EVERYTHING IS GOING TO BE OKAY: Comfort me with goulash

I devour books by chefs like I sometimes try to make and devour their recipes. There’s something about a chef’s appetite for life that’s alluring. Some favorites are by Bill Buford (“Dirt” and “Heat”), Gabrielle Hamilton’s “Bread Bones and Butter” and anything by Ruth Reichl. Her “Tender at the Bone,” “Garlic and Sapphires” and “Save Me the Plums” are akin to having the opportunity of sitting at the knee of a perfect observer of what matters in life (read: family dinner).

Virginia Buckingham

Which brings me to goulash. If I could write a chef’s memoir, which I can’t because I’m a recipe follower, not one who is at ease playing with the combinations of “Salt, Acid, Fat, Heat” (h/t Samin Rosnat), I’d riff off of Reichl’s “Comfort Me with Apples.” But I’d sub in Hungarian goulash instead. Yes. Goulash.

When was the last time you made or had the dish? For me, it was probably when my kids were little. But the time I remember was making it for David when we were first married and living in an apartment in Boston. I was quite proud of my effort in the little galley kitchen but when I served it, David said it wasn’t firm enough. That’s how they served it in his elementary school, he said, and it wasn’t called goulash, it was called American Chop Suey. We were new at the marriage thing — it takes, what, a month to learn not to criticize your spouse’s cooking? I got up from the table and went into the bedroom and slammed the door. I vowed never to make goulash for him again, or whatever they called it in that godforsaken school he went to.  

But I did for my kids once in a while, because it was easy and filling, a way to warm them inside on a cold evening. 

My mom made goulash all the time, stretching the cheap ground beef to feed our big crew. Like Shake ‘n Bake pork chops, chicken drumsticks covered with Campbell’s mushroom soup or beef stew with Bisquick dumplings, it was fine dining in that it was certainly “fine,” not gourmet. To me, it’s the definition of comfort food.

I subscribe to the New York Times cooking newsletter and have the app. Every few days, I get a newsletter in my inbox from the Times’ cooking curators. The newsletter is a list of recipes aligned with the month or season or holiday, and, wonderfully, it’s often a lyrical rundown of spices and flavors and methods that are reminiscent of a cook’s memoir. Like the magazines filling the racks in the supermarket, last week the theme was, unsurprisingly, fall comfort food. 

What was surprising is the recipe that topped the newsletter’s list of recipes — Hungarian goulash. The writer extolled the virtue of bright, sweet paprika, like it was the key to a long life and maybe it is.

I got a kick out of the reaction of a friend by text whom I share recipes and pictures of finished dinners with. “I saw that in NYT,” he wrote, “How is it? I grew up eating that. My mom threw crap in a skillet and hoped for the best.”

I made it last Sunday, and marveled at the direction to cook the macaroni right in the sauce. One less pan to clean! I thought the ratio of pasta to meat (I subbed ground turkey) was perfect and not too firm, just how it should be if you’re not in third grade. I ate it for dinner, and then for lunch two more days in a row. 

It felt like I was giving myself the first gift of fall. Next up, meatloaf. And yes, I’ll need a recipe for that, too. 

Virginia Buckingham
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A member of the Marblehead Current’s Board of Directors, Virginia Buckingham is the former chief executive officer of the Massachusetts Port Authority, chief of staff to two Massachusetts governors, deputy editorial page editor for the Boston Herald and author of “On My Watch: A Memoir.” 

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