By Joshua Tibbetts, correspondent
There are three forbidden topics when you’re chatting at the bar: religion, money and politics.
But if you want to get rowdy and start a bar fight in Cedar Rapids, all you have to do is talk about your grandma’s goulash. Wait for someone to ask, “Yeah, but was it an authentic goulash?” That’ll really get the bottles flying and the chairs swinging.
The great irony here is that our Americanized goulash is more of a Slavic version of marinara on top of noodles. The Czech American version of spaghetti and meatballs. And there’s seriously nothing wrong with that. Food cultures are flexible. They change over time based on availability of ingredients, trends and tastes. That’s part of the fascination people have with food. Where did it come from? Where is it going from here?
We are all on this journey together. Don’t worry, I’ll also tell you how to turn this soup into the thick marinara-like sauce if you want — just so I don’t have to keep looking over my shoulder at the bar.
Where did goulash come from?
So let’s dig a bit into the history of goulash, and how we got here.
Goulash originated in Hungary, where it is a soup called gulyas. That’s right, It’s Hungarian, originally. The Czech Republic and Slovakia share many cultural traditions with Hungary and were frequently united under the same flag, going back to the 15th century. Also, gulyas is a soup. Not a stew, not a thick meat sauce. It’s a very simple soup consisting of beef, bone broth, onions, carrots, potatoes and little pasta dumplings called Gulyasleves. It is flavored with garlic and paprika. Lots of paprika. All the paprika.
The paprika is the core of this recipe. Paprika comes sweet, smoked and hot. For gulyas, we want sweet paprika. Paprika is a variety of bell pepper that is dried and ground into a powder. And this is where we hit our first problem making gulyas. Authentic paprika is sweet Hungarian paprika. The best is purportedly from the Kalosca region of Hungary, but here is where we hit a big snag. Paprika loses a lot of its flavor after it’s ground. Even when vacuum sealed, all those bright, fruity sweet flavors just kind of taste like dust after sitting for a few hours. Not to mention the time it takes to export them over here to us in the Heartland.
From my experience working with Central American cuisine at Caucho, I learned that working with whole chile pods is always a vast improvement over using ground powders. There is a graininess to using powders that just never seems to go away, no matter how long you cook them. Not so with whole pods. So the next problem is: It is almost impossible to find whole pods of Hungarian paprika. If you dig around the internet, you can find some sources. But man, do you have to dig deep.
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An interesting alternative is to use American chiles. Chiles New Mexico and Chiles California are both sweet red chiles that typically have little to no heat in them. Just like paprika. Absolutely perfect for this purpose.
In Cedar Rapids, you can readily find whole pod chiles at El Mercadito, 700 First Ave. NW, and Don Miguel, 2127 Wiley Blvd. SW. Yep, we’re going to the Mexican groceries to make goulash. It makes sense if you think about it. Chile peppers came from the New World originally. The growing conditions are perfect for them in the Southwest and Mexico.
Using whole pod chiles is very different from using dried powders. Typically, you remove the stems and seeds, then soak them in hot water to rehydrate them. I like to let them soak overnight in a Mason jar, leaving it in a warm place. Then puree in the blender. A lot. Blend them a lot, and let them soak a good long time. If you’re feeling extra, you can pass the puree through a sieve or a fine mesh strainer. this puree is going to come out looking an awful lot like tomato sauce. Which makes sense, as chiles and tomatoes are very closely related.
Good chile pods should not be completely dry. They stay freshest when they still have some moisture left in them. So if you squeeze them through the package and they shatter, those chiles have gone bad. If they have a little springiness to them, then you have yourself some nice ones there.
This is one of those great stories of travel and transformation, how cultures bump shoulders and rub off on each other. The chile peppers are brought from the New World to Hungary, where they are used to make a soup that is very similar to the borscht made in Hungary’s neighbor, Ukraine. Immigrants bring that chile and potato-fueled soup with them to the States. The rise of canned and prefab powdered foods transforms gulyas into goulash, an easy combination of prefab foods. Nostalgia for something real brings us back to the more local chiles.
