Exploring my Roma roots with some good Gypsy comfort food, hearty Romanian Style Goulash. A rich beef and tomato stew heavy with Paprika, it’s slow food to warm your soul as nights get longer and the chill of fall fills your days.
It is in my nature to wander, if I’m in one place for too long I will shift residents or I move the furnisher, the change of seasons always makes me restless. My maternal Grandmother used to say it was in my blood, inherited from her mother, a beautiful Roma woman who married an Austrian man and immigrated to western Canada in the boom of the nineteen twenties.
As a child my Grandmother, Jessie, learned to cook at her mother’s knee the cuisine of her nomadic heritage; cuisine that bridged Russia, Romania, Hungary and Germany. Peasant food, many of her specialties were dishes that were the mainstays of the lower working class. Produce that stored well or was preserved in glass jars, cured meats that could last in through long cold winters. Borscht, cabbage rolls, sauerkraut, goulash. Later, when tragedy struck the family and both she lost both parents, Jessie was adopted by a woman who called her a ‘filthy Gypsy’ and she learned hunger for the first time.
In a life salted by tragedy and the great depression, she like many woman of her time, learned to stretch every resource. She made clothing out of flour sacks and lined her children’s shoes with newspaper in winter. Never was food wasted, never did a single bite go unappreciated. Once a week she baked bread in a wood fired oven and on sundays it was pie, even into the 1980’s she considered her ‘new fangled electric stove’ inferior in every way.
I wish I had that big cast iron stove now; with it’s overhead warming oven, flat top and water heater, gleaming with chrome trim. I see it in my mind’s eye when I think of her teaching me how to properly fill the firebox on cold, damp mornings, her slippered feet and wool socks, wrapped in a worn chenille robe, her auburn hair in curlers.
In her kitchen I learned to make soap and churn butter. On her small farm I milked goats, turned eggs under heat lamps until tiny peeping chicks and ducklings would emerge, and ran from staggering ganders bent on my destruction. Her simple approach to food is what I turn to time after time in my kitchen. Simple. Honest. Hearty.
This is perhaps the food I do best, comforting and personal. This Goulash leans Romanian with it’s heavy use of onion, here we’ve paired it with a soft polenta, or maize porridge and topped it with sour cream. May it warm you to your toes.
Romanian Style Goulash – Recipe
Prep time: 20 minutes
Cooking time: 90 minutes to two hours
Yield: Serves 6
1/3 cup vegetable oil
2 onions, sliced thin
4 tablespoons sweet paprika
2 teaspoons salt
2 teaspoon ground black pepper
3 pounds beef stew meat, cut into 1 1/2 inch cubes
1 – 28 ounce can of tomatoes, whole
1 – 6 ounce can tomato paste
1/2 cup beef stock
3 cloves garlic, minced
3 teaspoon salt (divided)
Maize Porridge Recipe
Cooking time: 10 to 15 minutes
Yield: Serves 6
4 cups whole milk
1 teaspoon salt
dash of pepper
2 tablespoons butter
1 cup fine corn/maize meal
1. Heat oil in a large pot or Dutch oven over medium heat. Cook onions in oil until soft, stirring frequently, then remove and reserve.
In a medium bowl, combine paprika, pepper and 2 teaspoons of salt. Coat beef cubes well with spice mixture, then sear over medium heat, in the same pot until browned on all sides. Return the onions to the pot, add tomato paste, tomatoes, garlic, beef stock and the remaining 1 teaspoon salt.
2. To cook stove top: reduce heat to low, cover and simmer, stirring occasionally between 90 minutes – 2 hours. OR if working with a Dutch oven bring your Goulash to a boil then cover and place a pre-heated 300°F (150°C) oven for 90 minutes – 2 hours. When fully cooked the meat should be tender and the sauce will be thick and rich.
For the Maize…
In a large, heavy-based saucepan bring the milk and butter to just under a boil then reduce the heat to medium low. Add your salt and then slowly add your maize meal, stirring constantly. Whisk for a few minutes until smooth and lump-free. Simmer for 7 – 12 minutes until cooked. Stir occasionally and add more milk if you find it too thick.
Serve hot, in deep bowls with a generous portion of goulash served on top, a dollop of sour cream makes for the final finish, adding a touch of dairy to a deeply flavored stew. May the luck of the Gypsy be with you.