A few years ago I spent 18 months in Austria as a proselyting missionary for the LDS Church. In one of the cities I lived, there was an elderly woman, probably in her 80s, who invited us over for lunch quite often. Her name was Maria Güsenleitner. She loved music and she was a famous yodeler back in the 1940s. We’re talking famous, like “Austria’s Queen Yodeler” and doing voiceovers for singers in movies. Maria had an amazing voice, and because she took a liking to me*, she gave me a cassette tape of herself singing.

This is a picture Maria gave me. I’m not sure how old she is, but it’s definitely back in her hey-day. Unfortunately I don’t have a picture of us together, which is something I really regret. I’m not even sure she’s still alive.

Because my mind tends to relate food to about everything I think about, Maria Güsenleitner reminds me of yodeling and goulash. She made us goulash almost every time we went to her house for lunch or dinner. Since I’ve been back in the States, I’ve wanted to recreate what I ate so many times at her table, and many other tables that we ate at.

The goulash I had in Austria is a good example of the Hungarian influence in Austrian cooking. It’s a beef stew/soup type dish that gets its fiery orange color from paprika. Glancing through ingredient lists of recipes, I never saw anything that I thought would do it justice until I saw a recipe that Deb posted on Smitten Kitchen. I splurged on some free-range, grass-fed beef that was so tender, and I took Deb’s advice and made it the day before I planned on serving it (which I think helped to tenderize the meat more). I agree. It is better the second day, and although it’s been at least six years since I’ve had goulash made by an elderly Austrian woman, I’d say this was pretty darn close to the real thing.

from Smitten Kitchen (adapted from Gourmet, 1994)5 slices bacon, chopped
3 pounds boneless chuck, trimmed and cut into 1/2-inch cubes
2 T vegetable oil
4 medium onions (about 1 1/2 pounds), chopped fine
3 garlic cloves, minced
3 tablespoons paprika (preferably Hungarian sweet)
1 1/2 tsp. caraway seeds
1/3 c. all-purpose flour
1/4 c. red-wine vinegar
1/4 c. tomato paste
5 c. beef broth
1 to 5 cups water (use the former to make a stew, the latter to make a soup)
1 teaspoon salt
2 red bell peppers, chopped fine

In a 6-8 qt dutch oven or saucepan, cook bacon over moderate heat, stirring, until crisp and transfer with a slotted spoon to a large bowl. Leave the bacon fat in the saucepan and add beef, browning in small batches over high heat and transferring it as browned with slotted spoon to bowl. (Doesn’t have to be cooked all the way through.)

Reduce heat to moderate and add oil. Add onions and garlic and cook, stirring, until golden. Stir in paprika, caraway seeds, and flour and cook, stirring, 2 minutes. Whisk in vinegar and tomato paste and cook, whisking, 1 minute. (Mixture will be very thick.) Stir in broth, water, salt, bell peppers, bacon, and browned beef and bring to a boil, stirring. Simmer soup, covered, stirring occasionally, 60 to 75 minutes.

Season soup with salt and pepper. Soup may be made 3 days ahead and cooled, uncovered, before chilling, covered. Reheat soup, thinning with water if desired. Serve over egg noodles, potatoes or gnocci. (Or go all-out Austrian and make some spaetzle!) Serves 12.

Nat’s Notes:
1. I used plain old paprika and thought it did fine. I’d love to try the Hungarian sweet, though.
2. I also used turkey bacon, which also did fine, but you may have to add a little oil to the pan before putting in the beef. Turkey bacon doesn’t let out a lot of grease.
3. I don’t like caraway seeds, especially in bread, so I was tempted to leave them out. After reading some comments on Smitten Kitchen site about the seeds making a difference in the flavor, I decided to leave them in. I’m glad I did. It didn’t taste like rye bread. :)
4. I halved it.

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*One night a few weeks before Christmas, Maria woke up in the middle of the night with a Christmas song in her head. Not one that actually exists, but one that just “came to her”. Because she knew that I played the piano, she wanted me to help her find the notes to her song, make up a simple accompaniment, and write it all down on staff paper. The tune was really simple, it was only four lines, so it wasn’t that hard to do. When I gave her the sheet music, I thought she was going to cry. Everytime she looked at me after that, she got this cute, wrinkly smile on her face and squeezed my shoulders like she wanted to wad me up and put me in her pocket. That’s why Maria liked me.