Beef goulash with nokedli

Goulash and nokedliA complicated set of circumstances saw me having to leave China after a week and flying straight to Hungary. Budapest is a beautiful city, but it’s not somewhere I’d recommend for those of you who travel to eat; menus around the city bear identical lists of paprika-heavy casseroles, and there’s not much in the way of haute cuisine. I found two standout restaurants, one in Buda and one in Pest. Café Pierrot, up in the castle district in Buda, is a pricey cellar restaurant with a pretty garden and a French chef, where you’ll find the best foie gras preparations we ate in the city (and Hungary is the biggest producer and consumer of the stuff per capita in the world). And Café Kör, down in Pest by the basilica, has a menu of Austro-Hungarian classics with a really charming wine bar atmosphere.

I really don’t mean to slam paprika-heavy casseroles above (and given that I’ve made one here, you can probably see that I’m actually rather fond of them) – they only get tired after a week or so. I became horribly addicted to nokedli, a spaetzle-ish kind of tiny dumpling, while we were in Budapest. They’re a perfect accompaniment to these rich, dense casseroles, so I swiped a nokedli recipe off the back of a nokedli maker in a Buda craft market (stupidly, I didn’t buy the nokedli maker, which would have meant an easier time for my and Dr W’s ladling arms when it came to making this) and made up a goulash to go with them. If you don’t fancy nokedli with your meal, the casserole is very easy and will go beautifully with rice or with mashed potatoes.

A note on goulash and etymology. The word comes from the Hungarian gulyás (pronounced as we in the UK pronounce goulash – Hungarian is one of those languages where none of the consonants and very few of the vowels do what you think they will), which means cow-herd. If you order a goulash in Hungary you’ll either get a a beef or veal soup, which may or may not contain paprika, or an un-thickened stew with beef, veal and vegetables. The paprika casserole which we in the UK call a goulash is called a papricás (pronounced “paprikash”) or pörkölt – it’s also a dish which originates with Hungarian herdsmen, but somehow the word goulash has come to embrace it over here. I know at least one Hungarian out there (hello Andras) who will probably find something horribly inauthentic about the casserole I’ve made here, but I think you’ll like it nonetheless.

To serve six (it’s worth making plenty – this is an easy recipe which freezes well), you’ll need:

1kg beef braising steak, chopped into pieces
3 tablespoons plain flour
4 onions
2 tablespoons sweet paprika
1 teaspoon hot paprika
1 teaspoon sugar
4 cloves garlic
2 bay leaves
1 teaspoon caraway seeds
3 tablespoons tomato purée
250ml white wine
750ml stock (vegetable, chicken or beef)
Zest and juice of 1 lemon
Soured cream/creme fraiche to dollop
Olive oil/bacon fat to brown the meat

4 eggs
1 teaspoon salt
350ml cold water
500g plain flour

Preheat the oven to 160ºC (320ºF).

Dust the meat with the flour and a generous seasoning of salt and pepper. Bring the olive oil or bacon fat to a high heat in a large, thick-bottomed pan, and brown the meat all over (you’ll probably need to do this in a few batches to avoid crowding the pan), removing the browned meat to a bowl.

Reduce the heat to a medium flame, and in the same pan, sauté the onions until they are translucent. Tip the paprika, tomato purée, sugar, garlic, bay and caraway seeds into the onions and continue to sauté for a minute. Return the meat and any juices to the pan.

Pour the wine over the contents of the pan, and using a wooden spoon, scrape away to deglaze any flavoursome brown bits that have stuck to the bottom. Pour over the stock, and bring to a simmer. Cover with a well-fitting lid and put the casserole in the oven for two hours. Check and stir occasionally, and top up with a little water if you think the stew is becoming too dry.

After the two hours are up, add the juice and zest of a lemon, and taste for seasoning. Set aside and heat up when you are ready to eat.

To make the nokedli, put the eggs, salt and water in a large bowl and use a hand whisk to beat the mixture thoroughly. Add the flour a couple of tablespoons at a time until it is all incorporated. You will have a thick, wet dough.

Bring a large pan of water to a rolling boil. If you have a spaetzle or nokedli maker, now’s the time to bring it out. If you don’t, don’t panic; just get a colander out, spoon a ladleful of the mixture into the bottom of the colander, and use the ladle to push the mixture through the colander straight into the boiling water. It will snake out of the colander’s holes in little pieces, which will swell as they hit the water. The colander process can take a fair amount of elbow grease (this is why you might want to buy yourself a nokedli maker), but I like to think I’m mindfully burning off calories in advance of eating far too much. Most of the calories that got burned off here belonged to the chivalrous Dr W, who was probably getting tired of the swearing coming from the kitchen, and took over after a few minutes.

