looking for in the 1971 edition of The New York Times International Cookbook by the inimitable Craig Clairborne. With a few minor modifications, I created the Hungarian goulash of my childhood. It is the perfect comfort food, especially on a cold night. The leftovers keep well and are even better the next day.
3 tbsp. butter
3 c. onions, thinly sliced
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1/2 tsp. dried marjoram
3 lbs. lean beef, cubed
1 tsp. salt
3 tbsp. hot Hungarian paprika
3 tbsp. tomato paste
2 c. beef stock
2 ribs celery, with leaves
4 sprigs parsley
1 bay leaf
1/4 tsp. ground thyme
salt + pepper
Heat butter in a saucepan. Add onions and cook over low heat until lightly browned. Add garlic and marjoram. Continue to cook for several minutes. Add beef, cut into 1 1/2 inch cubes, with salt and paprika. Cover and simmer slowly for 30 minutes, stirring frequently.
Stir in tomato paste and beef stock. Toss in the celery along with the parsley, bay leaf and 1/4 teaspoon ground thyme. Bring it to a boil and then reduce the heat, cover and cook slowly for about 1 1/2 hours until the beef is tender when pierced with a fork. About 20 minutes before the beef is finished, prepare a good sized helping of wide egg noodles. For nostalgia purposes, I use Pennsylvania Dutch egg noodles. The packaging hasn’t changed in 40 years!
Remove and discard the celery leaves, parsley sprigs and bay leaf. Serve the goulash over egg noodles with a dollop of sour cream or plain yogurt. Add a dash of salt and pepper to taste and garnish with a bit of fresh parsley.