Kristy Wenz is a writer, entrepreneur, wine lover, experimental home cook and avid traveler. She blogs regularly at Eat Play Love, where she and her family explore cuisines and cultures around the globe.
Fortunately the pronunciation of today’s title and the recipe that follows are not as complicated as the word would suggest. This month Wine Tourist Magazine and the World Platter are venturing to the beautiful hills and mountains of Hungary, which is where I first encountered the word “eģeszségédre,” roughly pronounced “eggy-she-geh-dreh. Translating simply to “cheers,” this is a helpful word to know in a country that overflows with both hospitality and wine.
Hungarian Wines in Brief
Hungary, like much of Europe, has a long history of wine production dating back to Greek and Roman times. It is most renowned for its sweet white Tokaji wines, produced in the northeastern portion of the country, which date back to the 1650’s. Hungarian red wines also have a long history, most notably Egri Bikaver, or Bull’s Blood produced near the town of Eger in the hills of the Bükk Mountains. Legend has it that during the Siege of 1552, soldiers believed the wine was infused with bull’s blood from which a number of legends result.
Unfortunately for Hungary’s wine industry communism and goulash communism, which reigned in the country between the late 1940’s until 1989, focused wine production on quotas and quantities. As a result, Hungary’s wine reputation was greatly diminished. Fortunately, after the fall of communism, many wine producers are returning to Hungary’s 22 wine regions with a focus on traditional methods, terroir and quality. Although the region still lacks significant investment, several Hungarian wine makers are putting the country back on the map and wine menus.
Valley of Beautiful Women
While I personally enjoy the lush Cabernet Franc and Kékfrankos from the Villány region south of Budapest, a visit to the wine town of Eger and its Szépasszonyvölgy (Valley of Beautiful Women), should be on every wine tourists’ bucket list. This wine region contains around 40 wineries and tasting rooms tucked into the caves of the surrounding hills, all within a small neighborhood, and is a sensory experience simply impossible to replicate anywhere else in the world. While the quality of wines and food range from poor to excellent, the medieval atmosphere found in the caves, the relaxed revelry of visitors and the welcoming hospitality of the proprietors make for a truly memorable adventure. It’s also where I tasted my first authentic Hungarian gulyás – or as we know it goulash – and let me tell you, this was not the American goulash I grew up on!
Not Your Mother’s Goulash (Unless She’s Hungarian!)
Gulyás in Hungarian translates to herdsman, who were the first to make the dish back in the 9th century while out on the range. Today, Hungarian gulyás is widely known around the world. However, unlike American goulash which uses elbow noodles, ground beef, tomato paste and often kidney beans; Hungarian gulyás is more of a soup and is devoid of noodles, tomato paste and beans. In fact the most traditional gulyás recipes, of which there are many variations, consists only of beef, onions, tomatoes, peppers, paprika and water and is often served with a side of bread. It’s a simple, hearty dish meant to warm and sustain you.
This month at the World Platter, as cooler weather sets in and we’re beginning to bring our fireplaces back to life, we’re going to make a cousin of the Hungarian gulyás, the pörklöt. While gulyás is more of a beef-based soup, pörklöt is best described as a stew. Like its more famous cousin, pörklöt uses beef, onions, paprika, tomatoes and peppers with the most significant difference being the use of less liquid. It’s also typically served alongside egg noodles in place of a slice of bread. So let’s get cooking!
To begin, we’re going to start this recipe with the use of rendered pork fat, or pork lard. Pork lard is the basis of every authentic Hungarian gulyás-based dish, including the pörklöt. While you can easily substitute vegetable oil or butter, the pork fat will lend the dish a richer, more traditional flavor and is relatively easy to source. If pork lard is unavailable, simply ask the butcher for a ½ pound of pork fat. Chop the pork fat into pieces and add it to a slow cooker with a ¼ cup of water. Set your cooker on low and cook for three to six hours. The resulting liquid is the lard, which is then poured through a strainer (a paper coffee filter or cheesecloth) and either used immediately or when it’s time to make the pörklöt.
