By the early 19th century, potatoes, which came from the Americas, spread all across Hungary. They were an economical alternative to cereal crops and hence appeared in ever more dishes — in soups, porridges, and noodles. Perhaps none became more prevalent than the potato stew, sitting in a creamy, bright-tasting sauce and usually topped with meatballs.
Yield: 4 servings; Total time: 45 minutes
For the potato stew
1 ⅓ kilos (3 pounds) potatoes, peeled and cut into 2 ½ cm (1-inch) chunks
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 onion, minced
2 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
1 teaspoon salt
3 pinches pepper
3 bay leaves
1 teaspoon Hungarian sweet paprika
¾ cup sour cream
1 tablespoon flour
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons lemon juice
For the meatballs (fasírt) — makes 8-10 pieces
350 grams (¾ pound) pork shoulder, finely ground
3 tablespoons vegetable oil, for sautéing onion and garlic
2 cups vegetable oil, for frying meatballs
1 large egg
1 onion, minced and sauteed
2 cloves garlic, peeled, minced, and sauteed
¾ teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon Hungarian sweet paprika
1 teaspoon ground caraway seeds
1 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
1 bread roll (or a sliced bread) soaked in milk then squeezed dry
1 tablespoon breadcrumbs, into meatball
½ cup breadcrumbs, to roll meatballs
Step 1: To prepare the potato stew, heat oil in a large pot over medium-high, then add minced onion and sauté until translucent, about 5-7 minutes. Add garlic and sauté for another minute, stirring constantly so garlic doesn't burn.
Step 2: Season with salt, pepper, paprika, and bay leaves. Then add potato chunks and 2 cups of warm water. With the lid on, bring mixture to a low simmer and steam-cook until potatoes are soft but not mushy, about 15-20 minutes.
Step 3: While potato is cooking, prepare the meatballs. Heat three tablespoons oil in a pan over medium-high, then add minced onion and sauté until translucent, about 5-6 minutes. Then add minced garlic and sauté for 1 more minute. Turn off heat.
Step 4: In a large mixing bowl, combine ground meat, egg, breadcrumbs (1 tablespoon), soaked bread roll, salt, pepper, paprika, ground caraway seeds, and the sautéd onion-garlic mixture. Mix very thoroughly with hand so that all ingredients disperse evenly, then form with wet hands round and flat meatballs, about 7 cm by 2 cm (2 ¾ by 1 inch). Add the breadcrumbs into a shallow bowl, then lightly coat the meatballs in breadcrumbs.
Step 5: Heat 2 cups oil in a large pan over medium-high to 190 degrees Celsius (375 Fahrenheit), then carefully slide meatballs into the hot oil. Fry until a crispy, golden-brown crust develops, about 3 minutes each side. Take care not to overcrowd the pan (depending on its size, you may have to do two or three batches). When ready, transfer meatballs to a container lined with paper towel to soak up extra oil and let them cool for 5 minutes.
Step 6: Finish potato stew. In a medium bowl, mix together sour cream and flour and pour the mixture over the potato stew. Let the sauce thicken into a creamy consistency at a low simmer for 1-2 minutes. Remove pot from heat, add butter and lemon juice and mix well.
Step 7: Taste for salt and add more if needed. Remove bay leaves and serve in shallow bowls topped with one or two meatballs.
Words of advice
If you find that you'd prefer the stew a bit thicker, mix a tablespoon of flour with a splash of water, add to the pot, and bring it to a simmer for a minute. However, note that the stew will naturally thicken as it cools down so you may just need to wait a little bit.
I created these recipes with the help of nearly a dozen historical Hungarian cookbooks, adjusting ingredients, cooking times, and methods to reflect my own preferences and tastes of the current day.