Sunday, February 22, 2015

Hungarian Comfort Food

Since my arrival Noémi has been regaling me with traditional and delicious Hungarian dishes. There was the wonderful paprikáscsirke the first Sunday after I arrived, and the fried chicken and mushrooms last Sunday, not to mention the hearty midweek lunches: babgulyás (bean goulash, with cranberry beans and the Baranyi's home-smoked ham) and the thick soups called főzelék; kelkáposzta-főzelék with tomatoes and chopped cabbage and onion and potatoes, and krumplifőzelék of potatoes and onions, flavored with bay leaves and thickened with flour (cornflour for me) and (soy) yoghurt. Because I've been at home doing freelance work on Fridays while Noémi is at the afternoon market, I've been making dinner those nights. I made a scalloped potato dish last week, which got a fairly lukewarm reception (though they were polite enough to eat it all), and this week I made them some Italian arancini, which were much more popular, with Noémi's mozzarella melting inside. I judge the popularity of the dishes by whether or not the two girls dig into them eagerly, or push the food around their plates a while, or cover it with ketchup. They're well-brought-up girls, though, and always eat everything they're served.

Today Noémi made stuffed cabbage rolls, filled with rice and pork and cooked in a light tomato sauce, and for dessert she brought out the cheesecake I'd made yesterday, using some of her French-style cheese that hadn't sold the week before, but which had firmed up to a texture and flavor that was just like Philadelphia cream cheese. I bought some sweet ginger cookies at the store and crushed them up for the crust, mixed the cheese with eggs and sugar, baked it and cooled it, and watched it being eaten with some homemade raspberry jam from another local cheesemaker, heated to a syrup consistency and poured over the top. I had a little tiny taste, and decided it was pretty good cheesecake, actually. Noémi is going to take the next one to the market, and hand it out as samples; a marketing tactic to give customers new ideas for the cheese, and encourage them to buy it. The girls cleaned their dessert plates, so I think it might work.

This week I made crêpes for Shrove Tuesday, which were also very popular. We ate them with jam or sweetened soft cheese or Nutella, depending on our respective ages and dietary restrictions. I made more on Thursday, for the traditional dish called Hortobágyi húsos palacsinta, a recipe I came across while looking for vegetarian Hungarian dishes. The Baranyis observe the Catholic tradition of meatless Fridays, so I've been trying to find new ideas for recipes they might like. And I found this, a popular dish with meat - and one of Noémi's favorites, as it turns out - so we had it for Torkos Csütörtök, or "Gluttonous Thursday," an old custom that the Hungarian Tourist Board has recently revived. In the old days, the meatlessness of Fridays extended throughout the entire 40 days of the Lenten season, except for this one day, so that people could consume all of the leftovers from the Fat Tuesday feast, to avoid waste. Today, restaurants around the country offer 50% meal discounts.

Hortobágyi húsos palacsinta is crêpes wrapped around a stewed meat filling, and baked in a sour cream sauce, though we used yoghurt instead. The meat can be veal, or chicken, or whatever you like, and is traditionally ground before cooking, but we cooked the chicken meat with onions and paprika (lots of paprika) and then ground it all up after. I made the crêpes with soy milk and oat flour, and used soy yoghurt for my sauce.

There's yoghurt (or sour cream, if you like) mixed in with the meat filling, and more thinned with water and spiced with paprika (lots of paprika) and poured into the baking dish and over the top of the crêpes before baking them in a hot oven until browned and bubbling. Savory and soft in the mouth, soothing and warm in the belly, it's just the thing for a cold winter day. It's going in my mental recipe file, and if I can find a source in the States for fresh sweet Hungarian paprika - because it's the quality of the paprika that makes the difference in this and most of the other dishes - then I will make it again. It has to be fresh, you see. Last season's harvest, not the old fusty powder that's been sitting in the back of your spice cabinet so long that it's caked together at the bottom. Noémi uses the csemege paprika that a local farmer produces, and gave me a big bag of it to take to Mom when we meet up in Italy in May.* If she can get it through customs, I'll use some of it to make Hortobágyi húsos palacsinta for her and John when I get back to Oregon. If she'll let me, that is - the stuff is worth its weight in gold.

* I still can't believe that my life is such that I can say things like that.

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