It's the end of August as I prepare this post. All the signs point to summer fading away, and though we want to max our outdoor time, the bounty of local markets pushes people into the kitchen for all kinds of cooking (and preserving). So many Hungarian recipes seem to be linked to this season. Lecsó (pronounced letcho, rhymes with let go) is one that Hungarians wait for - and the wait is for the arrival of Hungarian peppers.
There are many "Hungarian peppers" - most notably those used to make paprika - but this time of year the term is understood to mean the pale green-ish yellow wax peppers. They are not as thick as the typical green / red / yellow peppers at the supermarket, but like those peppers, are a bit "pudgy". I never buy long skinny yellow peppers (sometimes called banana peppers) even if they are labelled "Hungarian" - they are not the same. When eaten raw with salt (in my opinion) these peppers taste best of the lot. Sliced / salted peppers, salami and rye bread is a classic snack this time of the year.
I'm going to say that this type of pepper is crucial to this recipe, but must admit that decades ago it was very difficult to get these peppers - unless you knew someone growing them from seeds from "the old country". When they first began to appear, they were sometimes labeled Romanian peppers, but now even my grocery store labels them "Hungarian". These days we can be confident we will see them each year, but many people cut them into chunks and freeze them so they can extend "lecsó season" as long as possible. Even in Winter, frozen peppers and canned tomatoes can bring back the essence of this summer dish. This may also be a good moment to stress that I refer to lecsó as a "dish" - no other translation seems to fit - though I have seen it referred to in English translations as a "stew" - not so, IMHO.
Speaking of Romania, one of my cookbooks suggests that Hungarians may be surprised to learn that their quintessential late summer dish has its origins in Serbia - right next to Romania. (In fact, the three countries form a triangle, so food traditions likely easily migrated.) When it comes right down to it - any country that has onions, peppers and tomatoes may have a dish that resembles lecsó. I once worked with a French chef who made "piperade" - very similar. This past year it seemed my social media was filled with recipes for Shakshuka - onions, peppers, tomatoes and Middle Eastern spices, with eggs cooked on top. Here's a recipe from my blogger friend Jittery Cook.
If you're interested in more lecsó factoids, visit Wikipedia . It outlines many variations - including adding rice and sausage (which we do) and although it is not mentioned - our family in Hungary once tossed in some beaten eggs and made a scrambled egg / lecsó combo that was unforgettable. Lecsó can be a main or a side at any meal - or (without the rice and sausage) a garnish on a schnitzel sandwich, or can even be used as a "sauce" over pork chops. Come to think of it, the Schnitzel Husar at Hamilton's Black Forest Inn uses a sort of lecsó sauce.
The Recipe. Finally! As with many culturally iconic dishes, there are so many variations related to family preferences, region and even availability of ingredients. I've decided to keep the basic instructions minimalist and am using Notes (below) to elaborate on options. Everything that goes into this dish is already edible so don't overdo the overall cooking time.
The basic order of operations is onions, then peppers, then tomatoes (and sausage and rice if using).
- rice can be cooked ahead of time, but observe rice food safety (see Notes)
- peppers, onions and tomatoes can be chopped ahead of time
- sausage can be sliced ahead of time
1 cup uncooked rice, cooked - if using (see Notes re rice food safety)
3 TB cooking fat
See NOTES (below) about onions and fat.
Do a rustic chop on the onions, and cook them until soft and translucent.
6-8 cups of Hungarian peppers
One pepper yields about one cup. Wash and dry the peppers, and remove the stem and core/seeds. Cut these into desired sized pieces. I tend to go for pieces that are about 1/2 x 2". Add the peppers to the pan with the onions and cook until they soften and collapse a bit.
An important point about this step is to think of it almost as a "stir-fry". You are not cooking the peppers by boiling them, or covering the pot and steaming them. (I admit that some cooks do the tomatoes first so that the peppers can cook in the tomato juice - sigh...)
1/2 tsp salt
2 tsp paprika
1 TB paprika cream (optional)
2 large tomatoes (1-2 cups chopped)
2 cups sliced smoked sausage (optional)
Once the peppers collapse a bit and become tender, pull the pan off the heat to add the paprika (which can burn over hot heat). Once back on the heat, add the salt and the tomatoes and the sausage (if using). Adjust paprika and salt, seasoning to taste.
Once you're happy with the consistency, add the rice and serve. (Some people prefer to serve the rice on the side.)
Notes and Tips...
- Cooking order - though I outlined this above, there are cooks who do onions and tomatoes and then cook the peppers in that soup-y mixture. I have never conducted a taste test of the varying methods, but some people can be very adamant about the "correct how to".
- Onions - I use 2 onions, but you will find some recipes that use only one. I feel that part of the flavour comes from using a good amount of onions, and cooking them slowly until they are translucent and optimally flavourful. Don't go as far as caramelization. I prefer to use sweet or Vidalia onions, and 2 onions probably yields 2 cups of rustic chop
- Cooking Fat - while you may find recipes that start with oil I always use lard (available at delis); I have seen some recipes that swear by starting with bacon fat and if one cannot buy the fat, then they start by cooking bacon until it releases enough fat for the recipe. Cooks who do this may eat the bacon as a snack or perhaps even add it as a garnish.
- Prepping the Peppers - One pepper yields about 1 cup. I tend to go for pieces that are about 1/2 x 2". If you ever Google "lecsó" and look at photo results, you can see that some people choose to cut right across the pepper creating 1/3" rings.
- Paprika - there is hot, sweet, powdered, creams, and different grades of paprika. I have outlined all you need to know here. You may wish to use a bit of hot (spicy) paprika to add a kick to this. Note that smoked paprika is a "Spanish thing".
- Tomatoes - need to be tasty; try using heirloom or worse case, canned San Marzano (just the tomatoes, not the juice)
- Rice - I use Jasmine rice because it's a staple in my cupboard. I have heard of people actually cooking the rice in the lecsó which implies they have created a very soup-y mixture or are adding extra fluids.
- Rice: Food Safety - It's surprising how many people do not know that cooked rice, if handled improperly, can cause food poisoning. Unless cooked rice is being used right away / within an hour, it should be transferred from the cooking pan/dish and distributed evenly in a larger shallow dish. This is the best way to cool the rice, eliminating hot spots where possible spores can grow into dangerous bacteria. Even when in a shallow pan, rice should be refrigerated after one hour. (Sample Source)
- Hungarian Dried Smoked Sausages - are called kolbász - and there are several types of the smoked, dried versions - a few of which seem to be readily available at delicatessens. Look for Csabai or Debreceni kolbász. They will come in mild and hot versions - your call. The dry sausage will soften during the cooking and will be quite palatable.
- For KB Recipe Attribution Practices please click here.
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