The transformative power of paprika

Chicago TribuneFebruary 12, 2014 

Chalk it up to goulash. A bowl full of my grandmother’s simple goodness ignited a passion for spice that never wanes. She peppered chicken or beef with the freshest Hungarian paprika possible. The rusty red powder smelled sweet and tasted lush, nearly intense. A far cry from those cans of bland, pale red dust often used to garnish potato salad.

My mom’s mother served chicken goulash and potatoes for special family meals. My dad’s mother made it with cubes of beef. Both fussed over the quality of the paprika. Grandpa Kunzer always volunteered to go pick up the paprika. There may have been ulterior motives: Tucked into the large sack of paprika? Fresh sausage and imported beer.

The soup-stew known as goulash, or gulyas, is a pillar of Hungarian cooking, George Lang says in his 1971 cookbook “Cuisine of Hungary.” He also shares a surprising fact: A 1969 Gallup poll found goulash to be one of the five most popular meat dishes on the American cooking scene. I suspect most made it with the insipid, stale paprika everyone kept on the shelves for years. Too bad.

My grandparents favored intensely red, sweet paprika imported from Hungary and sold in bulk at their local meat markets. Fresh paprika has a full rich red pepper flavor with almost no heat. Occasionally they’d used half-sharp Hungarian paprika, which proves spicier than the sweet version, adding a nice kick to the pot, which I enjoy immensely.

My grandmother’s goulash featured few ingredients: Cut-up chicken, paprika, a little lard, onion and garlic. During gardening season, she added sweet banana peppers. She gave the recipe to my cousin Kathy for a project to commemorate grandma’s 90th birthday. All of her grandchildren now have the recipe in a keepsake laminated form. That recipe calls for only 11/2 tablespoons of paprika; today, I double the amount for a richer broth.

Some recipes call for adding wine or beer to their goulash. Gram was very traditional and used only water. I make a light homemade chicken broth from simmering the neck, giblets and wing tips in water. This adds a little more body and flavor. If the final pan juices are too thin, you can remove the chicken and then boil the liquid to reduce it slightly.

Goulash is always a family affair. My sister invites herself to dinner when it’s on the menu. Containers of extra go home with the parents. Everyone offers opinions regarding the outcome.

Serve goulash on cool nights with a leafy green salad and plenty of crusty bread. You’ll never see paprika in the same light again. You’ll seek flavor in every dish. Really.

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