When I was in high school, my mother started letting me help her cook dinner. Her recipe box was not full, there were no exotic recipes with curry or bean sprouts. But the things she did make were unprocessed and nutritious, what most of us would call “plain.” But they were delicious to me. Beef stew, roast beef, taco meat with Mexican rice. Fried deer meat and gravy. Chocolate pie, brownies and spaghetti. One of my favorites though, was, and still is, her goulash.
My first goulash was more ghoul-ash though. I didn’t know you were supposed to brown the hamburger meat first. After I had added corn, a can of stewed tomatoes, garlic powder and chopped onion to my pound of round, my brother stopped by the stovetop to check on his dinner’s savory progress. He pointed out that I was now boiling the ground meat. Even our bird dogs wouldn’t eat my mess.
Now I have a family of my own, and I probably cook five nights a week. I have mastered tacos, chicken with homemade Alfredo sauce, spaghetti, beans and cornbread, flatbread pizzas and quiche. I can’t make Mexican rice and am reduced to the Uncle Ben’s microwave rice packages. I have been looking for a few easy recipes to add into my rotation because I am tired of hearing “Spaghetti? Againnnnn?” around the dinner table. The Hubs is not a fan of crockpot cooking, so that’s out. I am the only on that likes gravy and roast beef, so those are out, too.
I decided to try goulash, just the way I made it with my mom. I got a large pot of water on the stove to boil elbow macaroni. Elbows are the best; now some cooks might be tempted to try a hearty egg noodle. Don’t. I don’t know why it tastes different, it just does. Trust me here. Then, I browned the ground sirloin with salt, pepper, Morten’s chili powder and garlic powder in a big cast iron skillet. No fresh garlic here, we’ll take our gluten and MSG-laden powders, thank you very much. After the meat is cooked, the art of mixology comes into play. I sautéed in about half of a chopped, sweet yellow onion. Added one can of stewed tomatoes. Next, I dumped in one can of Green Giant whole kernel corn. I like the bright yellow color, it adds a nice hint of sweet and a little bit of texture. I let it all simmer in together for a few minutes, doing a few “spoon checks” to make sure all the spices were right.
After the macaroni was done, I drained it and set it to the side. For the final bit of brilliance, I grated about half a block of sharp cheddar cheese and then dumped the meat and cheese on top of the macaroni and stirred with my ancient wooden spoon. Y’all. I was proud! It was just perfect.
I made a fresh fruit salad and cornbread. Cold milk, cloth napkins because sometimes I’m fancy like that, and forks on the table. I buttered each piece of cornbread and set it next to the bowls of goulash and called everyone in to eat. It looked just like the dinner table of my childhood. But with fruit.
My kids sat down, eyed their dinner, and then refused to eat it. Even one, tiny bite.
“Gross! What. Is. This?” Bodacious demanded to know.
“I am not eating that,” Parksalot said, reaching for his milk.
My husband, who is wise and true, kept his mouth empty of words and full of dinner.
I explained to them that this beautiful dish was called a goulash, a funny sounding name for a delicious meal. I told them that is had some of their favorite foods and spices, too. Hamburger meat and chili powder, like tacos. Tomatoes and corn, their favorite vegetables. About $4 worth of cheese. Garlic, just like spaghetti and Alfredo sauce. Fat elbow macaroni.
All parts they knew about, just put together a little differently than they were used to.
But it didn’t matter. No matter how much my husband ate, nor how much I explained to them that even though it looked differently than their usual dinner, it was still dinner. It did all the things dinner does. It provided nutrition for healthy minds and strong bones. Sustenance for a long night of rest and recuperation. Carbs for long-term energy. And cheese. Because everything is just better with cheese. And all for about $2 a person, much more affordable than dinner out!
In the end, they drank milk, ate their fruit and went to bed. I didn’t make them cereal or sandwiches when they came into the kitchen later and were hungry. That’ll teach them.
I know that sometimes things that look different are scary. Sometimes even unfathomable. But if my children had taken a little time with their dinner instead, they would have discovered how good it was, how versatile food can be. That beneath that cheesy sauce was a meal that filled little bellies, provided a basis for conversation and a place to give thanks. They might not have wanted goulash every day or even every month, and that’s okay, too. But the fact that they weren’t even open to it all, well, that wasn’t. Because sooner or later, in some mom and pop restaurant or hostel dining room, they’ll run into goulash again. I just hope that when it occurs, they’ll be a little more open to breaking bread over it.