WITH LOVE AND PAPRIKA
(number 70. november.)
This entry takes its name from Joe Pasternak’s 1966 cookbook, Cooking With Love and Paprika. Joe was a Hungarian living in the states, writing what attempts to be an all-purpose cookbook, but with strong roots to his heritage. I found it for $2 at a book sale somewhere, and have been lugging it around for years. It is known amongst my friends that I love Hungarian food. At the root of this love is Novak’s, about which I’ve done a little piece for my next book.
When people asked me why I was going to Hungary, or why I was so interested in Hungarian food, I had to explain that I remember eating Hungarian food before I remember eating, say, Chinese Food, or Mexican Food, or any other significantly-more-ubiquitous “foreign” cuisine to US (except, of course, Italian. Perhaps I’ll wax nostalgic about that childhood restaurant in another piece). This happened at Novak’s.
Novak’s was opened a few years before I was born by a couple who fled Hungary in the middle of the Cold War, and chose Albany, Oregon of all places for their new home. My parents had found out about it almost immediately. I actually cannot remember a time when we didn’t go there on the way to or from Portland. We had family friends, The Morgans, who lived in Portland, with a son the age, who we would often go visit. On the way, we’d stop at Novak’s. Or on the way home, we’d stop at Novak’s. Sometimes both.
My memories of the place during my childhood are quite hazy. I can see a small room, with low ceilings and maybe wood paneling, and the proprietor actually a few feet from our table, playing accordion, or concertina. These are my earliest “I could have danced all night” memories. I would eat the beef stuffed cabbage rolls, the chicken parprikas, and the tangy cucumber salad with gusto. I think I understood from an early age that this wasn’t standard fair. My mother had done a study program in Yugolsalvia in college (yes, when that area of the world was Yugoslavia) and had nostalgia for Central and Eastern Europe, even though she hadn’t been to Hungary.
As an overweight middle schooler, I would order the “Shepherd’s Platter,” which featured sausages, cabbage rolls, AND chicken paprikas on ONE PLATE. After high school, as vegetarianism set in, my order morphed to Hungarian pearl noodles with dill cream sauce and the signature tangy cucumber salad. For a while the restaurant moved to a very large, characterless building in a shopping center. The only good thing about this was that you could always get a table! Recently, the family moved the restaurant once again, now to a charming exposed-brick building, which they happen to own, in the historic downtown. It is a quiet gem.
More on why I wanted to cook this Hungarian food:
When Bar Tartine was open in San Francisco, it was my favorite restaurant in America, if not the world. It was a weird concept: Hungarian and Japanese influenced food with California ingredients, but it really really worked. Their approach of creating building blocks within dishes– sauces, powders, ferments– and using them to explosively delicious effect, in dishes you actually want to dig into (not just “taste” a la molecular gastronomy) is majorly inspiring. Since their cookbook was published in 2014, I’ve been using it regularly and its appearances are peppered throughout these pages.
I went to Budapest for the second time in the summer of 2018. I was traveling alone, and didn’t know anyone there- so my time was entirely spent eating and chasing literary ghosts. The literary ghosts? The Paul Street Boys by Ferenc Molnar, a children’s novel of classic status there but due do the frank treatment of tragedy almost entirely unknown now outside of Hungary. Also the travels of Patrick Leigh Fermor, whose memoirs A Time of Gifts and Between The Woods and The Water, which describe his youthful journey across Europe and extensive time spent in Hungary, really do it for me. The eating? Well, I could go on all day day, but for this block of text I’ll just say it inspired the food we ate in Ariela’s tiny upstairs apartment on a gorgeous golden day in November.
Paprika 3 ways
This dish was inspired by an afternoon snack I had in Budapest one afternoon. Paprika potato chips, fresh sweet peppers, and paprika cheese dip. I’d made the dip before, from the Bar Tartine cookbook, so I was familiar with it as a thing. In Budapest I’d seen it sold by the cup for snacking at the St. Stephen’s Day festival, and then by the ounce at a stall in the Great Market Hall. Wrapped in beautiful paper and folded into the perfect little parcel, it was remarkably lovely. I had it with a crisp tallboy of Pilsner. It was hot, it was August.
Now here we are, at the beginning of an autumn multi-course meal. We got our potato chips from Horse Brass pub, who make the best fresh chips in town. Seasoned while still hot with some of the stash of sweet paprika I brought back with me.
