Traditional?

Hey all, it was my birthday this past Thursday, so I was busy slacking off with the Boss and eating food instead of writing about it. We are almost done with the b-day festivities (it is like a week-long festival here in The House of Whimsy), thought I'd actually get around to posting like a good girl.

**What would have been here was a pretty fabulous rant which, now that it's no longer a day of self-indulgence, feels a bit ... well ... ranty for our fun, light-hearted page. So, I'll skip right to the good bits, recipe-writin', and food porn.**

There are a few bones I have to pick with "traditionalists". 

When you examine it, what is traditional or authentic, really? The definition is based in the opinion and attitude of the user. What is authentic Hungarian cooking to me is based upon what I learned from my Mom and Nana. Would some dear old lady in Budapest be shocked at what we refer to as paprikas or gulyas? Possibly. But the recipes are our family's tradition.

It reminds me of the episode of The Sopranos, when Tony and his crew traveled to the Old Country and the guys, especially Paulie Walnuts, were outraged to not find pasta and gravy at the dinner table. The Italians seemed equally put off by their American counterparts' lack of appreciation for their authentic Italian food. As most of us know, what is traditional and authentic in Italy is a completely different animal from many Italians in America. And, it must be said, it even differs between regions of Italy. Who is right? Everyone and no one. Because tradition and authenticity are in the eye of the beholder.

And, honestly, what is so important about cleaving fanatically to tradition, anyway? If one looks back before the rise of Nouvelle Cuisine, French cuisine had lost its sheen. It was a time-capsule of the culinary world, offering few surprises and little innovation. It was a stodgy old cuisine, mired in the fetishization of tradition ... and it was pretty boring and predictable. Now, imagine if every cuisine obsessed as much on keeping everything as it was and had been for centuries. The culinary world would be a fairly flat and tedious place.

Imagine if Vietnamese cooking had not taken on little touches of French technique, if that buttinski Marco Polo had not brought noodles back to Italy, if American slave cooks had not meshed French and African to birth Creole, if Hungarians had refused to infuse the paprika of Turkish invaders into their cuisine, if Europeans turned their noses up at potatoes brought back from the savages of the New World. The list could go on forever. Tradition may have its place, but it's innovation which is the lifeblood of the culinary world.

And, in the end, that's the best, most truthful part of it all ... the "traditional" cuisines are already fusions, just fusions created long ago by mass migration, discovery of new cultures, and conquering invaders. The beauty of any cuisine is its flexibility, it's ability to evolve. Does it matter whether change and innovation is brought about at the tip of a sword, the inter-marriage of tribes, or the adventurous mind of a daring cook? I don't think so.

It is and should just be all about the food. Does it taste good? *blam* 'Nuff said.

This week, I did a little tinkering of my own with traditional cooking. Having a cracked molar (which sucks out loud and hurts like a motherfucker, by the way), my focus was on making tasty food which required little to no actual chewing. We were also in a bit of a budget pinch, so ingredients had to stretch far and cost little. Having been researching Hungarian cuisine in detail for a project I have in the works (which will totally rock!), an experiment in slow-cooked peasant food seemed the perfect solution to both issues. So, while counting down available grocery bucks as I shopped, I picked up a few Hunkie staples to play with.

When one thinks about Hungarian food, a few obvious things come immediately to mind: potatoes, cabbage, pork (smoked and non), paprika, garlic (The store was out of caraway seeds not in the over-priced glass jars, so I regrettably had to skip them this time out.). So, those were the principal ingredients which found their way into my cart. The main thing I didn't want to do was just parrot an existing dish. I wanted to add a few unexpected touches to augment the basic flavors, to *gasp* veer a bit off the traditional path.

So here's what I did.

I picked up some pork neck, a humble peasant cut if ever there was one, which I decided to use for a big ol' budget-stretching pot of soup. Not having any chicken carcasses handy, I slacked on doing it old-school and used canned broth *gads* but somehow we managed to live through it *heh heh*. While the pork hung out with a bit of kosher salt to lose its fridge-chill, I popped a couple heads of garlic in the oven to roast (oooh ... so not traditional). Slow-cooked cabbage in butter (which is usually mixed with hearty potato dumplings) is one of my very favorite old-school things I learned to cook from Mom so, instead of just tossing cabbage into the soup to cook, I slowly cooked it down to sweet slightly-caramelized goodness as the soup simmered, adding it just at the very end (yep, not traditional, but really tasty).

What it amounted to was a seriously foodgasmic pot of soup, with traditional flavors richened with small but sexy innovations which made a huge difference in the end product. Would it have been equally tasty had I just cooked the garlic in with the veggies or popped the cabbage in with the potatoes? I don't think so. The sweetness of the slow-cooking and roasting softened the sharper flavor of the paprika and rounded out the tart zing of the tomatoes and tomato paste. Like the herdsman (in Magyar, gulyás ... fancy that) who ventured adding some Turkish spice (aka paprika) to his stew and unknowingly creating what would later become the national dish of Hungary, I felt quite traditional by going outside the comfort zone of the known and trying something new.

If you feel like trying this soup or, better still, doing some of your own tinkering of the base recipe, here's the breakdown of the food alchemy.

