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Maroon Ambrosia: Hungarian Venison Stew with Juniper Berries and Red Wine

Adrienn Vass 2020.12.18.

A staple of Christmas dinners for many Hungarians, red wine and juniper venison pörkölt is one of the most supremely delicious dishes ever devised by man.

Translation by Balázs Frei

“Pörkölés,” a type of stewing, is an important technique in Hungarian cuisine. It involves first searing cubed meat in a pan with some kind of fat and onions, stirring continuously until the meat has released all of its moisture content. Taking the pan off the stove, paprika is added generously, then water is used to deglaze the pan and cook the meat once it is back on the heat.

Pörkölt, or Hungarian stew, is sometimes also referred to as goulash, although this typically denotes something that is consumed like a soup. Pörkölt is in fact a descendant of goulash dishes developed in the 1700s, and is treated more similarly to a curry, usually served with Hungarian dumplings. Today, the famous Hungarian gulyásleves is a rich but non-viscous variant of goulash.

Until the 1860s, Hungarian stews were generally only prepared in the Alföld (Great Hungarian Plain), but thanks to various popular accounts of travels to this region, the technique spread across the country rapidly. By the end of the 19th century, no holiday feast was complete without a pörkölt, but the dish had also become a part of regular life. According to a saying from Csongrád County, “there is no Sunday without a stew.” Later, city life made the stew a common everyday food, although it remained a Sunday treat in the countryside.

Using game for making stew is as old as the dish itself, but it became a favorite of Hungarian aristocracy due to the rarity of venison, and later earned its place as one of the staples of Hungarian Christmas dinners.

Game has to be treated similarly to beef. It has to be given plenty of time to tenderize, and can be seasoned liberally and cooked with wine.

Venison Stew with Red Wine

1 kg (around 2 lbs) venison
3 large onions
3-4 tbsp fat
3 tbsp ground, sweet Hungarian paprika
10 juniper berries
2 glasses (around 1.5 cups) of red wine
3 laurel leaves
2 tsp tomato paste
2-3 cloves of crushed garlic
2 tbsp salt
pepper

Cube the meat. Dice and sweat the onions  in fat until translucent. Add the meat, sear it a little. Add the paprika, tomato paste, and the two glasses of wine, as well as just enough water to get everything submerged. Add salt and pepper, slightly torn jumper berries, laurel leaves, and crushed garlic. Continually replenish boiled-off water, but do not put too much in. The point is to create a thick, concentrated sauce by the end.

Depending on the meat, cook for around 2 hours, on medium or low flame, with the lid on. Serve with Hungarian dumplings or boiled potatoes.

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Photos by Péter Csákvári/Hungary Today