Bruce Wallis: Goulash is snow day comfort food

Bruce Wallis

When you’re a kid, it doesn’t matter if it’s 90 degrees Fahrenheit or 10 degrees below zero. As long as you’re dressed for the weather, you play until the bell rings, until the call goes out for dinner, until the sun falls and you’ve reached the outer limit of your evening curfew.

In my neighborhood, play usually consisted of pick-up and sandlot sports; baseball in the spring and summer, football in the fall, and street hockey in the winter.

Street hockey requires the most dedication and internal fortitude. Winter in the U.P. is always cold. A warm day could be 30 degrees, cold days dip well below zero. The subzero days are the true test of your mettle. You step outside and are instantly smacked in the face by a gust of wind blowing from the Northwest off the St. Mary’s River. Your nose hairs freeze and every breath you take is followed by a prickly stabbing sensation in your lungs. Snow swirls in the wind, drumming on your eyelids, cheeks, and other exposed skin.

You look up, peering between between your scarf and the stocking cap pulled low on your forehead, and see your friends gathering in the street. It’s a snow day, too cold and snowy to attend school, a perfect day to play outside. Goals have already been paced off at either end of the block and marked with chunks of snow. Teams are chosen, the tennis ball that stands in for a puck is dropped, and the game is on.

As you run back and forth chasing the puck and getting elbowed in the ribs and knocked in the shins, your breath condenses and freezes to your scarf, your eyelashes stick together, and you start to lose feeling in your fingertips. None of that matters now as you race up the side of the street, close to the snowbank with no one between you and the goalie.

Your friend sees you running and delivers a perfect pass: slightly in front of you with no bounce. You fake a shot to pull the goalie out and are about to slip a backhand in behind him when the call goes out …

”Car. Car coming.”

Play is immediately suspended, goals are kicked to the side, and kids dive into the snow banks lining the street. The car eases past, the driver (probably someone's mom or dad) honks lightly and waves. The threat of being run over passed, goals are replaced and play resumes. The theory is that everyone picks up right where they left off but you know that won’t happen. You lost your shot at scoring the goal that would break the game wide open.

The sun has set and the last, lingering glow of dusk renders the weathered tennis ball barely visible. Everyone senses that the end is near. Soon, the frigid evening air will be filled with calls announcing supper, imploring us to not let our food get cold. If these calls are ignored for any length of time, middle names will be added as well as vague threats. No one wants to find out if the threats will be carried out so plans are made to end the game amicably.

“Next goal wins,” a seasoned street hockey veteran suggests.

“No way, we’re winning by at least four goals.”

“Nuh-uh. We’re beating you by at least three.”

This back and forth continues for what seems like an eternity, about a minute and a half, before cooler heads prevail and it’s agreed that whoever scores the next goal will indeed be the winner. The tennis ball is dropped and play resumes, perhaps a little more frantically than before. Just as calls for supper start to emanate from the front porches of your neighbors’ houses, the tennis ball trickles between your goalie’s legs.

“We won, you lose.”

“No way, it didn’t even go in.”

“Did too, I saw it.”

“Did not, he saved it. You weren’t even there.”

As you walk into your house and take off your winter layers you smell the familiar tangy tomato and rich beef odors of that most comfortable of Midwest comfort foods: goulash. I’m not talking about the stewed beef spiked with paprika that has become known as "authentic" Hungarian Goulash (although in Hungary it’s known as Porkolt, but that’s an entirely different story).

I’m talking about good old 1950s, June Cleaver, rib-sticking American Goulash. As you dig into the steaming mountain of macaroni and hamburger on your plate, you begin to thaw from the inside and wish for another snow day tomorrow.

So much hockey to play, so much goulash to eat.

Since both versions are important in their own right, I’m including recipes for American and Hungarian Goulash. May the best dish win.

American Goulash

2 lbs. ground beef

3 medium yellow onions, diced

¼ c. minced garlic

1 c. water beef broth

1 (28 oz.) can crushed tomato

2 (14.5 oz.) cans diced tomatoes

1 T. dried thyme leaf

1 T. dried marjoram

3 bay leaves

3 T. soy sauce

2 t. sweet paprika

Salt and pepper to taste

6 c. cooked elbow macaroni

Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Place the ground beef in a large dutch oven and brown over medium heat, breaking up with a spoon or spatula, until the meat is in small pieces. Drain the grease from the pan. Add the onions and garlic and cook for another 5 minutes or until onions are translucent. Add the beef broth, crushed tomato, diced tomatoes, thyme, marjoram, bay leaves, soy sauce, and paprika and stir together. Bring to a boil and then reduce heat. Cover the pot and simmer for 15-20 minutes. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Add the macaroni and stir until well combined. Re-cover the pot and place in the preheated oven. Bake for 15-20 minutes. Remove from the oven, stir and remove the bay leaves. Allow to sit for 15 minutes before serving.

Hungarian Beef with Paprika

4 oz. bacon or salt pork, diced

2 medium yellow onions, diced

⅛ c. minced garlic

1½ lbs. beef stew meat or beef chuck, cut into ½-inch pieces

1/4 c. imported sweet Hungarian paprika

1 T. smoked paprika

1 c. crushed tomato

2 bay leaves

Beef or chicken stock for simmering

Salt and pepper to taste.

Cook bacon or salt pork in a medium saucepan or dutch oven until brown. Add onions and saute for 3 minutes or until translucent. Add garlic and saute for another 2 minutes. Add beef and saute until just browned. Add paprika and cook until fragrant. Add the remaining ingredients. Add stock to come up to just over the half of the stew mixture. Bring to a boil. Cover, reduce to a simmer, and cook for 90 minutes to 2 hours. Add salt and pepper to taste. Serve over noodles, mashed potatoes or potato dumplings.

Bruce Wallis is an experienced chef de cuisine with a culinary arts degree from Fox Valley Technical College and is assistant director of food service at The Leelanau School. He was a contributing food columnist for the Duluth News Tribune.