The dip is the recipe from Bar Tartine, with the addition of Cypress Grove fresh goat cheese. The peppers were Oregon grown organic peppers from People’s Food Co Op.
Spiced fried trout with stewed peppers
Inspired by two river-fish meals I had in Hungary. One, at the St. Stephen’s Day food festival, of grilled fish served with lesco (Hungarian ratatouille) and fermented hot sauce. Another, on my last night in the country, at a very traditional old restaurant where the chairs were carved from old growth Transylvanian trees. The fish there was breaded in a spicy mixture and fried. Eaten with traditional cucumber salad, which we served next, so this dish could touch on both experiences.
Here we had deep fried strips of fresh rainbow trout (using a spicy breading and kefir), served with lesco made using red, yellow, and orange peppers– some cooked with the onions, others blistered and added later, others simmered slowly in the sauce. Whole tomatoes and assorted Hungarian paprikas were used to season the dish.
Lucas made mysterious fermented hot sauce that tasted exactly like the Hungarian stuff.
Traditional cucumber salad
This is one of the only instances of us serving a totally-out-of-season vegetable in Secret Restaurant’s history. But cucumber salad is such an essential part of Hungarian cuisine, it would have been a foolish disservice to leave it out. We were lucky to find organic, thin skinned cucumbers from California at People’s.
Thinly sliced and brined in salt and their own juices. Thin strips of raw onion added halfway through. Drained lightly, and finished with white wine vinegar and parsley. A dollop of sour cream and a pinch of paprika.
I made another experimental Tartine-Inspired loaf. This one was spelt-wheat-walnut bread. A riff on the “spelt-wheat” bread of Tartine Book n.3, but with even more spelt, and the walnut-variation on the basic country bread from Tartine Bread.
Buckwheat dumplings with paprikas sauce
We were directly inspired by Nicolas Balla and Cortney Burns’s recipe in the Bar Tartine book. Instead of goose livers and schmaltz, we used freshly foraged chanterelle mushrooms (thanks to our pal Al Pomper) fried in Duck Fat. Blitzed with sprouted and then cooked buckwheat groats, formed into dumplings, steamed, and then pan-fried in suet Lucas rendered himself.
One of two Hungarian dishes Americans are familiar with is “Chicken paprikas” (the other “Goulash”), where chunks of chicken are simmered in this sour-creamy paprika sauce. It is often eaten with noodles. This is very good, but Nicolas and Cortney’s recipe is so much deeper and more complex. So many things go into this sauce– from chicken skin to potatoes and an entire cup of paprika.
We served the sauce with a sour cream to mix in on your own, with dumplings and suet-fried mushrooms (“fried chicken” and “hen of the woods”), finished with chives from The Whiskey Farm.
Autumn “spoon salad”
Celeriac, black radishes, turnips, red and orange carrots, radicchio, shaved Brussels sprouts, freshly roasted chestnuts, and a dressing of shallot-infused wine vinegar and walnut oil.
Pickles and more
Fresh pickles: pears pickled in wine vinegar, celery pickled in apple cider vinegar, and assorted peppers pickled with hot chilis and pink peppercorns.
Pearl noodles with mushroom soup
Fresh noodles, made slightly drier than regular pasta dough, using eggs bought from Red Neck Farm on the McKenzie river the previous weekend (the Whiskey Farm chickens are taking a break for the winter).
Lucas’s Polish family makes traditional mushroom soup every Christmas, and he’s been making versions of it since he first learned how to cook.
We used a combination of chanterelles foraged by our pal Al, crimini and oysters mushrooms from Hood River Organics via People’s Food Co-Op, and some of my stash of dried mushrooms from various sources- but including lobster mushrooms from the coast range and porcini from the Wallowas in Eastern Oregon.
We can’t reveal all the secrets to the soup, but I will share these three bits of information.
1. It’s all about multiple kinds of mushrooms.
2. You add vinegar to brighten the soup, and cream to smooth it out with fat. But you’ve got to be careful that the vinegar doesn’t curdle the cream, so you always add the cream after the soup has cooled down from a boil.
3. Sour cream at the very end brings things back to tangy, while adding the last flush of richness.
Persimmon and apple cookie situation
I have a krumkake maker, which is a circular, pattered cookie mold with two handles that you use by balancing it over an open flame. A silly thing to own, perhaps. Sofie has been trying to talk me into getting rid of it for years.