The nokedli are ready as soon as they float to the top of the boiling water. Fish them out with a slotted spoon and keep them in a bowl in a warm place as you work your way through the mixture. You can serve the finished nokedli as they are, or warm them through in a knob of butter in a frying pan, without browning.

Serve the goulash over the nokedli, with a generous splodge of soured cream spooned on top. A sprinkling of oregano and parsley can give this dish a lovely lift, but you may well find you don’t need it.

Nan Xiang dumplings, Shanghai

Xiao long bao
Xiao long bao

Xiao long bao, or soup dumplings, are an emblematic piece of Shanghai cuisine. They’re a testament to the chef’s skill – ideally, the dumpling will have a thin, thin skin which gives instantly to the teeth, but still has enough integrity to hold in a spoonful of soup alongside the dense pork filling. That soup doesn’t appear until the dumplings are cooked; it’s created when a jellied stock, which is solid when cold, is mixed in with the meat filling, melting with the heat from steaming.

There’s a bit of etiquette involved in eating a Xiao long bao. Pick the bun up by the “knot” on the top with your chopsticks, dip it in the black vinegar and shredded ginger mixture on your table, and place the bun in your little spoon. Use chopsticks or teeth to make a little hole in the side of the bao, allowing the rich soup to leak out into the spoon. Eat the dumpling (carefully – if cooked properly, it should be hot enough to fetch the skin off your tongue) and slurp the soup from the spoon.

Xiao long bao are available all over the city, and some are much, much better than others on offer. I had some surprisingly good ones alongside some surprisingly bad ones at the surprisingly grotty Hilton (unfortunately, while they’d turned out enjoyable, if somewhat MSG-tacular dumplings for a couple of days, they screwed up on our last morning and the few I had there for breakfast on our last day turned out to be tepid, resulting in an 11-hour flight spent developing a close relationship with the airline toilet. Learn the lesson I didn’t – don’t eat a tepid dumpling).

Queues of locals snaking out of a restaurant are a great sign. If you’re visiting the People’s Square or the excellent Shanghai Museum, head for Jia Jia Tan Bao – you’ll spot the restaurant long before you get there from its queue. My favourites were the dumplings at Nan Xiang (sometimes transliterated as Nanxiang), probably Shanghai’s most celebrated dumpling stop.

Dumpling chefs
Dumpling chefs at Nan Xiang

Nan Xiang is an institution that the city is so proud of that a canteen-style branch has been set up at the 2010 Expo, in the middle of a very satisfying food court arrangement. It’s well worth locating if you’re visiting the 5.28 square kilometres that make up the largest ever world’s fair – you’ll need the fat, carbs and protein to get you to the other end.

In the city proper, you’ll find Nan Xiang near the Yu Yuan gardens in the Old Town God’s Temple precinct. No matter when you visit, there will be a queue. Check whether the queue you have joined is for the take-out window or for the restaurant itself, which is upstairs. As you work your way higher and higher up in the restaurant, you’ll find the offerings on the menu become more complicated, so we queued for the third floor, where crab-roe buns are the speciality. If you’re not too fussed about crab roe and just want to sample the pork buns, stop at the second floor, from which you’ll get a great view of the zig-zag Jiuqu bridge.

There are photographs of the dishes on the wall you’ll be queuing alongside, which is helpful in the face of the eccentric English menu (the buns are referred to as “characteristic dessert” – they’re characteristic, but they’re sure as hell not dessert). We ended up with a big steamer full of the traditional pork buns, some crab roe, vegetable and tofu parcels deep-fried to a marvellous lightness (the menu calls these spring rolls), and a plate of superb baked rice-flour and sesame buns filled with cashew nut and garlic chives, all flavoured with a rich sauce.  Someone at an adjacent table was wrestling with a giant, fist-sized bun full of crab roe and pork with a straw sticking out of the top to suck the soup out with, which convenience left him howling as it precision-poached his soft palate. Exercise caution with hot substances and straws.

You’ll find yourself paying RMB 15 (about £1.50) per bamboo steamer. Plus the air fare, of course. If you’re in London and find you simply can’t manage without a plate of xiao long bao, head for Leong’s Legends in Chinatown’s Macclesfield St – they’re no Nan Xiang, but they make the best I’ve found yet in the UK.

