“Neeeeeeeeeeeeee,” comes the loud protest from a Hungarian child served a bowl full of főzelék. They don’t like it too much. I, on the other hand, have come to crave the stuff often. I guess the distance from this childhood staple has boosted my fondness for it and, when home, I’m never ashamed of asking for it. I beg my grandmother to make it even on a Sunday, which I’m repeatedly told by my culture-bearing grandfather is not the proper time to consume this humble dish. But if I happen to be around on a Sunday she makes it for me anyway.
What is főzelék? A thick soup or thin stew, a hearty thing made by adding a lard-and-flour roux and/or sour cream to veggies that have been cooked in salted water. It can be made out of pretty much any vegetable, but the most popular variations are with green beans, yellow beans, peas, cabbage, potato, spinach, sorrel (my favorite!) and lentils. The főzelék itself never involves meat in the recipe but is ultimately paired with some sort of grilled or deep-fried protein. Every family seems to have a favorite pairing. As far as mine is concerned sorrel is best with fasirt (deep fried pork meat balls) and spinach with a fried egg. Főzelék is a cheap, filling dish with simple flavors, which became the standard lunch at school and institutional cafeterias during Hungary’s Socialist Era. It’s still the favorite of lunch ladies who ladle the stuff into bowls for hungry children across the country. After 5-6 years of the same thing they, understandably, grow quite weary of the stuff. But it’s also a comfort food for many, especially when made by someone who loves ya. Recently my sister-in-law made tökfőzelék and served it with a grilled hot dog. Tökfőzelék is made by chopping squash into slender slivers that resemble a slaw in form and adding this to a base of onion sautéed with a good handful of dill. The squash is cooked with a bit of milk, more dill and plenty of water until most of the liquid evaporates. It is then thickened with sour cream, which also gives it a creamy consistency. When the squash cooks through, the főzelék has a wonderfully comforting texture, which reminds one of spaghetti in a thick cream sauce. But the squash has a more vegetal, luscious texture. It’s sweet with some clean, herbal acidity added by the dill. The charred, smoky flavor of the hot dog adds great contrast to this milky, clean stew and the bit of excess grease leaves golden pools of sausage jus on the bed of főzelék.
Recently főzelék has become “retro” and is often ironically included on menus of fancier restaurants around Budapest, usually as a base for some more decadent protein – duck breast or the tender short rib of a calf, perhaps. There are also some trendy fast food joints that serve it, along with other comforting staples. Grandma food for those on the go, if you will. For me it’s always better homemade, scooped out of the same bowl I’ve been eating out of since I was 7.