Our family ate a lot of pork when I was a boy. We feasted on hams for Sunday dinners, and breakfast was bacon, eggs and homemade bread at least a couple of times a week. Mom used smoked pork hocks for making soup, and she made pork pot roasts with vegetables, pork chops smothered in gravy and shoulder roasts done slowly in the oven.
She did not, however, introduce her son to pörkelt. That honor belongs to an anonymous cook in the cafeteria of the dormitory where I lived when I was a student for a year in Germany. The dorm fee included dinner, which was served at noon. At that time in Germany, this was the main meal of the day, and the cafeteria cooks did their best to see that students got enough to fill them up.
Most of the meals were pretty good, but I did learn quickly that if a lot of tables were empty, chances were good that boiled liver over noodles was the main course that day. If students on very limited budgets skip a meal they have paid for, you know that something is wrong.
Pörkelt was one of the most popular dishes. A couple of us would go to the serving window and fetch back bowls of the fragrant meat, steaming noodles and lovely red cabbage. Bread and butter were already on the table. Once everyone was served, someone would say “Greif zu!” and we would do as ordered: “Dig in!”
Pörkelt is actually a kind of Hungarian goulash, a meat stew seasoned with paprika and other spices served with noodles or dumplings. It is made with pork rather than beef and is a mild dish with a delightful taste of lemon and caraway.
There are dozens if not hundreds of recipes for pörkelt. I tinkered with several until I got a version that we really liked. It reminds me of the dish I first had in Germany long ago, and we have been enjoying it for many years. Here’s how to make it.
3 lbs. pork
3 cups chopped onion
2 T oil
2 T butter
1 tsp. caraway
3 tsp. marjoram
1 lemon rind
2 small or 1 large clove garlic
2 T paprika
2 cups chicken broth
1/2 tsp. salt
1 T flour
1/4 cup water
Cut the meat into one-inch cubes, discarding the excess fat. Put the oil and butter into a large heavy pot with a tight-fitting lid. Peel and chop the onions into about a half inch dice, put them into the pot and cook them over low heat until they are soft and translucent. Do not brown them.
Crush the caraway seeds in a mortar or with a wooden spoon in a sturdy cup. Peel and mince the garlic. Wash a lemon and use a grater to remove the zest (the bright yellow outer layer of the rind) from it. Stir the caraway, marjoram, garlic, lemon zest, paprika and salt into the onions. Add the meat and the chicken broth. Add water if necessary to cover the meat.
Simmer the goulash for about 3 hours, stirring occasionally. Mix the flour into the quarter cup of water and add it to the goulash to thicken the gravy slightly. Simmer for another five minutes, then taste and correct the seasoning.
Serve your goulash over noodles with a good crusty bread. If you want to add a vegetable, red cabbage is a good choice.
NOTES: Most paprika sold in U. S. supermarkets is the mild or sweet paprika. This is the kind I use for pörkelt. There are hot paprikas, however, that you can get in some food stores if you prefer a spicier dish.