In starting the recipe, heat the pork lard over medium-high heat and sauté two large onions until translucent. Next, and this is another crucial step to making the dish more authentic, remove the pot from the heat before adding a substantial amount of paprika. By removing the pot from the heat, you’re ensuring the paprika won’t burn and inject a bitter flavor to your dish. Next the beef and garlic are stirred in and the pot is returned to the heat source, where the beef is browned for about 10 minutes. Finally, the tomatoes, peppers, bay leaf (which we added for seasoning) and water are added to the pot and left to simmer for an hour and a half. While you wait, you can enjoy the aromas filling the air with warmth and comfort.
But before we get all cozy, it’s important to note a few additional things here. As the recipe calls for ¼ to ½ cup of sweet Hungarian paprika, you’ll need to ensure its quality and authenticity. This will be a dominant flavor in your dish so you’ll want to also make sure your paprika is fresh and hasn’t sat on your spice rack for more than six months. Also, traditional Hungarian pörklöt uses Hungarian green peppers. These, I have found to be difficult to source. In their place, you can use banana peppers which are more similar in texture and taste to a Hungarian pepper than a green bell pepper. As for the liquid, some recipes call for beef stock; however, water is more typically used. You’ll need 1 to 1-1/2 cups for this recipe, just enough to cover the bottom of the pan, but not cover the meat. It’s meant to keep the ingredients of the pörklöt from sticking to the pan, but not meant to make the dish soupy. Lastly, and this ties into the use of water, no thickener is added a pörklöt – no flour and no cornstarch. So make sure not to add too much water.
Dig in to Comfort
To finish the meal, remove the bay leaf from the pörklöt when it’s done simmering. You can serve it with a side of egg noodles or even spätzel. The beef will be tender and the paprika flavors swoon worthy. Pörklöt is best matched with a top-quality dry red Hungarian wine of which there are many to choose from – Cabernet Franc, Portugieser, Kékfrankos, Kadarka, or even a Cabernet Sauvignon (cheap quantity-driven bottles still exist, so do your research). The lush, velvety and earthy flavors found in many Hungarian reds make for easy drinking and pairing. So grab a bowl of pörklöt, a glass of Hungarian red wine, a comfy blanket and settle in for a cozy night by the fire. Much like my experience exploring the hills, streets and river banks of Hungary, this recipe is the ultimate in comfort and warmth and will leave you craving more. Eģeszségédre!
3 T rendered pork fat or lard (see note)
2 large yellow onions, diced
¼ c Hungarian paprika (sweet)
1.5 – 2 lbs. stewing beef (or beef chuck) cut into chunks and seasoned with salt and pepper
4 cloves garlic
1 – 1.5 cups water (enough to cover the pot, but not the beef)
2 tomatoes, diced
1 Hungarian green pepper (or Banana pepper as substitute), diced
1 bay leaf
Salt and pepper
Heat the rendered pork fat over medium-high heat in a large pot. Add the onions and sauté until translucent (about 7-10 minutes).
Next, remove the pot from the heat and stir in the paprika. Add the beef and garlic to the pot and return to the heat. Cook the meat with the onions until browned on all sides (about 8-10 minutes).
Lastly, add the tomatoes, water, pepper and bay leaf. Season with salt and pepper and bring to a boil. Once boiling, reduce the heat and simmer uncovered for 1.5 hours, stirring occasionally.
Remove the bay leaf and serve the pörklöt hot over, or alongside, egg noodles.
To render pork fat for this recipe, ask for ½ to ¾ pound pork fat from your butcher. Cut the pork fat into chunks and place it in a crockpot or slow cooker, set to low, with ¼ cup of water. Cook, stirring often, for 3 to 6 hours, until the fat has cooked off. Pour the liquid from the slow cooker through a paper coffee filter or cheesecloth into a wide mouth jar. The resulting clear liquid will solidify overnight into a white pork lard. Use the lard for the pörklöt in the next few days, or save the lard in the refrigerator. The solid bits filtered out are pork crackling and can be oven-toasted and used for salads. (NOTE: If you do not have rendered pork fat or pork lard, or want to substitute, you can use vegetable oil or butter. If you want to make a more authentic Hungarian pörkölt, you’ll want to use pork lard or render pork fat.)