Tuesday, 3 March 2009

Les Meilleures Addresses de Budapest et une recette pour poulet aux paprikas

It took several visits before Budapest began to turn my head. Elements of it are undeniably striking—the Castle Bridge lit up at night, the opulent Turkish baths, the immense Dohany Synagogue. And the cobbled streets and pastel-painted buildings of Buda’s Old Town give it an almost village-like quality. But the overwhelming impression can be of old Communist-era greyness bumping up against generic, sometimes gaudy, new wealth.

My first impressions of the food were equally mixed. While I adored the atmosphere of high-ceilinged, plush cafes like the Central, and the coffee served on little silver trays, the cakes didn’t match the lofty setting. It took a few mediocre goulashes before I hit pay dirt in a nightcap of Tokay. As I took in the (surprisingly unsung) splendour of the Callas Cafe, tiny glass in hand, I realized that I had been trying a bit too hard to tick boxes. And I had foolishly neglected to make use of the local knowledge of my Hungarian colleagues.

On a tip from the founder-owner of Siraly, a charmingly tumbledown cafĂ© and Jewish arts space, I went for dinner the next night at M, where the walls were covered with whimsical line drawings, the roast goose and cabbage more than satisfied and the waitress’ obvious pride in the desserts made it seem churlish to refuse. I returned the next night too and passed the evening talking to a Dutch teacher, the sister of another staff member, relishing both the surprisingly spicy Hungarian red and the (undeserved) feeling of being a regular.

The next trip was less scripted than its predecessors and either because or despite this, provided the most satisfying eating experiences. Ducking into Gerbaud late on a sub-zero afternoon, I couldn’t remember why I had snubbed it in favour of supposedly more authentic cafes. The hot chocolate was perfectly unctuous and semi-sweet, the clientele a lively mix of dowagers, young couples and tourists, and the atmosphere delightfully rococo. For dinner, one of the survey researchers directed me to a restaurant whose seemingly pedestrian online menu had led me to dismiss it. But the chicken paprikas with homemade noodles was even better than she promised, and the goose crackling starter astounding if somewhat terrifying, and explained only by the favourable forint-euro exchange rate, or, more likely, a bit too much time in the hotel sauna.

Another trip to Budapest is likely sometime this spring. But while the city's grand cafe culture can’t really be matched in Paris, at least some of the food can. I’ve tracked down an authentic paprikas recipe from a colleague’s mother, bought Hungarian-style dumplings from the supermarket (actually German spaetzle) and started to perfect my cucumber salad. Now if only I could overcome a lifetime’s fear of sour cream.

Poulet aux Paprikas (adapted from Ildiko Barna’s mother)

Serves 2
Total time: 1 hour; Active time: 20 minutes

2 chicken legs (can joint if desired)
1 medium onion
2 cloves garlic (optional)
vegetable or olive oil
1/4-1/3 small can whole tomatoes, drained
2 tbsp sweet Hungarian paprika*
Vegetable or chicken stock (I used chicken stock)
Creme fraiche or sour cream to taste

Heat a teaspoon of oil in a cast-iron casserole pot or other heavy pan. When oil is hot but not smoking, add the chicken legs, one at a time if necessary to avoid overcrowding. Season with salt and pepper. Brown well on all sides, being careful not to turn the chicken until it releases naturally. While the chicken browns, chop the onion finely.Remove the chicken from the pot and add the onion, turning to coat with the chicken fat. Turn down the heat to medium-low and cook the onions until soft and translucent. If using garlic, chop and add 1-2 minutes before the onions are finished.

When the onions are finished, take the pan off the heat to add the paprika. Stir it through and add 2 tomatoes from the can; the liquid and remaining tomatoes can be used for another recipe. Put back on a medium-low heat, add just enough enough liquid to cover, and simmer gently for 10 minutes to form a sauce. Put the chicken pieces back in, adding a few more tablespoons of liquid if necessary, cover, and turn to the lowest heat. (Use a flame reducer if your gas burner is too high.) Check the chicken after 30-35 minutes by cutting to the bone; depending on the size of the legs and whether they were jointed, they could take another 10-15 minutes.

When the chicken is cooked through, remove it from the pan and turn off the heat. Add anywhere from 2 tablespoons to ½ cup of creme fraiche or sour cream to the pot; using the larger amount will not only generate a creamier sauce but mute the heat of the paprika. Stir though, replace the chicken and bring to serving temperature.

Serve over spaetzle, dilled egg noodles or, in a pinch, gnocchi. While Hungarian wine—with the exception of Tokay—isn’t exported in large quantities, you could try this with either a zesty, aromatic white (perhaps an Alsace-style Pinot Gris), a medium-bodied red (my local wine merchant sold me an inexpensive Bordeaux), or, for something entirely different, a Zinfandel.

* My Austrian friend has made the unorthodox but quite clever suggestion of augmenting this with a good pinch of Spanish smoked paprika.

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