A fun byproduct of this recipe, is that we learn how to use whole pod chiles, instead of powders. This is a great and simple way to up your game, whether you’re making goulash, salsas, hot sauces, Texas red chili, or nearly anything that wants a little more red in it. Game on!
Chef Tibbs, also known as Joshua “Tibbs” Tibbetts, is a Cedar Rapids native who has been cooking as a professional chef for 28 years. He now is in the banquet kitchen at DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel Cedar Rapids Convention Complex.
1 1/2 pound beef chuck roast
1 pint malty beer, an American lager or Oktoberfest (don’t use a hoppy beer)
1/2 pound gold or red potatoes
3 each carrots
1 medium yellow onion (1/3 of a pound)
1 pint bone broth (homemade beef or chicken preferred, or low- sodium store bought)
1/2 bunch flat leaf Italian parsley
Pinch of whole caraway seeds
Pinch of whole coriander seeds
A couple ounces of vinegar, distilled or cider
1 1/2 ounces whole-pod mild New Mexico Chiles, or Chiles California (a half package)
salt and pepper
For braised garlic
5 bulbs garlic
1/2 cup heavy whipping cream
1/4 cup olive oil
2 cups heavy whipping cream
1/4 cup cultured buttermilk
To make a thick noodle sauce (American Goulash)
Small can of tomato paste
PREPARE THE DAY BEFORE
Braise the beef
Cut beef chuck roast into 1-inch thick steaks. Dry steaks with a paper towel. Brown them very well in a little oil or lard on both sides over medium heat. Flip them frequently, don’t worry about overcooking them. We’re talking a deep rich brown, not a gray or a golden brown. Some black marks are OK, but if you don’t have an exhaust over your stovetop, you probably want to go a little slower or you will set off fire alarms. Once they are a nice dark brown, kill the heat and let them cool to room temperature.
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Cut into 1-inch cubes. Transfer to a slow cooker: a slow cooker, Instant Pot or covered cast iron pan. Crack beer open. Pour it into a container to let the carbonation release out of it. Pour it over the meat. If it’s not fully covered, add some of that bone broth. Add a scant tablespoon of salt and stir it up. Does it taste a little salty? If it does, that’s good. If not, add a little more salt until it has a salty tang to it. The salt will help break down the gristle in the meat. Don’t worry, we’ll add more stuff later so the final dish isn’t a salt bomb.
Grind up your spices — the caraway and coriander — and add these to the braising dish.
Set your slow cooker of choice on a low setting. 180 degrees for 16 hours is ideal, but a crock pot on low or an oven set to 250 degrees will work fine. Even simmering on the stovetop on a very low flame. The hotter you go, the faster it goes, so you have to check it more frequently. At 180 degrees it won’t overcook (unless the water evaporates off it.) The other great thing about slow cooking is that it makes your house smell heavenly.
Once the beef cubes are easily smooshed with a fork, turn the heat off and let them cool slowly. Leave the meat in the broth for an hour to “rest” it. During this time, the cells will slowly firm up, and reabsorb a lot of the moisture that they wept out while cooking. After an hour, it’s safe to move your meat-in-juices to the fridge.
Soak the chiles
Separate half the chiles out of the bag. Pull the stems off and split them open. Shake or scrape the seeds out. Discard the stems and seeds.
Place the chiles in a pint-size Mason jar. Cover with boiling water and seal a lid on them. Keep in a warm place for a day and let them soak. Next to a heat vent, or on top of the back of your fridge are good spots. The next day, put the soaked chiles with their water in a blender and puree. A lot. When the noise of the blender starts to irritate you, keep blending. If you want to get extra, pass the chile puree through a fine mesh strainer to get the tiny chunks out. I tend to leave the chunks in. If it soaked long enough and they are soft enough, I’m not real worried about it. If you shortcut the soaking time, however, those little chile chunks can have a sort of plasticy texture.