A special shoutout to Holly Meyers who, in addition to taking these lovely photographs, made the majority of the krumkake while we were dishing up the previous two courses. It was one of those tasks, like at all Secret Restaurant events, which we really meant to do earlier. But as the afternoon rolled towards it’s middle, we just packed up the dough and threw the maker in a tote bag.
Each krumkake was served on a checkered piece of paper with a slice of walnut butter (toasted walnuts whipped with French cultured butter and a maple syrup, a little brown sugar) and persimmon/apple compote.
A circle of fresh apple from Old World Apples plus a sprinkling of paprika finished things off dandily.
We had a magical little afternoon time going selecting these wines. Victor was like “Y’know, I have some Hungarian wines and I can get you more Hungarian wines, but it’s not my specialty. Let me just call this guy who is really into these wines and has been all around Hungary.” He calls the guy, and less than 10 minutes later the guy shows up with a cooler full of open bottles for tasting. The pros used their spit cup but Lucas and I can’t help but do the whole tastes, and we leave mildly shitfaced. When the dinner came a week later, we had this incredible mixed case of remarkably delicious wines from exactly the region we were exploring waiting for us. The only one that wasn’t from Hungary was from Serbia, just over the border, and actually tasted like dill. I never thought that I’d say “the best wine I drank last year was a cold red wine from Serbia that tasted like dill,” but times change, and I did say that.
Again, these wines came from Ardor Natural Wines, where YOU ought to start shopping for your wines. Go see Victor. He's the guy with the fantastic hair in the photo on far left in the last row above. The shop is located inside/behind Shop Boswell, at 729 SE Morrison St.
Please enjoy this slideshow of Will experiencing how good the wine was.
We did a Hungarian dinner before I ever visited Hungary, in the first year of this project– #13! To see the bad 2000s-digital-camera photos (but the pretty cool looking menu!) and how far we’ve come, read that here.
• Ariela Rose, for hosting in this magical and unusual space. She literally moved all of the things out of the bedroom so we could set up in there. The kitchen and its décor couldn’t have been more perfect for preparing this meal.
• Holly Myers, who stepped in and took the photographs for this and the next two dinners!
The following is a piece about eating in Budapest written for my next book. The experience it describes inspired the feasting fervor which took place on the night of this Secret Restaurant, so it feels appropriate to end on this note.
Grilled fish plate:
The man is grilling fish as fast as he can. As a result, there is a certain anguish on his face. He will grill this fish to be perfect, and that will not be fast. It pains him to see the crowds forming, each new person to make their way to the front ask for fish and be told they must wait. His jaunty Hungarian hat is tipped forward and a bit to the side. The sweat rolls off of his forehead. He flips the fish, one at a time, he flips the fish.
I am one of the customers who came up just as the previous batch had been sold, so I am high in line for the next. A few people ahead of me getting their orders, and suddenly the woman makes eye contact with me and says, in sparse English: “fish– peppers – potato?” I nod. She loads up my plate with perfect little new potatoes. They have been boiled in broth, grilled briefly, dowsed in butter and chopped parsley.
This is followed by lescos, the Hungarian ratatouille–onions tomatoes, red, orange, and yellow peppers–cooked to perfection with sweet paprika. As she sets the plate on the counter, the man behind the grill carries over my fish. It is a whole perch. The grill marks are distinct– one can tell just how crisp it will be at a glance. He drops it on the plate and moves back to the grill, as the lady dowses the smoking hot fish in shallot-steeped white wine vinegar. I take a few generous spoonfuls of the fermented spicy pepper condiment they have sitting out by the cash register.
The heat radiates from the plate to my face. The day has been hot but it has just started to cool, so this new heat brings the sweat back to my pores as I climb the hill. I am moving away from the terrible Central European pop-rock music they are blasting over the loudspeakers for this festival. The only way to escape is to walk further and further away, find a wall to hide behind. Eventually I see the perfect place to sit, perched sort of on a wall, where a path leads downward towards the other side of the hill. The air is cooler here.
I stick my fork in the fish. The skin actually crackles as it breaks, and steam rushes out. I drag my fork through the fermented pepper sauce and take a bite. The flesh is succulent and tender, absolutely perfectly cooked. The sauce is explosively delicious. I go in for the lescos, and a potato, then fully realize how special this plate of food is. The rest of the plate is spent in a sort of confused revery– not sure whether to savor the experience or get into a sort of animalistic zone and just eat wildly while it is smoking hot. I end up doing something in between, slowing down here and there, then diving maniacally into it again.