Taking goulash to new heights

Apr. 08, 2014 @ 10:24 AM

What if I told you that you could cook a dish better than a world-famous chef?
And what if I told you it’s a one-pot meal, that’s both cheap and easy?
The chef is Chef Boyardee, and the dish is beefaroni (wait … stay with me, I’m going someplace with this).
As well as beefaroni, the dish goes by many names, depending on where you eat it; traveling man’s hash, American chop suey, and beefy mac. In our family, it’s known as goulash.
I know that this dish is neither exciting nor gourmet, but the lesson it teaches should inform all your cooking. 
Originally my mom prepared her goulash by combining browned ground beef, cooked elbow macaroni, garlic powder, and canned tomatoes. She mixed everything in a Dutch oven and cooked it until she was satisfied it was done.
When I was in high school, I suggested the addition of mushrooms. This was also when I began adding sour cream to my bowl.
After I got married and began cooking for Petey and me, I switched out the garlic powder for fresh, sliced garlic. But the method of preparation remained the same.
As I learned to cook, though, each time I made goulash I would tweak the procedure. This continued until I felt sure I had wrung out every last bit of flavor available.

Elevated Goulash

1 pound 80/20 ground beef
1 28oz can of diced tomatoes
1 pound mushrooms, sliced, any type
½ yellow onion, chopped
6 cloves garlic, sliced
3 cups uncooked cavatappi or corkscrew pasta
¾ cup sherry
Low salt beef stock
1 teaspoon dried thyme
2 teaspoons finely chopped fresh rosemary
1 large bay leaf
Salt & pepper
Sour cream (for topping)

Heat a large heavy-bottomed pot, then season and brown ground beef in it.  While the beef is cooking, open the can of tomatoes, and strain juice into another bowl.  Set both tomatoes and juice aside.
Once cooked, remove hamburger with slotted spoon.  Leave the fat in the pan, and continue to heat until all the water has cooked off, leaving only a couple of tablespoons of fat.  Add mushrooms and herbs, then season, and cook until all the liquid from the ‘shrooms has cooked out.  Add onions, and cook until veg starts to caramelize.  Stir in garlic and cook just until fragrant.
Pour tomatoes (but not juice yet) into pot along with veggies.  Season.  Stir and cook until tomatoes have darkened, any additional juice has cooked off, and there is a good bit of brown stuff (fond) sticking to the pot bottom (5-8 minutes).
Turn up heat, and deglaze pot with sherry.  You want to do this after adding tomatoes because they have alcohol soluble flavors that only emerge when they meet some hooch.  Scrape the fond off the bottom and cook until all the wine has evaporated.
At this point put back the hamburger, pour in the reserved tomato juice, and add the pasta.  You want the pasta uncooked for 2 reasons.  When the meal is done, the pasta will be cooked, but not overcooked.  And cooking it in the dish will flavor the pasta all the way through.
Pour in the beef stock just until everything is covered with liquid.
Lower to a simmer, and cook uncovered until the sauce has slightly thickened and the noodles are cooked (about 15-20 minutes).  Stir frequently.
Taste for seasoning and serve in bowls with a dollop of sour cream.  Feeds 6 as a main course, with leftovers.
Do you ever wonder why when you dine out the food tastes so much better than when it’s prepared at home?
Well of course part of it is that you’re eating out, and somebody else is doing all the work and cleanup.
But there’s another reason, one that you can duplicate at your own home.
At a restaurant where they both know and love food, care is taken to elevate every single ingredient. They nurture each component, cramming in the maximum amount of flavor.
Yup, it does take some extra time.  But you get a huge return on your investment.  Because if you don’t, you’re only tasting a fraction of the dish’s potential.

Thanks for your time.

Debbie Matthews lives, writes and cooks in Durham. Her email address is momsequitur@gmail.com.