Preface : I met my good friend Dan Henklein during an unforgettable summer job working for the US Forest Service. All that summer Dan would never fail to amaze me not only with his extensive knowledge about western flora (he has a graduate degree in range management) but also by his extensive knowledge, depth and appreciation of the history of the west and the world wide cultural sources and diversity that contributed to its development and makeup. Making him one of the most impressive folk historians I know. After reading one of his recent engaging emails about his antique iron cookware (which he uses regularly) and frontier cooking (which he does routinely) I asked him to write a guest post at my blog about some Hungarian contribution to western frontier cooking. Dan graciously agreed, and did not fail to respond in his traditional amazing manner. Below is Dan’s contribution and his recipes for Texas Chili and Hungarian Pörkölt. I hope you enjoy it as much as I.

Texas Chili and Hungarian Pörkölt:
A cultural parallel with Capsicum

There was a vast plain perfect for raising cattle on the rich grass, and there were herdsman who migrated as they pushed their cattle about in search of the best forage upon which to fatten them. The herdsmen rode on horseback and were experts at all aspects of their trade and the horsemanship that made it possible. They made temporary camps when their cattle found good grass. The grassy environment of the plains gave great sustenance to the herds; but to the herdsmen not so much… for after all, humans cannot eat grass. The herdsmen had their cattle though, so in these camps they brought out cauldrons and created a rich stew from the parts of their bovine charges. But the cattle did not belong to the herdsmen but to some rich man who had hired them, so the herdsmen had to be thrifty as they consumed the cattle. For this reason, they often added other kinds of meat to their stews, such as wild animals they had encountered during the course of their herding activities. The stews were richly flavored with the dark red fruits of the Capsicum plant, dried and ground into a powder.

This story is ambiguous. We might wish it to be universal and planetary, but instead it is more specific. It is specific to two nations, regions, and environments, which through parallel and convergent evolution resulted a similar environment, which produced similar men engaging in similar lifestyles, ultimately producing two recipes parallel to an almost uncanny degree.

I am speaking of Hungary and the United States of America. I am speaking of the Hungarian Plain and The Great Plains. I am speaking of the Hajduks and the Cowboys.

Rough-and-ready cuisine, trail grub, or as the Mexicans say “comidas rancheras” has evolved by its own and similar rules on two continents. Here we will discuss the cultural and gustatory parallels of Hungarian Goulash and Texas Chili. Or rather more correctly, we will discuss the similarities and the differences between Hungarian Pörkölt and Texas Chili. Of these three Goulash is the most ancient recipe, excluding perhaps the early Capsicum-flavored stews prepared in clay pots by Native Americans in North America before the arrival of Europeans on that continent. But these recipes would not have been beef-based, as are Goulash, Pörkölt, and Chili; we will mention them only in passing here. It is the historical recipes that concern us here, not the pre-historical.

Neither will we consider Goulash proper in depth here. Goulash is certainly the ancient precursor of Pörkölt. We’ll concentrate on Pörkölt here because of the uncanny parallels the recipe possesses with “a bowl of red”, the slang term for a bowl of Texas Chili. A bowl of Pörkölt is most certainly in every respect also worthy of the appellation “a bowl of red”. In fact, from a distance at least, visually at least, the two recipes are relatively indistinguishable… both presenting the aspect of  “A bowl of red”… or of reddish-brown to be more precise.

Where to begin? At first we might mention another parallel between the life-ways of the Hungarian Hajduks and the American Cowboy, and that is the “slouch hat”. Bearing in mind that the American “cowboy hat” has a lineage that springs from several sources, and that the first cowboy hats were almost certainly Mexican Sombreros, a type of headgear with it’s own history and lore, it should be mentioned here that the Hajduks wore their own form of a broad-brimmed hat. This hat influenced the expatriate Hungarian cavalry officer Lajos Kossuth, who is largely credited with introducing the military Slouch Hat for cavalry use, a style that spread rapidly and by the time of the U.S. Civil War had been accepted in and adopted by many units on both sides in the United States. It may be rationally argued that the military Slouch Hat had as much or more influence upon the nearly universal adoption of the broad-brimmed hat by cowboys and civilians throughout the American West and essentially worldwide later as the urban fedora. It should also be mentioned that were it not for the almost universal adoption of Hungarian-style riding dress of tight-fitting trousers and jackets throughout all of Europe and by people in all walks of life during the Renaissance, we might all still be wearing loose-fitting gaiter-wrapped trousers complemented by a loose tunic and cloak pinned at the shoulder, a style current in Europe from the bronze age right up until the triumph of the sleek and flattering Hungarian style. So we see that we have more to thank the Hungarians for than Goulash alone.

