A Go for Lecsó

August 14, 2012

Homegrown Banana peppers from the garden. Photo and peppers by Mike Szilagyi.

Mike Szilagyi, a Center City planner who specializes in trail development, responded recently to the blog call for photos and stories.

“Thought you might like this,” he wrote. “This morning’s pickings from my garden. No roses or flowers in my front yard – veggies! These peppers and half as many fresh tomatoes, plus onions and sliced Kielbasi, and that’s my dad’s recipe for Hungarian Lecsó.”

A quick review of on-line sources to discover what makes up authentic Lecsó revealed a number of culinary interpretations of this traditional dish of Serbian origin. Or, as food writer June Meyer says, “Lecsó can be anything you want it to be.”

Typical of many ethnic cuisines, this melange of tomatoes, onions, peppers and seasonings becomes a base for an array of Hungarian dishes. The thick vegetable stew is versatile enough to be eaten hot or cold like its French cousin, Ratatouille, or other ingredients like sausages, eggs or beans and cheeses can be added in.

Some recipes for Lecsó call for Hungarian paprika. Mike’s dad uses Hungarian Wax peppers for his Lecsó and thinks that paprika is “a bit like gilding the lily” so he doesn’t put it in. However, if using a milder pepper like the Banana pepper, the smoky rich spice kicks up the flavor wonderfully!

Wikipedia and the Budapest tourist guide website both have good information about Hungarian peppers and paprika. Turns out there are as many varieties of Hungarian peppers as there are of Hungarian paprika, and in a full range of intensities and colors. Be warned: Pepper colors or shapes are not an indicator of hotness or sweetness.

Hungarian Black peppers look very similar to the sweet Banana peppers above, but they’re a medium hot variety, similar to Jalapeño, with black-skinned fruit that ripens to a deep shiny red.

peppersfresh“White” peppers (at left) are a light green pepper with a unique flavor that is nothing like classic Bell peppers or Italian frying peppers and when dried is the basis for Magyar Paprika.

The hot and sweet varieties of Hungarian paprika all derive from the deep red pepper that was brought into the country in the late sixteenth to early seventeenth centuries by Turks, who got pimenton from the Spanish. Paprika is a much-evolved Slavic word derived from many reiterations for pepper.

Although Hungarian pepper heritage is centuries old, as a spice paprika didn’t really become popular until about one hundred years ago. Peasants adopted the spice first before the upper classes discovered it and added it to gourmet cuisine. By the 19th century, paprika was the dominant spice in Hungarian kitchens and restaurants. All paprika was hot until the 1920s, when a plant breeder discovered a mild version of the pepper and created the sweet paprika that’s so popular for most dishes today. Paprika is, of course, the perfect ingredient in Goulash and Chicken Paprikash, plus Hungarian sausages, soups, sauces and Lecsó.

Here are Mike’s instructions for making Lecsó…

“Fry onions. Lots of onions. Stir in slices of Keilbasi and salt. Then add a bunch of chopped peppers. Then a little while later, add the diced tomatoes. Use twice as many peppers as tomatoes.  Simmer for an hour. Serve over rice.”

If  you want to add paprika to your recipe, lower the heat while sautéing the onions before stirring in the paprika, says Mike.

Below: Not Philly’s Italian Market… Packaged ground and whole dried paprika for sale at a Belgrade market.

Anita Mc Kelvey © 2011-2016 The Philadelphia Pepper Project

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