Hungary’s Legendary Lecso

I went to Budapest to meet the goulash the way some people go to London to meet the Queen. Despite several pleasurable encounters with the iconic and meaty Hungarian soup or stew, I ended up meeting lecso instead.

Lecso is the perfect dish for this time of year. A slightly spicy vegetable stew, it can be vegetarian or even vegan, though it seldom is either in Hungary, where lard remains a favorite cooking medium. Translated for modern American kitchens, a similar flavor is achieved by cooking a few slices of bacon in extra-virgin olive oil at the very start of the process, then crumbling the crispy slices into the stew at the end.

We’re told some Hungarians add smoked sausage to their lecso to make it a full meal, but we love it just the way it’s typically served – as a tribute to the bell peppers and tomatoes of late summer and early fall. Another great trick, for a quick and fresh but also filling dinner is to add cubed potatoes to the stew, or to serve the stew over rice or polenta. In keeping with a recipe spread throughout much of Europe during the golden days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, your vision of lecso is allowed to cross borders.  

Oddly, but also endearingly, I tasted my life’s first lecso (pronounced to LECH-o rather than LECK-so in the mysterious language we call Hungarian) from a hotel’s breakfast buffet. Its appearance there in the middle of scrambled eggs, sausage, bacon and about a square mile of Viennese-style pastries was all the proof I needed that Hungarians love lecso any time of day or night. It’s probably somebody’s favorite bedtime snack.

One of the key elements in lecso that makes it Hungarian is, of course, paprika. Hungarians adore the spice made from dried peppers in many signature dishes, from gulyas (the local spelling) to creamier chicken paprikas. In both of those famous cases, the final “s” produces the “sh” sound.

Apparently, while this basic vegetable stew has origins in the 9th century, the paprika didn’t show up in the Hungarian pantry until centuries of Turkish rule. And as more and more people now understand, tomatoes didn’t show up in Europe (even Italy!) before the “discovery” of the Americas in the late 15th century. Accurately understood, a dish that seems the essence of Old World Central Europe required conquest from the East and bounty from the West to take its recognizable shape, its true flavor.

That certainly fits the nature of Hungarian culture and history. Known to themselves not as Hungarians but as Magyars, these people arrived on their fertile plain before anybody was writing much down. Hungarians can tell you their ancestors came from the east, but they always seem to differ on where that might actually be. Their most interesting origin store has the tribe splitting in half as it migrated west, some families going south into today’s Hungary and the rest going north to settle in Finland. Hungarian and Finnish are equally impenetrable, and apparently share words and other characteristics that language scholars find compelling.

So yes, of course, you can serve lecso alongside “Hungarian goulash,” though you’d have to like paprika a lot. Or you can serve it alongside your scrambled eggs, sausage and bacon in the morning. I love it spooned over breakfast grits, much as Italians enjoy it over polenta. After all, the Magyars are the tribe members who went south.

MINI BELL PEPPER LECSO

Any bell peppers work perfectly in this dish, preferably a mix of colors for both appearance and taste. Simply cut your peppers in either strips or bite-sized pieces, since they show up both ways in Hungary. Lately, though, we’ve really enjoyed making lecso with those supermarket packs of mini-peppers. Needing only a few slices, they add a lovely variety of shapes to the dish in the pot or on the plate.

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

2 slices thick-cut bacon

1 yellow onion, thinly sliced

1 tablespoon minced garlic

2 tablespoons mild or hot Hungarian paprika, or blend

12-15 mini-bell peppers, multi-colored, sliced with ribs and seeds removed

1 cup Mom’s brand Special Marinara

½ cup chicken or vegetable broth

1 cup cherry or grape tomatoes, sliced in half

1 teaspoon lemon pepper

1 teaspoon garlic powder

1 teaspoon dried parsley leaves

Salt and black pepper

Cook the bacon in the olive oil until crisp, then remove the bacon. Stir in the sliced onion until the edges start to color, then add the minced garlic for 1 minute more. Sprinkle with paprika. Stir in the peppers and toss until lightly coated, cooking for about 2 minutes, then add the sauce and the broth. Add the crumbled bacon. Bring the mixture to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer until the peppers are tender, about 20 minutes. Add more broth as needed to keep from drying out. Add the chopped tomato about halfway through the simmering. Season with lemon pepper, garlic powder, dried parsley, salt and pepper. Serves 4-6.

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