Italians make goulash? Yes, indeed they do.
As we’ve observed before, the regions of Italy that were once part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, in particular Alto-Adige and Friuli Venezia Giulia, and to a lesser extent Lombardia, retain many traces of its influence. And nowhere perhaps is this more apparent than in Trieste, the port city which sits on a small tongue of Italian territory reaching out eastwards from the Veneto along the shores of the Adriatic. After all, Trieste only became part of Italy when the empire was broken up after the First World War.
Given this history, today’s dish, gulasch triestino, the city’s local take on the world famous Hungarian dish, shouldn’t come as a surprise. The triestini have made the dish their own with some typically Italian touches: a splash of red wine, just a touch of tomato and, most notable of all, a bundle of fresh herbs that usually includes rosemary, lending the dish an unmistakably Mediterranean fragrance. Unlike other versions of the dish, the only vegetable in a gulasch triestino is onion, and lots of it. And in this incarnation, the dish is a true stew rather than a soup with a sauce that is thick and intensely flavorful.
Gulasch triestino is a lovely hearty dish for warding off the winter’s cold, especially warming as a piatto unico, accompanied with steaming polenta. A salad and perhaps some fruit to follow is all you need for a complete meal.
- 1 kilo (2 lbs) stewing beef, cut into bite-sized pieces
- 1 kilo (2 lbs) yellow onions, finely sliced or minced
- 2-3 Tbs Hungarian paprika (sweet or a mixture of sweet and spicy; see Notes)
- red wine (optional)
- a sprig of fresh rosemary, a sprig of fresh thyme (or marjoram) and a bay leaf, tied together
- 2 Tbs tomato paste (optional)
- lard or olive oil
- Salt and pepper
In a large braiser or sauté pan, melt two large dollops of lard. (If using olive oil, heat up enough to cover the bottom of the pan.) Add the onions and gently sweat them, turning often, until translucent and quite soft and reduced by at least half.
Raise the heat to medium and add the beef. Sauté the beef until browned lightly, taking care not to burn the onions. Season with salt and pepper, and then sprinkle over the paprika, stirring so that all the beef pieces are covered. Continue sautéing the beef and onions for just a few moments more.
If using, add a good pour of red wine and simmer until the wine has evaporated.
Now add enough water (or broth) so the beef is nearly covered, along with the tomato paste if using. Nestle the herb bundle in among the beef pieces.
Cover and braise for 2-3 hours, until the beef is tender and the onions have completed melted. Remove the herb bundle.
The cooking liquid should have reduced into a dark and unctuous sauce, abundant but thick and full of flavor. Add water or broth as needed if things seem to be drying out too much. If, on the other hand, the sauce is too thin, uncover the pot and continue simmering until it has reduced to a saucy consistency. Taste and adjust for seasoning.
While you can serve your gulasch triestino immediately, it is better after a good rest of several hours. Or, even better, overnight.
As I’ve noted before, this recipe for gulasch triestino follows the usual Italian sequence for spezzatini (aka stews): you sauté the aromatic vegetables first, then add the meat. This means you needn’t aim for a perfect sear on the meat, and with the prodigious quantity of the onion in this recipe that would be well nigh impossible anyway. It’s enough that the meat and onion get very lightly browned. In fact, some cooks simply allow the meat to lose its raw color and call it a day. Either way, the real aim here is to allow the meat to absorb the flavor of the onion, a step called insaporire in Italian, rather than to trigger a Maillard reaction. Having said this, if you really like that extra depth of flavor that comes from browning the meat well, then feel free to reverse this sequence. Even a few Italian recipes do.
Cooking times for the long, slow braise vary widely, usually somewhere between two and three hours as indicated in the recipe above. The exact time will depend on the quality and cut of your beef, how large or small you cut it up, as well as just how tender you like it. Personally, I like it fork tender, so I aim for something like two and half hours.
Choosing your ingredients
To my mind, the best cut for gulasch triestino—or any other beef stew for that matter—is the chuck (aka “braising steak” in the UK). Chuck has wonderful flavor and with its ample marbling stays juicy during the long braised required here. But with chuck seemingly getting quite pricey these days, you could turn to more economical cuts like the shank, which I used for today’s post and was perfectly delicious. Not quite as generously marbled but still very good indeed. You could also opt for the generic “stew beef” found in many supermarkets, which is generally the top or bottom round (topside or silverside in the UK) cut into cubes. It isn’t the most flavorful cut of beef and tends to dry out under long cooking, but it is still very economical. And with all the tasty flavorings going on here it should do in a pinch.
