Lately we’ve been having one of those bouts of unseasonably cold weather that you sometimes get in May, when frost nips at the tender spring blossoms and you are forced to go digging into your closet to retrieve the scarf you’d already put away for next fall. This type of weather can be frustrating if you’re already looking forward to summer, but I like to treat it as an opportunity instead, a last chance to indulge in some rich, hearty stews before we transition to lighter fare. One that I’ve been craving lately is paprika hendl, or “chicken paprikash”; it’s a traditional Hungarian dish, but I first tasted it not in Budapest or Debrecen, but in Nutley, New Jersey!
I was visiting the Garden State to check on a property and had chosen to stay overnight at an Airbnb, as I always find them much more comfortable and homely than a motel. The reviews weren’t very good, being filled with references to “devils”, “fiends”, “abominations unto God”, etc., but upon investigation I realized that these distressing accusations were likely due to the fact that the hosts were an elderly gay couple. It’s terrible how close-minded some people can be, especially once you get away from the city. 😞
I arrived later than expected that evening, for my well-meaning but conservative Uber driver had driven in circles while trying to talk me into staying somewhere else. When I insisted that I wasn’t going to change my plans, he looked so genuinely sorry for me that I accepted the crucifix he pressed upon me, and gave him four stars even though he refused to take me all the way to the listed address, but instead dropped me off at the corner and sped away as soon as I had closed the door.
The house itself was set some way back from the road, on a large plot of land with several fine trees scattered about; pleasant enough during the daytime, but slightly unnerving in the dark, especially with the ominous warnings of my Uber driver fresh in my mind. I’m embarrassed to admit that I actually gasped out loud at one point upon hearing movement in the trees, only to discover that the source of my alarm was nothing more than an excitable Golden Retriever. Aspen (for that was the dog’s name) snuffled inquisitively at my crotch before permitting me to proceed to the front porch, where I rang the doorbell and was presently greeted by my hosts.
“Ah, you must be Jonathan! Please, come in! Welcome to our home!” said one of them, a tall, thin gentleman clad in a floral housecoat, who spoke with an Eastern European accent and introduced himself as Baron Afanas. He was completely bald, with bright, red eyes, and much of his skin was mottled black with burn scars, possibly from the same accident in which he had lost his right arm and both of his legs. Nonetheless, he was a cheerful old fellow, and seemed to get about very well with the aid of a sort of standing wheelchair. His partner, whose name was Gjorum [sp.?] but went by “the Sire”, was even more striking in appearance, being severely hunch-backed and having deep-set eyes beneath a heavy, sloping brow; a nose that was extremely snub almost to the point of non-existence; long, protruding canine teeth; large, mobile ears that stuck out to the sides; leathery, bat-like wings; and a tail. He spoke only a little English, but nodded and smiled in a friendly manner as he and the Baron showed me to my room.
Once I had washed up, I passed through a cosy, old-fashioned living room to the kitchen, where the Baron bade me sit down to supper, or my “last meal”, as he so quaintly put it. He and the Sire would not be joining me, he explained, for they kept odd hours and would dine later that night, but they had kindly prepared something for me to eat. This turned out to be a delicious-smelling dish of chicken stewed with red pepper in a spicy, creamy sauce, the paprika hendl of which I have since become so fond.
“This is delicious!” I exclaimed upon tasting it, and indeed it was wonderfully savory and filling, perfect for a cold night after a long day of travel. “Did you make it yourself?”
“Thank you, you are too kind,” the Baron said. “Yes, it is an old family recipe; paprika hendl was a favorite of mine when I was a young man, back in the Old Country. Alas, these days I cannot eat it without becoming violently ill, but it gives me great pleasure to see you enjoying it so.”
“Would you be willing to give me the recipe?” I asked him. “I am sure that my fiancée, Mina, would be very interested in learning how to make it, as would the readers of my blog.”
The Baron was unfamiliar with the concept of “blogs”, but once I had explained it to him, he was delighted with the idea of having other people read and cook his recipe, so he most obligingly dictated it to me, and I have dutifully transcribed it below.
I won’t bore you with all the other details of my visit – suffice to say that I had a very pleasant stay at The Baron and The Sire’s Rustic Remote Airbnb Rental and highly recommend them if you’re ever in Nutley – but one more thing I will mention is that I had a very queer dream that night. First, I thought I heard a dog howling beneath my window, but when I rose from my bed and looked out, I saw not my friend Aspen but a fire-breathing hellhound. Then, as I stood staring at the unearthly creature, there rose before my eyes the distinctive forms of the Baron and the Sire. The former was held in the latter’s arms as they hovered in mid-air a few feet from my window, arguing with each other in their native tongue; I heard my own name mentioned, and the word “blog”, but could understand nothing else. Eventually, having apparently reached an accord, they flew right up to the window and the Baron reached out to pull it open, for I had not bothered to close the latch. He beckoned me closer, and I leaned forward, transfixed. At that moment, the crucifix that had lain hidden all night inside my shirt (for I had not wanted to risk offending my hosts, particularly when I am not even Catholic) slipped out, shining silver in the moonlight. The Baron and the Sire both flinched back violently, hissing and spitting curses, and promptly dropped back down out of my sight, after which I retreated to my bed in a state of unease and confusion.
In the morning, of course, I realized that these troubling visions were due to the spiciness of the paprika hendl that I had consumed and its unwholesome impact upon my digestion; I therefore asked Mina to reduce the amount of paprika from the Baron’s original recipe when she prepared it for me subsequently, and have slept peacefully ever since. 😊
2 tbsp butter
3 lb chicken pieces
2 onions, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 tomatoes, diced
1 red bell pepper, diced
1 tsp paprika
2 cups chicken broth
1 ½ tsp salt
½ tsp pepper
3 tbsp flour
¾ cup sour cream
¼ cup cream
Melt butter in a pot and brown the chicken. Transfer to a separate plate. Fry onions until golden brown, then add garlic, tomatoes and bell pepper and fry for another 2-3 minutes. Stir in paprika, salt and pepper, and return chicken to pot along with broth. Bring to a boil, then cover and simmer for 40 minutes. In a small bowl, mix the flour, cream and sour cream to a smooth paste, then stir into the paprika sauce until thickened. Season to taste and serve with rice or spätzle.