Ah, Germany. My dad is from Germany. As it happens, both a brother and a sister of his also wound up living in Northern California, and they are usually with us for holidays and other special events. My mother's major in college was German. I visited Germany three times before I was thirteen. All of these facts combined to give my childhood a distinct Germanic flavor; not only a knee-jerk reaction of, when presented with unexpected stimuli, invading Belgium, but also Germanic in terms of culture, by which I mean food. I love German food. I could live without Wagner or Goethe or Mozart - which is not to say I don't like them all rather a lot - but take away my marzipan and I would have to, well, invade Belgium.
On special occasions such as birthdays, the German wing of my family would go to San Francisco in order to eat at a German restaurant by the name of Speckmann's. When I last checked, by the way, it was still there, though the staff was slowly changing from Germanic types into the ubiquitous (in California) Mexian immigrants. Poor immigrant Germans are rare enough that they are probably fought over by the handful of German restaurants still extant - hence the change in the waitstaff. At the same time, oddly, a good German restaurant run by an Ossi opened up in SoMa. But when in Northern California I went to Speckmann's when I could, and the food was still good when I last went (in the late nineties).
As far as I am concerned the signature dish and reason for going to Speckmann's is the soup. The entrees are yummy and horribly bad for you - wiener schnitzel, jaeger schnitzel, sauerbraten... mmmm... But it was the soup served with every meal that was the reason I loved going there, why childhood trips to Speckmann's were a joy. It was a spicy, thick, beef soup called Goulash Suppe. In heaven, whole meals are made of Goulash Suppe and pumpernickel bread. Hell, whole days.
Alas, now I am far, far away from Speckmann's. Luckily, I am not one to bow to the cruel caprices of fate. Yes, I finally figured out how to make it myself. And, out of sheer generosity, I am going to share this knowledge with you. It's ridiculously simple. Here goes. (The ingredient list will be at the end of the column.)
First, you need ground beef. And freshness counts for this dish. If you have a local butcher, you really really need to get your ground beef from them, rather than from a supermarket. The Goulash Suppe will taste at least 50% better with fresh, high-grade ground beef. I am serious about this. If you get supermarket beef, either have them grind it for you or don't bother. I don't want you writing to tell me that you made this recipe and thought it was only so-so, and then admitting you just got the ground beef "off the rack". No no no. Get it fresh. No keeping it in the fridge for more than a day, either.
Throw the ground beef in your vessel of choice. Goulash Suppe is a perfect crockpot dish - the longer it cooks, the yummier it is. Spend fifteen minutes making it before heading off to work, leave the crockpot on low all day, and it'll be fantastic when you get home. Or, if you are hungry now, use a regular pot and you can eat in about an hour, although, as I said, the longer it cooks, the better.
The second very important ingredient is paprika. Normal paprika is fine. Hungarian hot paprika (available at many grocery stores and most delicatessens) is better. Now, paprika is yummy, and not very strong as a spice, so let me stress this: you can't add too much. I use maybe a tablespoon and a half to two tablespoons per pound of beef. But you can't use too much. Just pour the stuff in.
The third, and key, ingredient, is the one that took me the longest to figure out. And, as a matter of fact, it was my wife that did the actual figuring out. Goulash Suppe has a distinctive taste that separates it from regular Hungarian-type goulash. And that taste is provided by caraway seed. That's the stuff that flavors rye bread. It's what makes Goulash Suppe not just cooked meat but a savory dish. Add about half as much caraway seed as you did paprika. Again, it's hard to add too much, so don't worry about being exact.
Now, those three ingredients are the super important ones. If you just have those, you can make Goulash Suppe. In addition to them, I recommend potato - it adds a nice texture to the otherwise fairly smooth Suppe. Cut a few potatoes into small cubes, which is not as easy as dicing onion but not too time-consuming. Use as many potatoes as you feel like - I'd say perhaps one potato per pound of beef.
You should also add perhaps a cup and a half of water per two pounds of beef. The ground beef will release a fair amount of juice, but I find the more liquid the Suppe is, the better, and the water will guarantee that there will be no burning, which always harms the flavor. Again, too much water is better than too little. If you are trying the one-hour method, using a higher heat, then you may also want some oil (a tablespoon or so) at the start to help brown the meat.
Oh, and to add the right edge to the flavor, throw in a little salt. A teaspoon is plenty, but it is an important touch to really bring out the zest.
Now let's touch on optional ingredients. Onions are at the top of the list - if you have some time, or are trying the one-hour version, start the whole process by carmelizing some onions. Yes, I know, this implies you should have read this whole column first before cooking. Sorry. You could also just use a separate small frying pan for the onions. Dice them, then cook over a medium heat until they are limp and just beginning to turn light brown. Then throw them into the Goulash Suppe.
Other possible ingredients include garlic, which I find unnecessary. Then again, it's hard to say bad things about garlic. Also, some people use cardamom, which I have tried and found to not change the taste one way or the other. Black pepper is sometimes added for more bite, though again I find it unnecessary.
Things I don't like in my Goulash Suppe but other people do include tomatoes, which work great and taste fine except for the fact that I am allergic to them. Some folks advocate adding carrots, which need to be cooked for a long time in this recipe so are right out for the one-hour version. I think they don't really belong in the Suppe. Other benighted types recommend beans, which frankly belong in chili and not Goulash Suppe. But once you've made it a few times, feel free to experiment.
That's it! It's simple, cheap, and super yummy. Serve with lots of bread (it's sooo tasty over bread, or with the bread dipped into it) and your vegetable of choice, if you feel the need for a non-meat based part of dinner. Enjoy!
2 lbs. ground beef - fresh!!
3-4 tbsp paprika
2 tbsp caraway seeds
2 medium potatoes, diced
1 1/2 cups water
1 tsp salt
2 large onions, diced
1 tbsp cardamom
1 tbsp garlic, crushed
1 can stewed tomatoes
Combine ingredients in crockpot. Stir. Heat at low heat for 4+ hours. Be sure to leave covered so the water doesn't escape.
Add 1 tbsp oil to pot, carmelize onions over low heat. Add beef and brown evenly (stir). Add paprika, caraway, water. Stir. Add potatoes, cook over low heat for 1+ hour.
Serve: With Bread.
- Sun Ra
Columns by Sun Ra