Hungarian Vardas Marha-esque Stew

Submitted by: Devon Grieve
Every once and a while I get nostalgic for my eastern European roots. We used to have a fantastic Hungarian restaurant in town, but it's gone now. This is as close as I've been able to get to their amazing Vardas Marha.

Serves: 6-8

Preparation time:

Ingredients

3 lbs stewing beef (cubed chuck roast, preferred)
3-4 slices thick cut bacon, cut into 1" pieces (get it at the meat counter, the stuff in a package is too thin)
2 large onions, sliced
1 large red pepper, sliced
1 bottle of wine (szekszardi (sp?) if you want true to country, otherwise a nice pinot noir or cab sauvignon works well.)
2 1/2 cups beef stock ( I like the better than boullion stuff. I'm lazy about making stock.)
2 Tbs good sweet Hungarian paprika
1 Tbs caraway
1 bulb (yes, the whole thing) garlic, peeled and coarsely chopped
2-3 stems fresh thyme (about 2 tbs), 1 tsp dry if you have to.
2-3 Tbs tomato paste ( I like the stuff that comes in a tube, but hunt's etc works fine.)
salt
fresh ground pepper
a little flour
a little butter

Method

1. Brown bacon in the bottom of a large pot (dutch oven) until nice and crispy.
2. Drain bacon on a paper towel, leaving the fat in the pot.
3. Season the beef with salt and pepper then brown it in the fat in small batches. You want some crispy bits to develop on the beef. If you put too much in at once there will be too much moisture for it to brown properly and you'll get a greasy mess and no fond will develop on the bottom of your pan. Yes, that's right, I said fond. That's the classy French word for the brown crap on the bottom of the pot. You want that stuff, bigtime. It's what makes a stew taste really good, be it chicken, beef or pork.
4. After you've browned the beef, drain the fat from the pan, but don't touch the brown stuff on the bottom. Leave it alone! My secret is to stick a tin in the sink. Pour the fat in the tin, by flipping the pot in a circle, one full rotation, this way you won't end up with a big stream of grease down one side of the pan. Mucky and a bit of a fire hazard.
5. Make sure there's no grease on the outside of your pan before you put it back on the heat. Over medium heat, pour about a cup of wine over the brown stuff and scrape and stir until it all comes off the bottom and has bubbled away for a bit, say 10 mins.
6. Add the beef and bacon back to the pan, along with the onions, garlic, red peppers, wine and stock.
7. Season with the spices and add the tomato paste.
8. Bring the stew to a boil over high heat, then turn it down to low for a couple of hours or until the meat is falling apart.
9. Mix some flour and butter together to make a paste. About a Tbs to a Tbs. You can make more and stick it in the freezer for thickening sauces. This is called Beurre Manié, if you want to get proper about your terminology. It can save your ass on occasion. Works wonders on sad, runny gravy for example.
10. When the stew has finished cooking, add a tbs or two of the beurre manié to it and stir over heat until thick.
11. Adjust salt and pepper if necessary and serve over warm noodles like spazle, nokedli or even egg noodles, dumplings or mashed potatoes.

It sounds like a lot of work, but it's really pretty simple. I added some sautéed mushrooms at the end. You could also add some dried porcinis or morels for extra flavour. Although, don't hold me to the morels, dbl check, they may cause problems with wine. I can't remember my mushroom rules right now. Chantrelles and porcinis are safe with wine for certain though.

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