At this point it can go back in the jar or straight into the recipe you are making.
Congratulations! you just made not-hot sauce.
Homemade Sour Cream
Now we make homemade sour cream, aka creme fraiche. This is extremely easy to do and is vastly better than store bought sour cream. Mix heavy cream and buttermilk in an 8 to 1 ratio. 2 cups cream to 1/4 cup buttermilk is a good batch size to make at home. Put them together in a very clean Mason jar and seal it tightly. Shake it up a little. Place it in a room temperature spot (70 to 85 degrees) and let it sit, undisturbed for 24 to 36 hours. The cream will spoil in a controlled fashion, where the active cultures in the buttermilk feed on the fresh cream, souring them. Check it after 24 hours. Does it smell like sour cream, have a little tang to it? Scrape the top with a spoon, does it want to stick to it? Then you’re good to go. Put it in the fridge to let it stiffen up.
Follow the instructions according to the recipe from my Nov. 17 article (www.thegazette.com/subject/life/food-and-drink/thanksgiving-gravy-recipe-2019-joshua-tibbetts-extraordinary-food-20191118).
ON THE SECOND DAY
Gulyas, Hungarian Beef Stew
Cube potatoes into even size pieces that will easily fit on a spoon. Place in a bowl and splash a couple ounces of vinegar on them. Cover them with hot water and let them sit for 10 to 15 minutes. The vinegar on the surface is going to help keep their shape cooked later, so they don’t dissolve into mash. We’ll get back to those in a bit.
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Meanwhile, dice the onion. Fry in lard or oil on medium heat until it gets nice and brown. When it gets some nice color on it, transfer it to a stockpot.
Peel the 3 carrots and dice them. Fry them the same way as the onions and transfer to the pot. Don’t worry if they are cooked through or not.
Drain the water off the potatoes and fry them up also. Transfer to the pot.
Add the braised beef and all its stewing liquids to the pot. Add remainder of the bone broth, if it didn’t go into the braise already. You want it to look like it’s two-thirds full of beef and vegetables. If you don’t have enough liquid on it, add some more bone broth or some more beer.
Bring everything to a very gentle simmer. If you have a thermometer and a lot of patience, 180 degrees is a great temperature to stew these ingredients together. Let it all cook, as gently as you can, until the carrots and potatoes are perfectly tender.
Once you’ve hit the texture you like, add the chile puree and some braised garlic. My palate likes about a tablespoon of braised garlic puree here. Let it warm back up to 180 degrees or a gentle simmer, then kill the heat. Add fresh parsley at this time. Grind some black pepper into it. Taste it. Is it salty enough to your liking? Generally, if you can’t taste the savory elements on the back of your tongue, it needs a little more salt. But hey, that beef is kind of salty, so maybe we should just let it rest at this point and balance out.
(If you want to make the marinara-sauce version of goulash to go over noodles, at this point you add the small can of tomato paste.)
ON THE THIRD DAY, IT RESTED
OK, so this is the tricky part. The best soup is a soup that sits. Letting it all warm up together, then cool together, will marry the flavors. The many little distinct notes combine together to make an inexplicable mega flavor, as it sits in the fridge overnight. I always eat a bowl or so when I’m making it, fully knowing that it’s going to be better tomorrow. Patience is a virtue.
When you can’t stand the wait anymore, heat it up gently and dish it out into bowls. Eat it the old way, as a soup, or thicken it with tomato paste and make a Czech pasta course out of it. Whichever way you want to play it, be sure to put a healthy dollop of your homemade sour cream on top.
And if anyone wants to brawl with you over the authenticity of your food, you can politely remind them that you are merely taking the next step toward the evolution of flavor. Traditions, like seeds, grow and change when nurtured.