A Nourishing Twist on Czech Goulash and Dumplings
This week I attempted the Czech mainstay, goulash and dumplings. During the communist era, the dish was perhaps the most common stew on lunch cafeteria menus (or as Czechs call them, canteens). Like many recipes served throughout Czech history, goulash was meant to sustain the worker for long days on the fields or in factories. With a few adaptations, I lightened this recipe by Alzbeta Novak to fit a more modern, less physically straining lifestyle. I subbed greek yogurt for sour cream, tomato sauce for ketchup, and whole bone-in chicken thighs for chunks to help control portion size, and ensure that I had some juicy leftovers for lunch the following day.
In a city like Prague where winters can be biting and unforgiving, there are few dishes that warm the body and soul quite like goulash. Often served in a bread bowl or alongside an array of dumplings, this hearty staple is certainly a gut bomb that should be enjoyed with caution (you may want to have a bed nearby). In most Prague taverns, typical goulash is almost always made using beef, but for the purpose of making this dish a little more forgiving on my waistline, I went with a chicken version.
Despite its popularity in the Czech Republic, the dish’s origin is actually more related to Hungarian influence, as Prague was once the capital of the Austro-Hungarian empire. In fact, at first glance I was somewhat confused whether or not this recipe was actually Hungarian paprikás, due to the recipe’s call for a large amount of sweet paprika. Paprika is the mildest of the pepper spices, far softer than chili powder or cayenne. In the States, my experience with paprika was limited to its use as a garnish to add a pop of color to dishes like deviled eggs, tuna salad, and other drab recipes indicative of 1960s Americana. Goulash requires far from just a sprinkling, this is one of the few recipes I’ve encountered that relies on it.
It wasn’t until I was halfway through prepping when I realized that I had the wrong paprika. The recipe calls for sweet paprika, but since I don’t speak Czech and had some trouble translating the label on the package, I accidentally purchased smoked paprika instead. It was 8pm on a Sunday night and I already had my robe on and hair up, and I was most definitely not putting my shoes on to walk down to the potravini (Czech bodega, or corner store). I was going to macguever the hell outta this and all would be well. I took a page out of Mary Poppins and sung, “Just a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down” as I transformed the smoky flavor to reach the level of tangy sweetness that is representative of the dish. And alas, all was well.
Other than using it in Italian red sauce, I had very little experience working with marjoram. Marjoram’s flavor is similar to oregano, but less spicy and somewhat related to mint. Its delicate aroma and earthy flavor profile adds a unique dimension to goulash that separates it from any other meat stew. The sweetness of the marjoram coupled with fresh bell peppers and spicy cayenne brightens the recipe, and makes it less umami-driven and far more complex than its beef counterpart.
Alzbeta’s recipe suggests serving the goulash on a bed of pre-packaged gnocchi, but since I’m an all-or-nothing kinda gal, I attempted another Czech specialty, potato dumplings. Prior to moving to Prague, to me the term “dumpling” referred to oily Chinese potstickers or late night Ukrainian pierogis from the East Village’s Vselka. Czech dumplings are far from that. Most Czech dumplings, or Kledliki, are made entirely from either potato or bread, and are sliced rather than stuffed. (There is one type of dumpling that is stuffed with fruit jam, called ovocne knedliki, that is served as an entree and I’ll be cooking in the winter months). Czechs go crazy for knedliki, and one common question that servers ask is “4 or 6?” referring to the number of pieces that the diner would prefer. If you plan on visiting Prague, be careful not to overindulge in knedliki, or else you yourself may become a knedlik (the Czech expression for round person).
Even though most potato dumplings at restaurants resemble the look of thickly sliced potato bread, Alzbeta’s recipe calls for tennis ball-shaped orbs. I assume this is to make things a bit easier on the home cook, who may not have the tools or know-how to make the classic version. In order to manage the portion size further, I opted for smaller golf ball-sized dumplings, and believe they went well with the chicken goulash. My only gripe is that the recipe does not specify what kind of potatoes, or if they should be peeled prior to cooking. I used small yellow potatoes, but wonder how the consistently would shift with russet or another variety. I also included the skins, (mostly out of laziness) but believe the texture would be more consistent if those had been removed during prep.
Overall, the dish came out incredibly well, and easier than anticipated. I also believe this recipe is highly adaptable, with the right imagination. In the future I may try pairing the goulash with orzo, kasha, or even quinoa. For gluten free friends, the chicken’s dredging mixture may be substituted for tapioca starch or cassava flour. This recipe could be a satisfying vegetarian meal by holding the chicken and adding seitan or tempeh and vegetables like sweet potatoes, cauliflower, and squash.
For Chicken Coating:
4 chicken thighs
¼ teaspoon smoked paprika
Salt and ground black pepper, to taste
Flour, for dusting
3 tablespoons oil, divided
1 large bell pepper, seeded and chopped
1 large yellow onion, chopped
8 garlic cloves, minced
3-4 tablespoons flour
2 tablespoons tomato sauce
1 tablespoon marjoram
2 tablespoons smoked paprika, divided
1 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon pepper
4 cups chicken broth
Water, as required
1/3 cup Greek yogurt
1. Season chicken with paprika, salt and black pepper generously and then, dust with flour.
2. In a large pan, heat 2 tablespoons of oil and sear chicken thighs in batches for about 4-5 minutes.
3. Transfer chicken onto a plate.
4. In the same pan, heat remaining oil and sauté bell pepper and onion for about 4-5 minutes.
5. Add garlic and sauté for about 1 minute.
6. Stir in flour, tomato sauce, marjoram, paprika, sugar, cayenne, salt and black pepper and cook for about 3-5 minutes, stirring continuously.
7. Slowly, add broth, scraping brown bits from bottom of pan.
8. Add cooked chicken and bring to a boil.
9. Reduce heat and simmer for about 30 minutes.
10. In a bowl, add Greek yogurt and ½ cup of hot broth from pan and beat till well combined.
11. Add cream mixture into pan and cook till heated completely, stirring continuously.
12. Serve hot on top of a bed of potatoes, dumplings, gnocchi, pasta, or rice.
3 cups boiled potatoes (preferably without peels), mashed
3 cups all-purpose flour
1. In a large bowl, add potatoes and flour and with your hands, mix till dough is formed.
2. Make golf ball sized balls from mixture.
3. In a large pan of boiling water, add dumplings, one at a time and gently, stir to avoid sticking.
4. Again, bring to a boil and simmer for about 5 minutes.
5. With a slotted spoon, transfer dumplings onto a plate.
6. Serve warm.
Recipe Adapted from: Novak, Alzbeta. Czech Recipes: 48 of The Best Czech Recipes from a Real Czech Grandma: Authentic Czech Food All In a Comprehensive Czech Cookbook (p. 18). Kindle Edition.