It’s January, and it’s snowing lightly here. I was going to do a simple picnic for dinner, but that didn’t sound that comforting, frankly. Suddenly, the little dim bulb above my head glowed, and the perfect dish came to mind – Chicken Paprikash, a hearty answer to a cold winter night.
Like many great winter dinners, chicken paprikash, (Paprikás Csirke in Hungarian, and pronounced paprikash cheerke), is a farm meal at heart, and the heartbeat is Hungarian paprika. Way back in the 1500s, when new world food began to make its way to Europe, Hungarians were one of the earliest folk to embrace and cultivate chiles.
The paprika chile is relatively mild, anywhere from 250-1000 HSU on the Scoville scale – of course there are hotter variants out there – a chile head is a chile head, world around. Dried and powdered, it rightfully becomes the stuff of legendary flavors.
Here in the states, you’re commonly a bit hard pressed to find more than a couple Hungarian paprika variants, namely hot and sweet. Over there, there are seven recognized versions. Starting from the mildest and ending with the wildest, they are – Special Quality, Exquisite Delicate, Pungent Exquisite Delicate, Rose, Noble Sweet, Half-Sweet, Strong. Should you ever come upon those, snap them up – you’ve found a great source indeed.
What you want, when you can find it, is paprika from the Kalocsa region, which comes in bags like the one you see in the image below. This is extraordinarily good stuff, pungent and piquant. If you’re going to make a signature dish, it deserves great ingredients, and one simply cannot skimp on the paprika in paprikash. If you’ve got old paprika hanging around your pantry, please – don’t bother with it – toss it and get fresh. It’s that important.
Paprikash is, in fact, a variety of dishes made with meat, onions, lots of paprika, and sour cream, stewed low and slow. Many paprikash variants hail from south-central Hungary, the rich agricultural region where most of the paprika chiles are grown, including the legendary ones from Kalocsa and Szeged. The meat might be chicken, pork, lamb, or veal. While the original dish likely didn’t have tomato or sweet pepper included, some Hungarian cooks do. Like all great farm dishes, each cook puts their own stamp on things, just as you’ll do.
What are the non-negotiables for the dish? Some form of protein, generous portions of onion, garlic, and paprika, sour or heavy cream, salt, pepper, and stock or water – that’s it for ingredients. There are also some steps to the cooking that are must do’s, if you’re to fully appreciate all paprikash has to offer.
There are three important tips to great paprikash.
1 – You need far more paprika than most recipes call for – usually, it’s around a two or three tablespoons, tops. What you need is a quarter cup. It’s called paprikash, so paprika has to indisputably lead the parade.
2 – The paprika needs to be introduced and integrated in a specific step – early, in hot fat, and sautéed for a bit until it’s pungent. Doing that generates some nuances you won’t get otherwise, and assures that paprika is fully dispersed through the dish.
3 – Most recipes call for two or more cups of water or stock. If you cook this dish right, you won’t need that much much – it’ll generate its own. I have an ingenious clay cooker called a Yunnan steam pot. You load whatever you want in there, with no liquid – a low and slow, covered simmer generates all the stock you could want or need – that concept is what you’ll employ here, too. Chicken has a lot of bound liquid in it, (especially if you use legs and thighs) – cooking as we will do releases all that and makes a glorious dish.
Here stateside, you’ll find paprikash served over egg noodles probably 90% of the time, but over yonder, nokedli, a dumpling very similar to German spaetzle, would likely get the call. Nokedli is easy enough to make, so I’ll include a recipe in case you’re feeling especially frisky. Bottom line is that you can and should use what you’ve got and prefer – there’s no wrong choice in your kitchen.
This dish is perfect for using what you’ve got, so don’t guilt out if everything isn’t spot on – you’ll see I used chicken breast here, ‘cause that’s what I had – no harm, no foul.
A covered cast iron dutch oven or deep skillet is the cat’s meow for this dish, but any heavy stock or stew pot with a tight fitting lid will do just fine.
So here’s Urban Paprikash. Feel free to make it yours, but do follow the cooking steps closely.
