I like winter best when I’m saying good-bye to it. Or doing something to get my mind off of it. I grew up in temperate, perennially lovely, Bangalore, in the south of India, so I’ve still not developed a great affection for the months of freezing cold we see in New York every year.
One of the things I do enjoy about the winter, though, is the opportunity to cook up long-simmered soups and braises. Now that the sun is peeking out more frequently, but there’s still a chill in the air, it’s the perfect weather to indulge this cold-weather habit for the last time before spring finally arrives.
Szekelykaposzta is a relatively new addition to my repertory, but it’s a keeper. It’s a flavourful Hungarian stew made out of sauerkraut, pork, and paprika. When made with care, the dish is a master class in how to coax a delicious meal out of just a few good ingredients.
Hungarian food, like a lot of Central and Eastern European cuisines, gets a bad rap, for being heavy, uninspired, and bland. But this is a terrible misconception. Good Hungarian food, the sort that the great George Lang talks about in his book The Cuisine of Hungary, is inventive, and full of flavour and character. This recipe is from Edith Bartley, the mother of my good friend Chris Bartley. Edith, via Chris, has been the source of many of the Hungarian recipes I’ve tried my hand at over the years—not to mention endless bushels of citrus fruit from her overachieving home orchard.
I’ve made a few small adaptations to her original recipe—swapping in stock for water, using homemade sauerkraut, and finishing the dish in the oven, but I’ve left it mainly unchanged. I particularly encourage you to use the ketchup that she recommends if you have it—it adds a mild sweetness to the dish that you don’t get from using tomato paste. I use the paprika that Edith procures from her family’s farm in Kecskemet in Hungary. It’s a brilliant red and has a sweet, floral flavour. If you can’t find good, sweet Hungarian paprika, use the best sweet dried red pepper you can get your hands on and adjust the amount accordingly. I can’t overemphasize the importance of using a fresh-tasting and flavourful paprika: the success of the dish depends on it.
A note on smoked ribs: Though I highly recommend tracking down and using smoked ribs for this recipe, they can be a little hard to find. Try your local Italian, Romanian, or Balkan butcher, who often sell smoked ribs by the rack. If you can't find them near you, you can buy them online at Bende, in Chicago. Or if this all seems like too much work, don't worry: you can use smoked bacon, too. Just make sure to ask your butcher to cut it into large chunks for you. Smoked ham hocks, similarly, work very well, and are easy to find at most well-stocked supermarkets.
3 cups homemade sauerkraut, or 1 can store-bought sauerkraut, drained, rinsed, and squeezed dry. 2 large white onions, peeled and sliced thin through the root
2 tbsp lard or vegetable oil
2 tbsp sweet paprika
3 tbsp ketchup
3–4 bay leaves
2 tsp caraway seeds
Salt to taste
1 lb smoked pork ribs, separated (or ham hocks or smoked bacon)
2 lb cubed pork shoulder or belly with a good marbling of fat. (Don’t use a very lean cut.)
4–5 cups homemade chicken broth or 1 carton good-quality store-bought broth
Preheat the oven to 325°F.
In a large heavy-bottomed pan, sauté the onions in oil or lard until golden brown.
Remove from heat and add the paprika, making sure that it doesn’t burn.
Back on medium heat, add the ketchup and stir to let it caramelize slightly. Add the bay leaves, caraway, and 1 tsp of salt.
Add the smoked meat and cubed pork and toss them together with the onions and spices, till the meat is lightly caramelized.
Add the hot stock or water just to cover the meat, and bring to a boil.
Adjust the salt, cover the pan with a lid, and cook in the warm oven for two and a half hours to three hours, until the sauce has thickened slightly and the meat is fork-tender but not falling apart.
Serve in large bowls with dollops of sour cream and fresh bread.