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'Just like Grandma used to make' is good enough for me

Sunday, February 21, 1999

By Suzanne Martinson, Post-Gazette Food Editor

My husband, Ace, and I seem to be developing a long-term relationship with a pot of Hungarian goulash.

The recipe for Beef Goulash Soup came out of a cookbook called "Just Like Grandma Used to Make" by Lois Wyse. On Sunday night we ate out of bowls because it was billed as soup. In the spirit of cross-cultural cooking, we accompanied it with Tuscan bread, which we dipped in olive oil. This time we didn't use balsamic vinegar, but what Hawaiians call chile pepper water. As they say, travel is a broadening experience, and Ace had enjoyed this variation so much at Hula Grill (we dipped focaccia there) in Maui that he bought three bottles and we hauled them home. I couldn't resist doing a little stove-side taste test, and I got a noseful of chile that cleared out my sinuses. I do love fusion cooking and eating.

But back to the goulash. As near as I can remember, neither of my own grandmothers made it, but I knew Wyse's work, having fallen in love with her book "Love Poems for the Very Married." I liked the idea of us "very married" still reading love poetry, just as I loved the idea of recipes from grandmothers.

Still, I put the cookbook aside for a time. Food editors get too many cookbooks to give more than a cursory look at any of them. Many of them are horrible, which I define as hard-to-understand recipes or recipes with ingredients so exotic that only a chef could make them. Then Wyse's book popped up when I was in search of a Sunday dinner on a cold winter day.

This was not goulash as I had remembered it from my childhood. My memory was of macaroni noodles, tomato sauce and hamburger. Did Mother add Hungarian paprika? Not that I noticed. I asked a co-worker how she had her goulash. Over noodles, with a dollop of sour cream, she said.

Last week, I threw the question out to the members of the Pitcairn Woman's Club. One woman said she and her husband have different ideas, so one has noodles, the other has rice.

People have often asked me what kind of cooking I do, which I took to mean what type of ethnic cooking. At first I stumbled, wondering what to say, but then settled on a stock answer: "Midwest farm food, I guess."

There's nothing wrong with Midwest farm food - who can argue with corn eaten fresh off the cob or milk warm from a Guernsey cow? - but it doesn't have the spice and snap of many of the wonderful ethnic foods that call Pittsburgh home. It's not easy growing up without an ethnic group to call my own, having been raised in a "white bread town," as my former editor calls it. Though she grew up near Detroit, she came via Arizona, so she knows spice when she dips into it.

These dips into food cultures are what I like about "Just Like Grandma Used to Make." The Grandma in question, you see, is not Italian or Chinese or Hungarian. Grandmothers - and mothers - from many nationalities are included, and that means "American," too.

One thing about having the very American "empty nest syndrome" (aside from assigning our income to our daughter's college) is that a stew that used to serve three twice, now serves two people three times. Is this what they call "higher math"? We call it leftovers.

So on the second night of Hungarian goulash, I cooked rice.

"Does it seem a little odd to eat both rice and the potatoes in the goulash?" I asked Ace.

"Not necessarily," he hedged. To Ace, stacks of starch do not equate with the sin of excess.

For me, anything Gram thought was all right was OK with me. Lois Wyse and I agree on this. I know because this is what she writes in the introduction: "Maybe pumpkin pie and bread pudding make your turkey trot, but in my house if we don't serve Nana's nut cups, it isn't a holiday ... One family's inheritance of Greek pastries is another's hush puppies. Our universal patrimony is made of tastes and smells: French coq au vin, Hungarian paprikash, Swedish meatballs, New Orleans shrimp gumbo."

If I were going to buy a cookbook for someone interested in classic dishes, I'd grab "Just Like Grandma Used to Make" or Jean Anderson's "The American Century Cookbook: The Most Popular Recipes of the 20th Century." Both is better.

For the third night, it'll be Hungarian Goulash on noodles. I'm still debating on the dollop of sour cream. It's beginning to feel like Cincinnati Chili, which is served over spaghetti.

We still may not be finished.

"Could you pour some in a little plastic container, freeze it and bring it out some Sunday?" Ace asked, hope in his voice.

Already done.

Next, my Swedish meatball man will learn to love Arroz con Pollo (Spanish Chicken and Rice) or Arancine (Italian Rice Balls).

Beef Goulash Soup

As a child with a Hungarian grandmother, writer Lois Wyse writes that she knew how goulash was supposed to taste, but as an adult she never tasted goulash like her grandmother's until she went to Budapest, and a friend gave her this recipe.

4 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 pounds of boneless beef chuck, trimmed, cut into
1-inch cubes
4 medium onions, chopped
4 gloves of garlic, minced
1/3 cup all-purpose flour
3 tablespoons sweet
Hungarian paprika
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
1 14-ounce can crushed
4 cups beef stock, preferably homemade
1/4 teaspoon marjoram
1/2 teaspoon each salt and pepper
2 large potatoes, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch cubes
Chopped parsley, for garnish

In large soup pot, heat 2 tablespoons oil, and brown beef over high heat. Remove meat with slotted spoon and set aside.

Reduce heat to medium. Heat remaining oil. Add onions and garlic, and sauté until golden. Stir in flour and paprika, and cook 2 minutes. Pour in vinegar and tomatoes, and stir vigorously for about 1 minute while mixture thickens.

Add stock (we used 3 cups of Kitchen Basics Beef Stock), 4 cups water, marjoram, salt, pepper and meat. Bring to boil, cover, and simmer 45 minutes. Stir in potatoes and simmer 30 minutes.

Adjust seasoning and add additional water or stock if the soup has become too thick. (Ours had plenty of liquid, even though we used 1 cup less stock).

Serve soup hot with a sprinkle of chopped fresh parsley.

Makes 8 to 10 servings.

"Just Like Grandma Used to Make: More than 170 Heirloom Recipes" by Lois Wyse with Lisa Antelo and Sherri Pincus

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