Anyone who grew up in South Cheektowaga – and probably most of Western NY- knew exactly what “Goulash” meant. 80/20 generic ground beef, fried in a busted non-stick pan with some tomato paste and then mixed with some diced green pepper and onion. Throw that mess all together with elbow macaroni and heavily dust it with dried oregano. You could smell your mom cooking it as soon as you came in the house from school as disappointment met you in the front door. That acrid cooked green pepper odor mixed with the corpselike sickly sweetness of unchallenged pure tomato paste. Macaroni noodles left to boil for hours on the stove until they can barely hold their own little pasta tunnels open, let alone stand up to the weight of the original skillet meal of the 80’s. And I’m the one that always choked on the errant bay leaf.
So imagine my chagrin when my girlfriend (now wife) had me over for dinner for the first time and said she was making “Hungarian Goulash.” Now we South Cheektowagans aren’t easily fooled. Hungarian Goulash just means regular crappy goulash with a sprinkle from that ancient can of paprika into the mix.
And I got scared.
I’d thought she was the one.
I had money down on an engagement ring.
She’s eaten with me before. Hell, she’s introduced me to some amazing local restaurants. She introduced me to Steve Gedra! Is she messing with me? Is this a test? Who the hell would serve someone they loved freaking goulash?
When I entered her apartment off of Hertel Ave on a cold night where every step put my shoe in some semi-frozen puddle and my coat gained twice its weight with frozen precipitation… I smelled it instantly. And it wasn’t green pepper. Something was cooking… all day. Earthy… Maybe a little spice… is that Caraway? Paprika? Whats going on here? This isn’t goulash.
I walked in, grabbed a Johnnie Walker Black on the rocks, and submitted. Something I rarely do in a kitchen. But I knew I had to. This was not my moms goulash. Something sacred was happening here. As I sat down, the dutch oven on the stove was merrily bubbling this rich crimson broth while a large batch of long grain rice finished up in another pot. There was no ground beef to be found. The lack of hyper-boiled macaroni was the next clue that something unique was about to go down. It was so hard for me to not test, taste, poke, and try to see whats going on. But I submitted, and I sat down at the table like a proper guest and sipped my scotch.
The rice was brought to the table and spooned into our bowls. Steaming and aromatic, it set the stage for the rest of the plate. Next, the cover was lifted off of the dutch oven, and inside was the most gloriously tender shoulder of pork. As she scooped hunks of pork over my rice, she explained that the broth is the heat control. The more broth you put in your bowl, the spicier it is. Got it. I went 3 stars on this one for heat and balanced my bowl off with enough liquid to just cover the rice. I noticed a great variety of peppers in the broth that I later learned was a mixture of fresh bell peppers, roasted sweet peppers, and Hungarian hot peppers. She spooned these over my pork and I could smell them mingling with the caraway, heavy handed measures of Hungarian paprika, and rich pork aromas. It was intoxicating.
I was set with rice, meat, and peppers but then she brought out another bowl that was a simple sour cream with lemon zest for the top. I added a healthy dollop to my bowl teeming with all of these flavors and dug in. My first bite was magical. Perfectly slow roasted pork, with a bit of sweet and hot pepper on my fork, a cooling lemon sour cream, and rice to bind it all together. It was a well balanced combination of flavors. The next, and all subsequent bites only amplified the quality of this dish. I didn’t look for crusty bread to sop anything up with, I didn’t require any sort of condiment. This one bowl held everything I love about a well thought out dish of food. It was simple, elegant, straight forward, to the point, and sexy as hell. If you know my wife, you’ll see the resemblance.
Over the past few years, she has made this dish for me several times. Usually when its wicked cold out, and often when I do something nice. I just had it the other night, and that’s what prompted this blog post. I’m always tempted to deconstruct it. To try and make it myself. To play with the broth thickness or the pepper ratios. To somehow take this recipe and enhance it. But then when I eat it, I realize that it is exactly what its meant to be. That her execution of it is so pure, that it would be a sacrilege to taint something that works so well, and impacts me so much.
No, This is her dish. She owns it. It is beautiful. And it is perfect. She gives it to me as a gift, and its one of the few times I’ll stay entirely out of the kitchen, letting her do her thing, and only assisting when asked. And I always do the dishes and clean the kitchen after this one.