According to restaurateur and doyen of Hungarian cuisine, George Lang, in The Cuisine of Hungary, paprika (a.k.a. bell peppers or capsicums, as we know the fruit of the Capsicum annuum) were unknown in Europe until the ambitious Genoese explorer Christopher Columbus made his voyage across the Atlantic to the New World. The ornamental plant remained a botanical curiosity, however, until the latter part of the sixteenth century. When cultivated, its fruit was widely embraced as a seasoning agent - particularly by the Hungarians, whose cuisine is today synonymous with paprika, the pungent spice ground from dried capsicum.
Hardly surprising then that this Hungarian-Australian girl ate many a capsicum and plenty of paprika throughout her childhood (and I still do). My mother used sweet capsicums and paprika in numerous dishes, including my favourite comforts foods: Chicken Paprika (Paprikás Csirke) and Stuffed Peppers (Töltött Paprika). At snack time, Mum would make slices of crunchy red or green capsicum topped with Swiss cheese (her healthy version of cheese and crackers). Another favourite was a confiture or stew of capsicums, tomatoes and onions known as Lecsó (pronounced 'LATCH-oh'). I liken this dish to the Sicilian Peperonata, minus the Balsamic vinegar and herbs.
In Hungary, lecsó is cooked with lashings of lard and is often prepared and then frozen or bottled as a Summer preserve, so that it can be enjoyed throughout Winter. It is lovely served hot or cold with chunks of crusty bread (as an appetiser or side-dish) or as a meatless main meal. It's rustic, rich in colour and flavour, and packed with goodness. I have come to know it as my Hungarian peperonata ... which is a little cheeky of me, but I think that name sounds sexier than lecsó. Enjoy!
MY HUNGARIAN PEPERONATA
2-3 tablespoons oil
1 large onion, sliced
1-2 cloves garlic, chopped
3 sweet red capsicums, seeds and core removed, flesh cut into strips
2 green capsicums, seeds and core removed, flesh cut into strips
1 yellow or orange capsicum, seeds and core removed, flesh cut into strips
2 ripe Roma tomatoes, peeled and chopped
1 teaspoon noble sweet Hungarian paprika
1/4-1/2 teaspoon dried chilli flakes (optional)
salt, to taste
crusty bread to serve
Heat the oil in a heavy-based frypan or skillet. Saute the onion gently. Sprinkle with salt to bring out the sweetness in the onions and sweat them off until translucent. Add the capsicum strips and cook well, stirring constantly until just tender. Add tomatoes, garlic, paprika, chilli flakes and extra salt (if you wish) to taste. Cover and cook over low heat for a further 10-15 minutes. You can allow the capsicums to stew until soft or cook for less time if you'd like a little crunch in the texture. Sprinkle with a tablespoon or two of water, if need be, to prevent the confiture from catching too much, but do allow it to caramelise slightly as this will result in a wonderful sweet and nutty sauce. Serves 4.
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NB: I use Australian standard measuring cups and spoons in my recipes.