Back to the subject of food. We may start out with the basic recipes for Chili and Pörkölt. First we should be clear about something. There are no beans in Texas-style chili. Chili is a meat stew. It is a recipe born in the southern Great Plains, an area where the influence of Mexico and the Native American agricultural traditions were strong and nearby, an area where the use of ground Capsicum as a flavoring in food was age-old and established. Capsicum is a Native American spice. Its use in the Americas goes back for millennia, where Native Americans bred it for color, shape, size, flavor, and intensity of heat. How it got to Europe is a matter of trade and agricultural disbursal, but when it arrived in Hungary it was readily accepted. The Hungarians immediately began to apply their own means of selective breeding to the plant, and bred varieties specifically for sweetness and lack of heat. But before even adding the capsicum spice to these two similar but distinctive stews, we need to discuss the basic ingredient: meat.

Start with the meat. I prefer a mixture of beef, pork, and venison for both recipes. The pork fat flavor will seep into the beef and the venison, adding moisture. The richness of the venison will contribute to the beef and pork. The three meats together will complement each other perfectly. But use what you can get. For the Chili, the meat should be cut into smaller cubes, for the Pörkölt it should be cut into larger cubes. But please yourself. Sometimes different cube sizes are nice for variety, though larger cubes are usually absent from Chili. In fact, both Chili and Pörkölt (but especially Chili) may be cooked for so long as to render the cubes no longer individually distinguishable but rather just as a mass of short meat strings.

Hungarian Grey Cattle. A traditional meat source in Hungary.

Hungarian Grey Cattle. A traditional meat source in Hungary.

You may be traditional and use cast iron pots. Alternately, you may use a modern stainless steel pot or two. But if you do use stainless steel you had best get a pot with a thick bottom that will radiate the heat and prevent burning. One should probably not consider making either of these recipes on an electrical stove because of the difficultly of regulating the heat. These are both slow-cooked recipes and one should do everything one can to prevent burning or crusting on the bottom, particularly because of the delicacy of the flavors (as we shall see) and of the need to let these flavors blend through the slow-cooking and the re-cooking/re-heating process as one eats through one’s pot of stew. Nor would I recommend for the first time you attempt either recipe, cooking outdoors over a wood fire (also because of the difficultly of regulating the heat) as is traditional for both recipes; unless you are extraordinarily familiar with the method, your pots, and the basic ingredients.

casseroles à frire

Antique iron “Dutch Ovens” or “casseroles à frire”, a French term that suggests the utensil was first brought into the far west via the Great Lakes by French voyageurs in their large canoes. The French love for all kinds of cooking no doubt extended to frontier cooking.
A casserole à frire has a long handle integrally cast into the utensil. This type was more common on the frontier than the modern type with the wire handle. Similar to most modern Dutch ovens they had three legs to stabilize in coals and keep off direct heat plus a raised rim to hold coals in the lid.
Casseroles à frire are no longer commercially available and can only be acquired with great difficulty on the antique market.
(Photo and text by Dan Henklein)

Brown the cubes of stew meat thoroughly. This is where Pörkölt diverges from Goulash: the meat in Goulash is not browned in advance of the stewing process. If the meat throws off a lot of liquid during the browning process, then, set it aside and reserve it, until the meat is browning in the sizzling oil. Add more oil if you need to, after the liquid has been spooned-off. Use a neutral-tasting oil that can handle high temperatures. I prefer peanut oil for Chili (Native American) and grapeseed oil for Pörkölt (Old World). The meat cubes should show at least some brown in places (the corners and the edges) where they have been seared: just turning them gray is not enough. This is why it is important to spoon off the liquid so the stew meat can actually fry in the oil. In one award-winning batch of Chili I cooked I used bacon fat to fry the meat (all beef cubes that time). That version was designed to win an award, not to be healthful. It would probably be best to avoid using the bacon fat in either dish. If you use a mixture of pork and beef the bacon fat will be unnecessary anyway. Do not render the meat and drain the fat away and discard, as you might with hamburger or ground pork. You will probably not have enough fat or oil left in the pot to make a difference anyway, especially if you use lean beef or venison in the mix.

Here is where the recipes for Pörkölt and Chili diverge: with the addition of the vegetable element. It is important to remember that I am describing how I make these recipes. You may want to try to make them my way and then branch off with your own variations. Enjoy your experimentations. Goulash is more open to experimentation than Pörkölt. Texas Chili has a few basic rules with room for experimentation around the edges.

Goulash may include a variety of vegetables including potatoes, tomatoes, and carrots in the mix during the cooking process. Sometimes Goulash is served over potatoes. But let us not venture too far into the subject of Goulash, but rather, stick with Pörkölt, which is similar, but different.

Bear in mind that I am not going to give very many measurements here, nor present my recipes in modern formulaic style. That is not the way I cook. I cook by eye and by taste, and absolute quantities vary proportionately with the total amount that I am cooking. The process for making both of these recipes is so involved and takes half-a-day at least so I like to make them up in large quantities and freeze away in plastic tubs for future use when I make them.