Peking dumplings

It’s nearly Christmas. The family is descending upon the Uptonarium, and this calls for finger foods which I can freeze and cook quickly, with the minimum of fuss. Not for me, though, the supermarket mini-samosa or the tiny quiche in a box. I’m making Peking dumplings; lovely little pockets exploding with Chinese flavours, which are fried golden and crisp on one side, and steamed soft and tender on the other. In the north of China, these are traditionally eaten on New Year’s Day. Here in the south of England, we’re going to be eating them on Christmas Eve; infinitely nicer than the traditional glass of sherry and a carrot.

These dumplings freeze, uncooked, brilliantly, and, being tiny, defrost very quickly for cooking. If you’re freezing them, you can do the final, cooking step once your dumplings have defrosted. Try them as an alternative to sausage rolls.

For sixty Peking dumplings (I am informed that Americans call these ‘pot-stickers’), you’ll need:

Wonton wrappers
You can either buy sixty wonton wrappers in the Chinese supermarket, or make your own, as I did, using:
1lb very strong white bread flour
1 1/2 cups water

1lb minced pork
1/4 white cabbage, chopped finely
15 spring onions, chopped finely
1 small tin water chestnuts, chopped finely
1 bulb garlic (about ten cloves), chopped finely
2 in piece of ginger, peeled and chopped finely
1 teaspoon caster sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon msg (leave out if you really must)
2 tablespoons light soy sauce
2 tablespoons Chinese rice wine (substitute cooking sherry if you can’t find any)
1 tablespoon sesame oil

Start by mixing the bread flour and water into a soft, but not sticky, dough, adding more flour or water if your dough is sticky or dry. The resulting dough should be as soft as the plump bit at the heel of your thumb. Set aside in a covered bowl for the gluten to develop.

Chop all the filling ingredients to the same size. You should end up with around the same amount of vegetables as you have pork. Using your hands (I hope you took your rings off to mix the dough, or your diamonds are going to be set in a lovely crusty dumpling mixture), squish the whole lot together until it’s well mixed and holding together loosely. Don’t worry about adding eggs or anything else to bind; the wrappers will keep everything together for you.

Set the filling mixture to one side for the flavours to mingle while you prepare the wonton skins.

There’s a reason you used strong bread flour; the gluten in it will give you a very smooth, tough dough, which stretches easily and doesn’t break and snap. Looking at your ball of dough, I realise it is hard to imagine that you’ll get sixty bits out of it large enough to make into wrappers. Trust me; you will. It’s stretchy stuff. Start by dividing it into two, then divide each of those bits into three. The remaining small pieces are easy to chop into ten equal-sized bits.

Roll each piece into a rough circle on a floury board. You don’t need to be terribly accurate with these; the tops will be frilly anyway, so don’t worry if, like me, you suddenly start acting like someone with fewer than the full complement of fingers when faced with dough and a rolling pin. When you’ve rolled your little wrapper, put it on a plate; you can stack the others on top of it and they won’t stick together.

When all your wrappers are made, put one on the board and place a teaspoon of the mixture (this is quite easy to judge if you make the spoonful about the size of the ball of dough that went to make up one wrapper) in the middle of it. Moisten a semicircle around the edge of the dough (don’t moisten all the way round or it won’t stick), and push the two halves of the circle together, crimping the edges as you go.

I am full of admiration for dim sum chefs, with their lightness of finger and artistry when faced with wrappers. Some of them even make them look like fish or little bunny rabbits. My own are always functional, and never pretty. Anyway; crimp away, and if you’re even half good at this, you’ll end up with something that looks prettier than this picture.

At this point, you can freeze the little dumplings. Line a container with floured greaseproof paper, put a layer of dumplings in, cover with more floured greaseproof paper, add another layer and so on until the container is full. Defrost before continuing to the next stage.

To cook, heat some vegetable oil in a thick-bottomed, non-stick (there is a reason the Americans call these things pot-stickers) frying pan, and when it is hot, slide the dumplings in carefully in one layer, their bottoms in the sizzling fat and their frilly tops pointing upwards. After about five minutes, pour water into the pan until it reaches halfway up the sides of the dumplings. Simmer over a medium heat without a cover until all the water has evaporated. The tops will be delicately steamed and the bottoms brown and crisp. Remove with a slotted skimmer.

These dumplings are traditionally served with black vinegar. (Chinese black vinegar, not the stuff you heathens put on chips.) I enjoy them with a good, sweet, bottled chili sauce mixed with a little soya sauce, alongside a nice cold beer.