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15 February 2005

Itís been said for a long time, inherently by we-the-writers and conspicuously by me, that we are all Prometheus, we steal the fire that we bring. Itís in the nature of the job, you canít help but be influenced by your peers, by those you admire and those who came before, the people you grew up reading. A construction here, a neat touch of plotting there: often itís not even conscious, and itís only theft by the most ruthless of definitions. Sometimes it is entirely deliberate (I once lifted the entire structure of a book I admire hugely, and underlaid it beneath my own. What book, you ask? Go read the world, and find it), and then we call it homage. With an accent, please; I pay homage to no one.

If writers do this, so too do cooks. We read recipes, constantly; we ask for them from our friends, nice and upfront and honest; we crib them by watching people cook, and we try to deduce them by taste and experience. And then we cook our own, and sometimes we acknowledge a source and sometimes we shrug them off as folk tales, inherent in the genes. Sometimes we even think weíve made them up. Almost invariably, though, what youíre eating is a pinch of this and a spoonful of that, a combination of ingredients from here and a method I heard over there, all shuffled around by my own stock kitchen-habits. Is this theft? No, or no more than a book is; but sometimes it does feel like it.

Like, for example, on Saturday I had dinner with my friends Mike and Philippa. Mike is fresh from a visit to Hungary, and he cooked a seriously authentic goulash heíd picked up over there. It was scrumptious, and I came home full of goulash in every meaning of that phrase; and Sunday night, I cooked goulash. Not much like Mikeís at all, I checked a few recipes here at home and put together a soup with dumplings where his was a stew with rice. But without his, mine wouldnít have happened; and if he hadnít discussed the different claims of beef and pork and a mixture, I would never have thought of mixing them; and even with a distinct range of ingredients, his was still the base-note I was looking for and judging by. So no, itís not theft, unless theft means appropriating something to oneself without consent - oh. Actually, it does...

So hereís my take on goulash. This week.

I used rump steak and belly pork, because I had them in the freezer. I didnít weigh them; say half a pound of each. For that much meat, I sliced a couple of onions and softened them in olive oil and butter, then tossed in the meat, cut into chunks. Once that was brown I added a couple of teaspoonsful of hot smoked paprika, the same of caraway seeds, some sprigs of thyme, some chillies if liked (I like, but you know that) and half a head of garlic, crushed and chopped. Then a tin of chopped tomatoes and a lot of beef stock, a couple of pints or so. Lid on and into a low oven for a couple of hours, until the meat is tender. Then add a couple of chopped peppers (red and yellow, I used, for colour and flavour - not green) and some diced potato. While that comes up to a simmer on top of the stove, mix up the dumplings: 125g of plain flour, half a teaspoon of salt and a teaspoon of baking powder, all mixed together with a tablespoon of olive oil and a lot of chopped parsley (or try other herbs - chives or spring onion, perhaps, or tarragon might be nice, to harmonise with the caraway. Or a mixture). Then mix in a little buttermilk, till you have a soft dough. Work it on a floured board for a minute or two, then split it into a dozen balls. Float them on top of the goulash, cover, and put back into the oven. Knock the heat up to the mid-point and take the lid off after half an hour or so, to give the dumplings time enough to crisp and brown a bit. Serve with sour cream and good bread, and a sprinkle of sweet smoked paprika.

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© Chaz Brenchley 2005
Reproduced here by permission of Chaz Brenchley, who asserts his moral right to be identified as the author of this work.