Hungarian Vegan: Lecsó

You can tell a lot about a country's priorities by what kind of vegan food they have. At home in America, for instance, we've got delightfully rubbery soy hot dogs, veganaise, sliced cheese, and hundreds of different kinds of veggie burgers. (Are we a barbeque-oriented country or what?) Go to France and Belgium and you will find delicious soy yogurt in every variety and flavor, as well as thick vegan chocolate-hazelnut spread to die for and soy creamer that puts US versions to shame. (They like their breakfasts creamy and sweet.) Germany has vegan quark, a sort of thick yogurty-cream cheese beloved by German frauen, as well as seitan curry wurst to enjoy with spicy ketchup. And Austria? Welcome to vegan wiener schnitzel country. With a side of lemony potato salad, bitte! (see at right)

But here in Hungary, folks are wild about paprika in its every incarnation. So enter a bio-market in Budapest and you will find the most amazing paprika-spiked vegan sausages, and lots of varieties of them. Sweet, smoky, and spicy, but always with plenty of red paprika that bleeds into whatever else you're cooking. Since I can't read Hungarian (YET) I've been stocking up on these sausages when I have some extra cash, and they make a great surprise addition to whatever else I'm cooking, since I never know what spices will appear. Greens, beans, and corn all get a texture and taste boost from these sausages.

Enter my Hungarian flatmate, K, who has an even better idea. "Lecsó" is a dish made with Hungarian superstars peppers, tomatoes and onions. Its a simple dish, the only rule is, there has to be twice as many peppers as tomatoes, or it will be too bitter. You can also use up your not-so-fresh peppers and tomatoes here, it will still be great. It's very versatile- add eggplant and you've got Serbia djuvece, add a little broth or water and you have a saucier dish that would be nice over pasta. People often use bacon or sausage for a little fat, or add a fried egg on top (a dollop of soy sour cream wouldn't be out of place either). But served just with a little bread, you have a cheap and delicious Hungarian summer classic.

Lecsó ("Leh-cho")
(Note: this is an approximation, just keep to the rule of thumb of twice as many peppers as tomatoes and you'll be fine. Also, you can sub other peppers for Hungarian yellow paprika, but you may want to adjust the flavorings .)

-olive oil
-1 big onion (or two small) diced
-1 Hungarian-style vegetarian sausage (or sub about 3/4 cup some other type of crumbly sausage and add 1 tablespoon smoked or sweet paprika as it cooks with the onion)
-8 Hungarian yellow peppers, cut into chunky dice
-4 tomatoes, diced
-salt and pepper, sugar (optional)

1.) In a large non-stick pan, saute onion and sausage in a little olive oil over medium heat until onion is soft and flavored by sausage. (If using paprika spice, add it now.)
2.) Add in peppers and cook for 10 minutes. Then add in tomatoes, salt and pepper (and an optional pinch of sugar.) Cook for 20 minutes, or until saucy and peppers are cooked to desired "done-ness."

Serve w/ rice or crusty bread.

What vegetarian specialties does your country or region have?

Song of the Day: Gogol Bordello- Start Wearing Purple


Asian slaw, Grilled Tofu, and Sweet Potatoes w/ lime

Back in May I went back to the US for a few weeks to visit with my parents, enjoy the heat, and basically calm myself before moving to yet another new country. (The multitude of Real Housewives and Daily Show marathons weren't unwanted, either.) As usual, my generous parents plied me with Thai food, guacamole, and all the bagels I could eat. Amidst all this, I did a great deal more "lying on the couch" than "standing in the kitch," however, we did have one famous meal I can share with you.

My Dad had gotten obsessed with Asian slaw after eating a great version at a fancy restaurant in DC: crunchy vegetables, a spicy, peanutty sauce, and on top, perfectly grilled scallops. We decided to have our own version, with scallops for the omnis and grilled tofu (tofu brushed with oil and sprinkled with seasoned salt) for me and my brother. On the side was a basic sweet potato salad: grilled chunks of sweet potatoes with lime, cumin, and a touch of maple syrup.

The dressing was easy to make and the slaw makes a ton, so this is definitely a great crowd-pleaser for a mixed group. Here's the complete menu I would serve for a perfect summery feast:

Summer Asian-Fusion Inspired Grill Menu

Mint Mojitos
Store-bought Veggie Springrolls for an app
Spicy Asian Slaw
Plain grilled Tofu (or scallops for omnis)
Grilled Sweet Potato Salad w/ lime
Fresh Mango w/ a scoop of Coconut ice cream for dessert

Spicy Asian Slaw

For dressing:
-1/4 cup + 2 T smooth peanut butter
-4 T. fresh lime juice
-3 T. H2O
-1 T. Soy Sauce* (Many recipes call for fish sauce, so if you have vegan fish-flavored sauce feel free to use that here.)
-3 T. sugar or Agave nectar
-3 garlic cloves, minced
-1 T. Sriracha (or to taste)

1.) Whisk all ingredients together until smooth. If its too thick, add a little more water. Refrigerate until immediately before serving.

For Slaw
-ca. 2 lbs. napa cabbage, shredded
-1/2 a red cabbage, shredded
-2 large red peppers, deseeded and thinly sliced
-3 large carrots, shredded or thinly sliced
-Cilantro or mint (optional)

1.) Combine all ingredients in a large bowl. When ready to serve, toss with dressing and top with cilantro or mint, if using.

Oh USA, I will miss you and your plethora of ethnic grocery stores, packed with delights. Now back to Budapest...

Song of the Day: Bob Marley- Sun is shining


Mushroom Paprikás

This weekend S. came to visit me in my new digs in Budapest. Since I haven't been doing a lot of "cooking" these last couple of weeks (more like "foraging"), I was excited to have someone else around to inspire me to get back in the kitchen. After wandering around the city all day, visiting friends and checking out cute little stores in the Jewish District, we headed back home with some gorgeous Hungarian yellow peppers and a vague plan to make paprikás.