Because the browning of the meat needs to happen correctly, I may brown the meat, remove it from the pot, set it aside and use the pot to brown the vegetables, or if kitchen space allows, I may brown the vegetables in separate pots. Onions belong in both Chili and Pörkölt: regular yellow onions are best. For Chili, chop the onions coarsely. For Pörkölt, cut the onions in half and then slice into thin short strings. Garlic also goes into the Chili: slice the cloves and mix with the onions. You may use it liberally. Garlic is not necessary in the Pörkölt, but you may add it if you like, though I would recommend using it sparingly. Brown the onions (and the garlic): mix with the browned stew meat.

Here the two recipes diverge again, and here is the second diversion of Pörkölt from Goulash. After the browned meat and onions have been combined in a large pot, add back any liquid siphoned off from the meat during the browning process. Return the pot to medium heat and allow it to begin to simmer. Next, for the Pörkölt add a hearty dry red wine to the stewing liquid. This, along with the browning and some other minor factors, is what distinguishes Pörkölt from Goulash. There is no wine in Goulash. Naturally, a Hungarian wine is preferred. Continue to simmer. Add chili powder to the Chili and sweet Hungarian Paprika to the Pörkölt.

The chili powder to use is the traditional American mixture available in most markets that contains a mixture of ground red chili, cumin, and garlic powder. Originally, the trail chefs may have simply used ground chilis, and added (or not) the cumin in, to taste. I consider the cumin to be an essential ingredient. The last time I made Texas Chili I sampled the commercial powder dry and decided to add in more of a higher quality of ground cumin. You may need to experiment with several products in several batches before you figure out how you really like it.

These spices should be added in copious quantities. A few who have witnessed me preparing either recipe have been astounded at the quantities of the ground Capsicum I add. Be more judicious if you are making Chili. It is almost difficult to add too much paprika to Goulash or Pörkölt. Don’t go overboard of course, but as sweet as the best paprika is, it’s difficult to go wrong. With the Hungarian stews, the paprika is a thickening agent as well as a flavoring agent.

Now you can turn both stews down to simmer on low heat. Watch them like a hawk. Allow the stew to reduce and thicken. If it seems to be cooking too fast, add more wine or water to the Pörkölt, and more water to the Chili.

Many variations have been proposed for Chili, including the addition of whiskey or tequila to the base: anathema to me. I do have a secret ingredient beside the bacon fat mentioned earlier, but it is a final addition and will be discussed later. Additions of lamb kidney fat to Chili are at best unnecessary and at worst an affectation. Texas Chili, as stated earlier, evolved on the southern Great Plains where the Mexican and Puebloan influences were strong. Another cowboy stew of the northern Great Plains, called Son-of-a-bitch Stew, contains offal and any sort of meat that could be rustled up in a pinch. It is not the same as Texas Chili and should not be confused with it.

After a couple of hours of slow simmering, test the flavor, and test the meat for firmness. The meat should ideally be soft to the tooth, not firm or tough, but should still retain its integrity. With continuous cooking this integrity may disappear as previously mentioned, but this is not unexpected or necessarily bad… it is all in the game.

The final steps of creating your perfect bowl of Old World or New World “red” are in the fine-tuning of the flavor. It will help if you have a coffee grinder. Clean your coffee grinder thoroughly. More important for the Pörkölt because in some cowboy recipes coffee is used to thin the base of Chili, though I do not recommend it.

For Pörkölt, separately grind dry marjoram leaves to a fine powder and caraway seeds to a fine powder. I can make no accurate estimation of how much you will need… it is a matter of personal taste and of the total quantity of the stew you have prepared. Roughly, at least one level teaspoon of ground caraway seed and one-and-one half level teaspoons of ground marjoram for a big pot of Pörkölt. Add during the final stages of simmering and mix thoroughly into the stew.

For Chili, grind dry Mexican Oregano leaves to a fine powder and add to taste as the herbs above for Pörkölt. The secret ingredient in my award winning Chili is a commercial mesquite-flavored steak rub. These vary widely. The one you choose should be sweet and woody in flavor, not too hot. Grind to a fine power and mix thoroughly into the stew, you may add up to a level tablespoon depending on the product. Texas Chili was often cooked over a mesquite wood fire. This final ingredient adds just the touch of sweetness the recipe needs. I was reluctant to give away this secret.

Pörkölt should ideally be served over, and sopped up with, crusty rustic flat dark rye bread chunks. It may also be served over baked potatoes split open, spaetzle, or noodles. It may be garnished with a dollop of sour cream

Texas Chili should be served with cornbread. In the absence of cornbread it may be served with corn tortillas (preferably toasted), or in a pinch with (unflavored) corn chips. It should never be served over macaroni the way non-Texas chili with beans is. Addition of shredded cheddar cheese to Texas Chili is totally inauthentic. The cowboys did not know what it was.

Enjoy your stew.

Daniel C. Henklein