February 6, 2010

Hungarian Bean Goulash

Lately, I have been especially inspired by traditional dishes of Eastern Europe. Typical kitchen experiments have involved beets, potatoes, salmon, sauerkraut, dill and caraway seeds—ingredients that I consider to be distinctly Eastern European. I had been craving some good, hearty rye bread and decided to stop in my favorite bread spot, When Pigs Fly and take a look at their creations. My eyes were immediately drawn to a delicious looking loaf labeled “sauerkraut caraway rye”. A sample taste confirmed my first-rate expectations for this bread: hearty, dense, and distinctly rye tasting, with a brilliant touch of Eastern European flair from the heap of sauerkraut that is baked directly on the loaf. Now, what to make for dinner that highlights this remarkable bread…

Ever since I purchased a big tub of Spanish sweet paprika, I have been particularly interested in making Hungarian goulash. After all, the dish is defined by its deep, rich color and flavor owing to the generous addition of sweet paprika.

A little research informed me that the scarlet red spice is made from grinding dried paprika peppers. Paprika from Spain and the US are particularly mild, but Hungarian paprika, on the other hand, is known to be the finest—rich and robust. Paprika is central to Hungarian cooking and there are typically six varieties to choose from, each prized for its distinctive flavor.

Goulash originated as a simple herdsman’s stew—thick and spicy and made from heaps of paprika, onions and beef. Overtime, Hungarians discovered that paprika releases its color and flavor when heated with oil, a technique they employ when making goulash (but if the spice is cooked for too long, the sweet elements will turn bitter). While variations exist today, Hungarians maintain the following beliefs: the stew should be kept simple, the key is slow cooking, and one can never add too much paprika.

Given my affinity towards beans, rather than beef, I thought I would use navy beans, while preserving the traditional slow-cook techniques of the dish. The idea was alluring, as I am always seeking ways to uphold authentic ingredients and preparation methods of traditional foods and adapting them to my liking.

The result is a thick, hearty bean stew, with chunks of root vegetables, all slow-cooked in a rich, blazing red broth. The key is using dried beans since they have the ability to soak up the flavors of the savory broth. A big pot of bubbling, deep red bean goulash is a perfect warming treat to enjoy in the heart of winter. Plus, big-batch cooking such as this one allows you to ration out the leftovers to use later in the week or store in the freezer.

Hungarian Bean Goulash

Although any sweet paprika will do, if you can find imported Hungarian paprika, the flavor will be much more authentic and robust. The stew is heavenly with crusty rye bread and pairs nicely with a simple salad of greens, roasted beets and chopped dill.

2 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 small yellow onions, chopped
2 garlic cloves, minced
¼ cup sweet paprika (Hungarian is best)
2 bay leaves
1 tsp dried marjoram or oregano
1 ½ teaspoons caraway seeds
1 lb dried navy beans (or other small white beans), presoaked*
2 cups chopped root vegetables (carrot, parsnip, rutabaga, turnip)
1 teaspoon salt
1 Russet potato, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch cubes
Freshly ground black pepper

Heat oil in a dutch oven or large heavy-bottomed pot. Add onions and cook, stirring occasionally until golden. Add garlic and stir 1 minute. Stir in paprika, bay leaves, marjoram, and caraway seeds and cook 1 minute. Add beans, root vegetables, and enough water to cover by about 2 inches. Cover tightly and cook until beans are nearly cooked through, about 1 hour. Stir in salt and potato, and cook partially covered 20 minutes longer. Season with salt and pepper to taste and serve with rye bread, if you like.

* The quick-soak method works best: place sorted and rinsed beans in a large pot and cover with water by about three inches. Bring to a boil for a full minute, then tightly cover and turn off the heat. Let stand for one hour and then proceed with the recipe. Make sure the beans are always covered with water—during the soaking process, they can swell up to three times their volume.


  1. thanks for your comment-next time I'm in SF I want to try that Naan 'N Curry place! Your goulash looks simply perfect: warm, hearty, and yummy. I've been to When Pigs Fly only once, but I need to go back soon. Thanks for the reminder!

  2. Leslie,
    I am currently cooking once a week for a woman who has a diagnosis of a serious type of cancer. She has many dietary restrictions and your recipes have been very helpful. I am a friend of your mother's from the Clinic and sh egave me the information for your site. Keep up the good work.