I love you, Prague.
I miss it. Flying seems to be the perfect breeding ground for nostalgia – remembering waking up to watch the sun rise over Paris from your tiny oval window, kissing your boyfriend goodbye for the hundredth time as the taxis whiz past, stepping down onto the tarmac and being overwhelmed by the thick, humid air of some magical tropical place. During my flight back to Durham on Monday night that nostalgia took the form of a remembered vision of snow-covered spires receding out the window as I headed back to the States, melancholy at leaving my temporary home, but bubbling with the excitement of seeing Trevor and my family again. It’s been exactly 3 months since I got back, and even though spring is jumping all over North Carolina, I think I’m allowed to dedicate a little space to the cold and beautiful city that was so good to me.
Most of all, I miss the trams, and I miss the details of my morning commute. Walking briskly around the block to the tram stop, head tucked against the cold. Waiting quietly with the other Czechs for the shiny red number 12 to pull up, then climbing in and sitting in the warm compartment, always slightly or more than slightly odorous from so many bodies. Snaking along the river while looking out the glass and across to the city, watching the spires and the cupolas slowly shift as we moved past. And then getting off the tram, stepping back into the brisk air, walking across the bridge each morning and looking out towards the Charles Bridge. Every day the skyline is the same, the same as it has been for centuries, and yet it feels different and new and wonderful. Then, suddenly, you’re in the heart of the city, trying to cross the street in the fleeting three seconds that the light is with you, avoiding trams and buses and cars and horse-drawn carriages all at once. The smooth-walled buildings tower over the narrow, cobbled streets, busy with tourists headed into Old Town Square, but if you enter the grocery store just before the square you’ll find yourself in line with 20 other Czechs, picking up their fresh spinach pastries. A few more blocks, warm, flaky pastry in hand, and you’re in Malé Nàměstí , stepping into the centuries old building where you go to school. I’m not sure how anything as simple as going to school could be more exhilarating.
I miss so many other things too. Running for hours in the nearly empty park. Riding to the end of the tram line and finding myself in a different world, one full of pine forests and rock towers. Walking home from the grocery store in the afternoon, thrilled about some new food word I’d learned. The weight of crowns in my hands. The way the butcher on the corner across from my apartment smelled. Having friends sit around our kitchen table every night just to talk and laugh. Stopping for svařak – hot mulled wine – and candied almonds on the way home from school. The few times my Czech exchanges were simple enough that no one knew I was American. Five hour bus rides to forgotten corners of the country, where I could traipse through farmland and climb among sandstone towers and order meat by the platter. Feeling like I could go anywhere by myself for almost no cost. Going to the opera for $5. Hot chocolate the consistency of pudding at Cafe Louvre. The excitement of discovering something new. Sunset over the castle. Going out on trips just to take photographs. Eating goulash in smoky pubs. I could go on indeterminately…
But I’ll refrain, and leave you with the goulash, because if you’ve made it through my poetic waxing, that is what I have for you: an attempt at Czech goulash. The kind that you find in smoky pubs. That is served with fluffy bread dumplings and Pilsner Urquell. That is so good on a cold afternoon. I wanted to have it. I’ll say up front that my attempt was really just that, and the result was not exactly what I was searching for, but is definitely a good starting point. I cooked based on the average of several recipes, some in English, some in Czech, and didn’t measure or time, so the recipe I will share is only a good approximation. From what I’ve read, the flavors that make Czech goulash distinctively Czech are that of marjoram and coriander, so be sure to include those if seeking the flavor you had in Prague. Also, use sweet Hungarian paprika – I used a different variety and could taste the difference. I had a bottle going sour on the counter, so I added a little red wine to my gravy, but this isn’t traditional so I’ve omitted it from the recipe here, although I did like what it added to the overall flavor. And with all that said…
- 1lb. beef, cubed (chuck or stew beef)
- 1 onion, roughly chopped
- 3 T butter
- 2-3 T sweet Hungarian paprika
- 1-2 tsp marjoram
- 1-2 tsp coriander
- 1-2 tsp black pepper
- 2 cloves garlic, minced or 1-2 tsp garlic powder
- 1 c. water
- 2-3 T flour
- salt to taste
- Melt butter in dutch oven over medium-high heat. Sautee onions in butter until beginning to soften.
- Add beef and paprika to butter and onions, brown beef on all sides.
- Add marjoram, coriander, black pepper and garlic, and stir well.
- Add water and reduce heat to a simmer. Cover and cook until meat is tender, 10-15 minutes. Check meat for doneness.
- Uncover and allow sauce to reduce to desired amount. Add flour 1 tablespoon at a time and stir, allowing sauce to thicken before adding more flour. Stop adding when sauce reaches desired consistency.
- Season with salt. Do this after sauce has reduced to avoid over-salting.
Goulash is usually served with bread dumplings, not potatoes, as the airy bread slices soak up the sauce very well. Any light bread will do. It is also sometimes served with pickled red cabbage…. two recipes I’ll be looking into! Dobrou chut!4