Urban Chicken Paprikash
2 1/2 – 3 Pounds Chicken, (bone in, skin on Chicken legs and thighs preferred)
1 large Yellow Onion
3 fat cloves fresh Garlic
1 Red Bell Pepper
2-3 Tomatoes (about 1 1/2 Cups)
3/4 Cup Sour Cream (plus more for garnish)
1/2 Cup stock or water (whatever you’ve got is fine)
1/4 Cup Sweet Hungarian Paprika
2 Tablespoons Leaf Lard
1 slice dense white Bread
1 1/2 teaspoons sea salt
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
Fresh Parsley for garnish
Trim, peel and dice onion and sweet pepper.
Trim, peel and mince garlic.
Purée tomatoes with a stick blender.
Remove crusts from the slice of bread and put it in a shallow dish. Cover completely with stock, (whatever you’ve got is fine, and water will do if, gods forbid, you don’t have stock on hand). Let it sit and absorb while you do your thing.
In a dutch oven or deep cast iron skillet over medium heat, add lard and allow to melt and heat through.
Add onions and peppers, and a pinch of salt to the hot fat. Sauté, stirring steadily, until the onion starts to brown at the edges, about 6-8 minutes.
Add the garlic and the paprika and stir well to incorporate. The mix will thicken appreciably as a result.
Add chicken to the Pan and drag each piece through the fat/veggie/paprika blend to thoroughly coat.
Place chicken in a solid, single layer across the bottom of the Pan.
Add tomatoes, stock, a teaspoon of salt, and the pepper – stir to incorporate, but don’t displace the chicken.
Cover the pan and turn the heat down to low. Allow the dish to stew covered for 45 minutes.
Prep whatever you’re putting your stew on – pasta, nokedli, or spuds. They can be cooked off and held warm.
Uncover and check chicken for doneness – it should be fork tender and pull easily away from the bones. If it’s not there, re-cover and stew another 15 minutes.
Carefully transfer chicken to a platter.
You should have about 1 1/2 to 2 cups of liquid in the sauce at this point – If you don’t, add stock or water to get there.
Add the sour cream to the paprikash and whisk to incorporate.
Taste and adjust salt, pepper, and paprika as desired.
Add the stock soaked bread, (which should be pretty much be falling apart at this point), and whisk to incorporate – This is your thickener, by the way.
Add the chicken back into the paprikash, thoroughly coating each piece.
If you’re doing noodles or nokedli, add enough sauce to whichever you chose to thoroughly coat them.
Arrange in a bowl, with chicken on top, a dollop of sour cream, and a sprig of parsely.
Serve with fresh crusty bread, because there’s no way your leaving and sauce in that bowl.
A potato ricer or noodle grater is great for these. If you don’t have one, you can push ‘em through the holes in a colander or cooks spoon.
2 Cups All Purpose Flour
4 large Eggs
1 Tablespoon Vegetable Oil
2 teaspoons Sea Salt
Have all ingredients at room temperature.
Fill a stock pot with at least 6” of water, add the 1 teaspoon salt and the oil.
Place the pot on a burner over high heat.
In a large mixing bowl, combine flour and 1 teaspoon salt.
Add eggs and 1/2 cup water to the dry mix.
Mix with a wooden spoon – you’re after a wet dough that will pour easily – add more water, up to another 1/2 cup, as needed to get to the right consistency
Stir the dough with the spoon until you get an even texture throughout.
Let the dough rest for about 10 minutes.
You’ll cook the nokedli in batches.
Position your colander of cooks spoon over the boiling water and place a blob of dough in the middle of your utensil.
Use the back of a soup spoon to squash the dough through the holes of your utensil and into the boiling water.
Keep loading the boiling vessel but don’t over crowd it – a third of the total is good for a single batch.
Gently stir the dumplings to keep them from sticking.
When the nokedli bob to the surface, give them another minute of cooking, then test one – they should be springy in texture, not rubbery.
When done, transfer with a slotted spoon to a lightly oiled bowl.
Keep after it until you’ve done all your dough.
These can be made ahead, and refrigerated or frozen.