Wednesday, October 18, 2006

A True, Delicious Transylvanian Dish for Halloween

I first encountered this fabulous traditional pork dish at one of my favorite eating places when I was a medical student. The “Budapest Restaurant” in New Haven was run by a mother and daughter who had been refugees from Hungary after the revolt against the Soviets was crushed in the 50s. Their specialties, some of which I can virtually still taste 40 years after I enjoyed them, was topped by what they called “Transylvanian Goulash”, or in Magyar, Székely Gulyas. Because it really is Transylvanian, I am sharing it here shortly before Halloween.

Hallowe’en (meaning in Old English the “Eve of All Hallows” -- the night before All Saints Day, which is Nov. 1 in the Roman Catholic calendar) is an early Christian festival with many pagan overtones, but is not particularly associated with Transylvania. However, with ghosts and goblins and vampires now part of secular, Hollywoodsy, American Halloween, Transylvania creeps in because of its unfortunate historical connection with Vlad Tepes Dracula (“the Impaler”), a ruthless Romanian despot whose grisly signature was slowly skewering his many enemies upright on huge sharpened poles. He may be the origin of the bloody vampire legends, but more importantly the inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Victorian novel “Dracula”, which was set in Transylvania.

Transylvania (Latin for “across the woods”), a multi-ethnic, multi-religious province for a thousand years, was part of Hungary until the early 20th Century, when after World War I it was ceded to Romania. The ancient province was repeatedly ethnically cleansed in the 20th century, losing the Jews and Gypsies under the Nazis, then the Saxon-Germans who were expelled after World War II, and many ethnic Hungarians since. The wonderful Székely Gulyas is named for the Seklers, later called the Székelys, a term applied to descendents of one the ancient Hungarian immigrant tribes who settled in Transylvania.

What distinguishes this dish from more typical Hungarian goulashes or stews is that it is made with pork, it contains sauerkraut, and it has sour cream stirred in at the end. The flavor is richly intense yet refined, as if all the stronger flavors marry into each other. It should be accompanied with something mild flavored as a foil, such as boiled potatoes or noodles, not with anything complicated that would clash. A simple salad on the side and warm crusty bread (black rye bread in central Europe) are all that this one needs. A cold fruity white wine with a little acidity, like a Sauvignon Blanc or a dry Riesling, or a good hoppy beer like Pilsner Urquell or Sam Adams, would accompany this dinner to advantage.

Transylvanian Goulash “Budapest Restaurant” (Székely Gulyas)

1 large onion, diced
2 strips bacon, finely diced
2 pounds lean pork (from shoulder or “butt”), in 1-inch cubes
1 tablespoon Hungarian paprika
2 bay leaves
1/2 teaspoon marjoram or oregano
1/4 teaspoon caraway seeds, bruised with a mallet or rolling pin
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1 tablespoon tomato paste (or 2 tablespoons ketchup)
1 (28-ounce) can shredded sauerkraut*, juice well squeezed out
Salt to taste
1/2 cup sour cream mixed with 1 tablespoon flour

In a heavy pot (stainless steel or enamel, not iron) gently fry the diced onion and bacon until limp and beginning to turn golden. Add the pork, raise the heat, and stir frequently until the meat has lost its raw pink color. Reduce the heat again and stir in the next five spices and herbs. After several minutes, as the mixture is becoming fragrant, add the tomato paste and enough water to come just below the surface of the meat. Simmer, stirring occasionally for 1/2 hour. Add the well squeezed sauerkraut, plus enough water to moisten. Simmer another half hour, stirring occasionally, or until the meat is tender. During this cooking, taste and begin adding salt, as needed. When the meat is done, check again for salt, and adjust. Then stir in the sour cream-flour mixture. Let simmer, with frequent stirring 5 minutes. The flavor is mellower if the goulash made in advance and reheated briefly before serving. Taste, and adjust salt if necessary. Serve with parsleyed boiled potatoes or noodles.

*If using fresh, uncanned sauerkraut, rinse it with water then squeeze it out, and add it earlier in the cooking process, just after the tomato paste and water are added to the pork.


Blogger N'beel said...

wow, i actually want to try making this. any ideas for something other than pork i could use so that my parents could also enjoy?

and what better appetizer for a dish than hearing about the history and people that produced it? love it!

9:54 AM  
Blogger Tim Dondero said...

Nabeel: Certainly you can use beef (I'd use chuck or "butt"), which will be fine too, but the cooking time will be a little longer. Bon appetit! T

5:04 PM  
Anonymous Lisa said...

We did this one on halloween for some guests and we really liked it. thanks dad!

7:45 PM  

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