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Chef Foster: Really, 7 degrees? Cold and damp winter days call for . . .goulash of course, an amazing dish

7 degrees.

Let’s think on that for a moment. What could I possibly fix for dinner that would wipe away the effects of 7 degrees. I know we often refer to this time of year as “soup weather” Cold weather cultures have an arsenal of heavy fat, rib sticking dishes to combat the cold and damp winters, but something for 7 degrees? This may take a while…

As cold as it’s been and will continue to be for the next few months, we have developed a rotation of dishes that keep us warm and fed, and above all else, satisfied. These dishes revolve around higher calories and heavier proteins. They are often in conjunction with garnishes or side dishes that mirror the main one.

French onion soup has a rich, beef-based broth, topped with cheese and bread melted under the broiler. The French favorite cassoulet is cooked slowly with layers of bread crumbs added to the crust, and then stirred into the stew at timed intervals to thicken and enrich the other ingredients. At The Sage Rabbit we serve a Chipotle Potato soup that relies on the starch of cooked potato to thicken the soup but also a bit of cream to give the finished product extra richness. The chipotle peppers cut through some of the richness, and gives the soup some balance. The overall effect is warming and filling, exactly what you would want this time of year.

The more I thought about those conventional winter dishes, the more it occurred to me that not only was fat an important element to the dish, but the addition of spice, in various forms was ket as well. In Europe that spice may be black pepper in liberal doses. In some of the fusion dishes that I sometimes cook I look for other heat sources like chilies. It may seem counterintuitive to make you sweat on a cold day, sweating is the way our body cools down. but just enough heat can also have a warming effect that enhances the temperature and the richness of the dish. So, I started to dig a little deeper, trying to find a “new” dish to spice up the winter menu. After years of seasonal cooking I think I’ve covered a lot of ground when it comes to dishes like this.

Between my classical French training and the fusion food, I do, what can be left for me to fix?

As it turns out, there are plenty of options just a country or two away from my French roots or my Italian influences (I like a good Bolognese on a 7-degree day!). In fact, I’ve already dabbled with a certain part of this dish on the restaurant menu. Paprika, or in its more common restaurant term, paprikash is a variant of paprika influenced dishes common to Eastern Europe and centered squarely in Hungary. Based on the sweet peppers transplanted from the new world, most are grown in Spain and Hungary where a portion of the paprika is produced. Paprika is produced in this country as well, with some of it even being shipped to the place where goulash was created. Some of you may remember goulash as a watery tomato and ground beef “stew” served on the school lunch line. It was even at times labeled Hungarian goulash although it bore little resemblance to its namesake dish or country.

Goulash is indeed a stew or soup, depending on the amount of liquid in the finished dish. It has tomato, onion, sometimes garlic, butter or lard, herbs and caraway, and of course paprika, the dried powder from the peppers. The protein is primarily beef, and not the best cuts are best for a good goulash.

Some recipes include wine, chilies and other aromatic ingredients. The dish is often finished with cream or sour cream to enrich the flavors and change the texture to a luxurious smoothness. This is the very essence of rib sticking and soul satisfying, a panacea for 7-degree weather. Add buttered noodles as a base, some crusty bread, and a glass of red wine and now this dinner is a date.

But let’s back up a bit, just to the part when we actually cook the dish.

The method is a braise, a slow, methodical breakdown of tough beef and crunchy onions into a tender, fall-apart dish.

This type of cooking never works with ground anything as the long cook time eventually robs the meat of its portion of fat.

Better to use eye of round or top round, cubed and lightly dusted with seasoned flour and your first addition of paprika. Brown your onions in butter, add garlic, caraway and then the cubes of beef. No need to hurry, let them brown slowly, and the onion and garlic smear almost to a paste. Add your plum tomatoes, canned are fine. You’ll only need a cup of tomato for four cups of beef.

Let the tomatoes break down with a second addition of paprika, only this time it’s a healthy dose of smoked paprika to coat everything.

Cook the mixture until it is almost dry, just before you fear it might scorch. This is when you will add beef or veal stock to cover, put a top on the pot and put it in a slow oven, about 300 degrees.

If you’re using your new crock pot that came at Christmas put the setting on low or slow cook, not pressure cook.

This next step could take several hours, you are waiting for two things to happen; the meat to tenderize and the moisture to evaporate to near dry levels again.

If the meat is not tender, add more stock and put the top back on and the pot back in the oven.

In this way the goulash resembles French cassoulet with its multiple toppings of breadcrumbs, and the repeated additions of stock with more reduction if necessary will give your goulash the same depth. When the beef is tender and the liquid in the pot coats the stew, you are ready to season with salt and pepper, add your sour cream or crème fraiche, and enjoy a goulash that will erase all memories of junior high.

John Foster is an executive chef who heads the culinary program at Sullivan University’s Lexington campus. A New York native, Foster has been active in the Lexington culinary scene and a promoter of local and seasonal foods for more than 20 years. The French Culinary Institute-trained chef has been the executive chef of his former restaurant, Harvest, and now his Chevy Chase eatery, The Sage Rabbit.

To read more from Chef John Foster, including his recipes, click here.  

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