The paprika should be Hungarian, of course. And of the ‘sweet’ variety, though some recipes call for a bit of the hot stuff. I usually add 2 Tb of sweet and 1 Tb of the hot. It creates a good balance, recalling that Italian cookery, especially that of the north, isn’t terribly spicy. Some recipes are indeed quite discrete in their use of paprika, though personally I like my goulash quite paprika-forward. In a few Italian recipes you’ll see a pinch of cumin called for. None that I’ve seen call for caraway seed.
The magic ingredient: onions, and lots of them
The onion can be the typical yellow ones you’ll find in any markets. The most important point, though, is to make sure you use lots of them. Traditionally, the ratio of onion to meat should be 1:1 by weight. Along with the spice of the paprika, it is the savory sweetness of the onions that give gulasch triestino its unique—and utterly toothsome—flavor and, as they melt into the sauce, its velvety texture.
It will look like too much too much at first, but as mentioned, the onion will reduce down considerably before you add the meat. You’ll know the onion is done reducing when the fat begins to separate from it and begins to sizzle. NB: You will also need a lot of fat—again, more than you probably think it needs—for this to happen. If you like, you can always skim off the excess at the end of the braise.
Gulasch triestino is the perfect foil for polenta, but there are other options. Both Spätzle and Knödel would be excellent choices, too. As would, if you want to keep things simple, boiled or mashed potatoes. Buttered noodles, though not a very Italian choice, would also work.
Flour appears in some recipes for gulasch triestino, in two guises. In those few recipes where you start by browning the meat, you usually flour the beef lightly to aid browning. In other recipes, the flour is mixed with the water or broth as a thickener. If you ask me, the dish doesn’t need it. The onions, if you use enough of them, do the job perfectly. By adding flour you’d just cross that fine line from thick and luscious to dull and stodgy.
As noted in the ingredients list, the red wine is optional. Not all recipes call for it but, assuming you don’t overdo it, it adds a nice extra layer of flavor. Ideally you’d use a local Terrano, which would be lovely for washing down the finished product as well. Ditto for the tomato, which isn’t original to the dish. Some recipes call for quite a bit of tomato, turning the dish into a kind of umido. To my mind, a tad of tomato concentrate is fine for both color and flavor, but in a goulash—even an Italian one—the paprika should be allowed to stay on center stage.
The herbs also vary a bit from recipe to recipe, so feel free to mix things up a bit. The important thing is they should be fresh. To keep things simple, I like to buy those “poultry mix” packets of fresh herbs commonly sold in supermarkets here in the US. You needn’t tie up the herbs if you don’t want, but it does make it easy to dispose of them before serving.
- 1 kilo 2 lbs stewing beef cut into bite-sized pieces
- 1 kilo 2 lbs yellow onions finely sliced or minced
- 2-3 Tbs Hungarian paprika sweet or a mixture of sweet and spicy
- red wine optional
- a sprig of fresh rosemary, a sprig of fresh thyme (or marjoram) and a bay leaf tied into a bundle
- 2-3 Tbs tomato paste optional
- lard or olive oil
- Salt and pepper
- In a large braiser or sauté pan, melt two large dollops of lard. (If using olive oil, heat up enough to cover the bottom of the pan. Add the onions and gently sauté them, turning often, until translucent and quite soft and reduced by at least half.
- Raise the heat to medium and add the beef. Sauté the beef until browned lightly, taking care not to burn the onions. Season with salt and pepper, and then sprinkle over the paprika, stirring so that all the beef pieces are covered. Continue sautéing the beef and onions for just a few moments more.
- If using, add a good pour of red wine and simmer until the wine has evaporated.
- Now add enough water (or broth) so the beef is nearly covered, along with the tomato paste if using. Nestle the herb bundle in among the beef pieces.
- Cover and braise for 2-3 hours, until the beef is tender and the onions have completed melted. Remove the herb bundle.
- The cooking liquid should have reduced into a dark and unctuous sauce, abundant but full of flavor. Add water or broth as needed if things seem to be drying out too much. If, on the other hand, the sauce is too thin, simmer uncovered until it has reduced to the right consistency. Taste and adjust for seasoning.
- While you can serve your goulash immediately, it is better after a good rest of several hours. Or, even better, overnight.