Paprikás (pronounced "paprikash") is a relatively simple traditional meal that normally involves some kind of protein, ample smoked or sweet paprika, peppers, tomatoes and sour cream. Even with this simple base, it is so unique and delicious, and really lends itself well to veganizing. I've made it before with chickpeas (from The Urban Vegan's recipe) and thought it was fantastic, but this time we lacked both chickpeas AND powdered paprika spice (oddly enough, for being in Budapest...)

However, I had a ton of mushrooms, and a jar of this weird kind of pureed red pepper paste that I've been experimenting with lately. If paprikás really needs red pepper flavor, than what's the big flavor difference between powder and paste, right?

Well, actually there is a difference. It was WAY better than usual. This red pepper paste has found its fate. (In fact, it probably says to use it this way on the jar, but I don't speak one word of Hungarian.*) If you are going to duplicate this at home, I would recommend either trying to find the original Hungarian stuff at a Eastern European market, or just looking around for the red pepper tapenade that occasionally pops up in stores. However, keep in mind that the Hungarian version I have is both very mild and quite salty and piquant- hence the extra sugar in the recipe. There's bound to be different versions out there. Additionally, you'll need soy yogurt or sour cream for this, and we all know that these products have varying degrees of reliability. Just test it out and you'll be fine.

At any rate, I urge you to try Paprikás one of these days- either mine, Isa's version with tofu, or The Urban Vegan's cookbook version with chickpeas. It is such a crowd-pleaser, so adaptable, and such a great gift from Hungary to the world.

Mushroom Paprikas

(Serves 2 generously)
-1 large white onion, diced
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- a package or about 2 cups brown mushrooms, cleaned and sliced
-3 Hungarian yellow peppers, de-seeded and cut into a big dice
-2 and 1/2 tablespoons mild Hungarian red pepper paste/ cream (it kind of looks like this.)
-2 tomatoes, diced
-1 T Agave Nectar (optional)
-1/2 cup water
- 1/3 cup soy yogurt or sour cream, at room temp.
- Green onions for topping (optional)

1.) In a large skillet or cast iron pan, heat oil over medium and add in onions. Cook for 2-3 minutes, then add in garlic. Cook another 5 minutes or until onions are translucent.
2.) Add in mushrooms and season w/ salt and pepper. Cook, stirring frequently, another 5 minutes then add in peppers.
3.) When both peppers and mushrooms are softened, add in tomatoes, agave, red pepper paste, and water. Continue stirring occasionally until you have a nice saucy pan.
4.) In a small bowl, combine room temp yogurt or sour cream with a heaping spoonful of the sauce, and mix together with a fork. Add this mixture into your pan. Stir until incorporated, taste once more for salt, then turn off heat and cover until ready to serve. Serve over pasta or spaetzle., sprinkled with green onions. A nice glass of sweet Hungarian wine wouldn't be out of place either.

Song of the Day: Grizzly Bear- Two Weeks


Berlin to Budapest

Hey party people!

I'm writing to you now after a long absence due to my hectic last month, which included a visit to the USA, a return to Berlin, and all of the preparations to get here to crazy, sexy Budapest! It was a stressful transition, but it everytime I move to a new country it seems to get easier. Probably its about accepting that you are going to be desperately confused for about a month, and trying just to relax and enjoy the panic.

I took an overnight train (for only 29€!) from Berlin, offering me the unique experience of sleeping with 6 other people in the space of a janitors closet while we passed by Dresden, Prague, Bratislava, and a bunch of other random European cities. We arrived the next morning at Budapest's Keleti station, a train station that is both beautiful and sketchy as all get out. (There's all these weird back hallways with people playing cards and drinking shots at 9am...) Luckily, my new roommate was waiting for me, and took me back to our neighborhood which is still sketchier. On our block we have a heroin needle exchange, a brothel, a park which looks like a meeting point for human traffickers, and on the bright side, a gay bar called "Desire."

But despite the sketchiness, my apartment is lovely and centrally enough located to make the slightly disconcerting surrounding bearable. Just look, a mere 20 minute walk and I'm here, at the Central Market Hall in Fõvám square!

As a vegetarian traveling to Budapest this is a MUST. They have everything, from all varieties of local fruits and vegetables (like gorgeous Hungarian peppers) to every spice imaginable, including Hungary's favorite ingredient, paprika. (Both smoked and sweet varieties, natch.) Since I am too busy to prepare food at the moment (*sob*) I picked up some of Hungary's most available summertime fruits: flattened peaches and lascivious red cherries. I've been eating both with soy yogurt, muesli and agave nectar for a daily breakfast before heading over to Buda for my traineeship.

Meanwhile, back in Berlin, Summer is in full swing, with tons of festivals, live music playing by wanderlust-y tourists, and of course, a huge produce scare. You might wonder how cucumbers could become tainted with E.Coli.... or maybe, since you are vegetarian you don't wonder. (Hint: its from animal shit.) Sad. But look at these beautiful rainbows over Görlitzer Park!
Before I left I had a small dinner party to say goodbye to all my pals. Staying away from cucumbers and tomatoes, we indulged in a humungous pot of risotto, packed with sugar snap peas, asparagus, and lemon juice and zest. To reproduce in your own home, follow my normal risotto recipe (using 2 cups rice), lightly saute peas and asparagus on the side, then at the last minute, fold in veggies along with the juice and rind of one lemon. Completely lekker.

Meanwhile, its time to adjust to my new kitchen and get cooking here in Budapest. Wish me luck!!

Song of the Day: Ben Folds Five- Whatever and Ever, Amen