I was raised in a Hungarian home...in upstate New York. The table was rich with simple food and healthy portions of lavish stories. Real life stories that needed no embellishments, no extra condiments please, because on their own, they contained enough flavor and zest to nourish a lifetime. My parents had escaped from Hungary, like so many others, and brought with them 3 children, faith, hope and love, and a heritage to feed the next generation.
Simple rustic food was always on the menu. I swear the recipe for stone soup originated in our kitchen because Anyu managed to put the most amazing brothy bowls on the table with minimal ingredients. An onion and some paprika were the foundations for a brilliant cuisine that kept bellies and hearts satisfied. She was always writing letters to her mom on tissue like air mail paper, many of which were recipe tutorials. That's how she learned to cook, air mail back and forth with her mom, in the days when it may have taken 3 weeks from mail box to mail box! Suffice to say that she learned well. I still call her for tips and advice, and she loves it!
One of the most basic soups in any Hungarian home is "Gulyás Leves", goulash soup in English. This is not the ground beef and macaroni impostor you may have accepted as the real deal. It is a soup that originated on the plains of Hungary, where shepherds cooked in giant kettles that hung from huge branch tripods over a fire. It's back country, rustic fare made with only a few ingredients, onions, bacon/lard/goose fat, paprika, potatoes and beef. A few optional additions are limited to caraway seeds, Hungarian sweet peppers (or green peppers), hot peppers, ripe tomato, bay leaf and csipetke (fresh home made little egg noodles). Because I am such a vegetable maniac, I add some celery and carrots, although my mom would ask why. And I go heavy on the potatoes! I add browned beef bones to the water for added flavor. You may skip the bones and go with straight water or a boxed/canned beef broth. If you opt for water only, then you will need a bit more salt to liven up the flavor. What Gulyás never includes is a flour thickener or wine, and an overload of herbs and spices.
Because Gulyás Leves (pronounced gool-yah-sh levesh) contains meat, it is usually served as the main meal, with crusty bread...a beautiful, humble meal for a chilly night.
2-3 beef bones, browned in the oven for 20-30 minutes (optional)
4 Tbsp bacon fat, lard, goose fat or olive oil
2 large yellow onions, diced
1 1/2 lbs beef chuck, small cubes
2 Tbsp sweet Hungarian paprika (you may add some hot paprika if you like some spice)
2 medium carrots, small diced (optional)
1 large stalk celery, small diced (optional)
2 bay leaves
1/2 tsp caraway seeds (I give them a spin in the spice blender, but you don't have to)
2-2 1/2 quarts water (you may use boxed beef broth if you are not adding the beef bones, or straight water, no bones)
2-3 lbs red potatoes, medium diced
Salt and pepper to taste
In a hot oven, brown the beef bones until dark and set them aside. In a large pot, heat the oil. Add the onions and cook without browning until translucent. Add the beef and cook until browned. Add the paprika, being careful not to burn. Then add the carrots and celery, with the caraway, bay leaf and browned beef bones. Season well with salt and pepper. Simmer covered, without added liquid for about 20 minutes, being careful not to burn. Add the water/beef broth, and additional salt if necessary. Cover and simmer for about 1 1/2 hours or until meat is tender. Add the potatoes and simmer another 15 minutes, or until the potatoes are done. Remove the beef bones, adjust seasoning. Serve with crusty bread.
There you have it! The REAL deal Hungarian Gulyás, for simple folks, with humble ingredients, for an uncluttered life in a real world.