Not-so Traditional Pork Neck Soup
serves a small army ... probably at least 8-10 nice big bowls or generous leftovers
not-so-traditional Hungarian soup3# pork neck
kosher salt + black pepper (just random sprinkles & grinds to season)
2 heads garlic - roasted (includes 1 cup of broth listed later - details in steps for those not hep to garlic-roasting)
olive oil - just a smidge to brown the pork
1 head of cabbage (3-4#) - minced into small pieces
4 TBSP butter
3/8 - 1/2# Hungarian bacon - diced into little pieces*
1 onion - diced small (as mirepoix)
3 carrots - diced small (as mirepoix)
2 stalks celery - diced small (as mirepoix)
3 TBSP tomato paste
1 (28 oz) can of tomatoes (plus juice) - Smoosh them in hand into the pot to save time ... besides, it's kind of fun too.***
3 TBSP paprika (Hungarian sweet is highly recommended)**
1 tsp marjoram
1/8 tsp ground clove
5 cans chicken broth
4 carrots - sliced in bite-sized chunks
2 stalks celery - sliced in bite-sized chunks
4-5 potatoes (probably about 3-4# worth) - cut in bite-sized chunks (peels on or off depending on preference)

* Hungarian bacon is readily available at specialty shops and butchers (like Otto's in Burbank) or at Jon's market in the LA/Hollywood area (It is fantastically inexpensive, too, just look in the fridge with the funky ethnic sausages and such.). If Hungarian bacon is not available, the best substitute is a lower-salt slab bacon with a very soft smoke. Commercial strip bacon will often be too salty and have an overpowering faux-smoke or even hickory or molasses taste, which can really throw off the flavor balance.

** Most grocery stores will have Hungarian sweet paprika in the spice section, in the shelves beneath the mega-commercial brands. Look for the squarish red can marked "Szeged". Also, quality Hungarian paprika can be ordered from lots of great shops online in sweet to hot varieties from either Szeged or Kalosca, the main producing areas of the country.

*** For extra old-timey brownie-points and gold stars all around, if you feel up to it, instead of using canned tomatoes, roast 2# or so of halved Roma tomatoes and peel and seed before smooshing them into the pot. They will add a bit more intense tomato flavor, which would be a lovely thing. Don't forget to pour in all that delicious tomato water into the pot, too. Mmmm! 


1 - Season the pork with a light sprinkle of kosher salt and let it rest to lose chill before browning. Meanwhile, roast the garlic with a drizzle of olive oil, a sprinkle of salt, and 1 cup of broth in a 375º oven in a ramekin covered with foil for about and hour and a half to get super soft.

2 - In a large soup pot, brown the pork on all sides at MED HIGH and set aside as done. It should take a couple of batches to keep from crowding the meat, so the pot might get pretty hot. If it does, lower to MED to prevent burning. Before the next step, lower heat or turn off the burner to allow it and the pot to cool enough to prevent crisping the bacon and allow for the most rendering possible.

3 - On LOW, add the diced bacon pieces to the pot and stir often, letting the fat render out and not over-browning. If they are getting too dark and not releasing enough fat, reduce to a low SIMMER.

4 - Once bacon has rendered and it's starting to brown, add the diced onion, carrot, and celery with a sprinkle of salt and a few grinds of pepper and stir until the onions go clear. Then add the tomato paste and mix well to coat, letting it cook onto the veggies a bit before adding the tomatoes and juice.

5 - At this point, it is pretty important to pull the pot off the heat before adding the paprika. It burns easily, which will make it quite bitter, so you can prevent that by adding it to the top of ingredients and quickly adding liquid before returning to the heat. Add the paprika, marjoram, clove, cloves of roasted garlic, browned meat, and all the broth (including the garlic cooking broth). Mix well and return to heat at MED until it reaches a bubbling boil.

6 - Reduce to SIMMER for about 3 hours, stirring regularly (about every half-hour).

(Okay, this next bit is a bit wordy -so unusual for me *ha*- but is the best description of how I learned to do cabbage from watching and listening to the elder wimminz of the family. Like many old-school things, it's all about patience and reacting to the food by eye/scent instead of rigid time-frames.)

7 - About an hour or so into the simmering, take out another pot and melt the butter on LOW until it starts to foam, then add the cabbage in batches and stir while it starts to wilt. Once all the cabbage is added, give it a little sprinkle of kosher salt and a few grinds of pepper. Here is where the dish will get a little baby-sit-y, since cabbage can and will burn if left to its own devices for too long. It doesn't need to be loomed over, but will need a good stir at slowly reducing increments through the cooking process. At the start, while the water is cooking off, you can check on it about every 15 minutes or so. When the water is cooked out and you see a bit of a puddle at the bottom of the pot, it's probably time to check at 12 minutes or so. Once the water cooks off and you're treated to the sweet, buttery scent of the cabbage breaking down, start at every 10 minutes and eventually work down to about 5 minutes or so, based on how the cabbage is looking and smelling. Reduce to the lowest possible SIMMER if it's browning too fast or too far. By now, you should see the color turning a bit closer to a more brownish hue. This is very good and you want this to happen. Little flecks of dark brown bits may happen here and there, but you ideally want to stir before that. Too much brown is a dead giveaway the heat is too high.

If you're tired of minding cabbage, you can stop here and just let it hang out until the soup is done.

But, if you want to have the really sexy stuff and don't mind a bit of pot-looming (roux-makers, I'm looking at you), stand by after the slight tinge of brown is visible and stir every few minutes to prevent burning for another 15-30 minutes, until the cabbage is getting close to caramelized, has a deep savory, buttery sweetness and almost melts on your tongue. That's the super-good shit right there!

8 -  Once the 3 hours is up, remove the meat to cool and add the additional celery and carrots, as well as the potatoes, to the pot. When the meat is sufficiently cooled to handle, pull the meat off the bones and cut into pieces.

9 - Once the veggies are done to your liking, add the meat back into the pot along with the cabbage and serve to happy yum-yum noises. A nice little dollop of sour cream or yoghurt makes a sexy addition if you want to add a bit of creamy richness, too.

Hope you have some fun playing with traditional dishes, too. I'll be back next week with some variations on a few classic fancy-schmancy dishes to, hopefully, make them easier, more affordable, or (ideally) both. Meanwhile, happy foodgasms!