Friday, January 8, 2010

Food for skiers. Goulash soup.

Lake Tahoe is my love forever. In summer, the unbelievably blue color of the water, the clearest one can swim in, and the magical smell of tall pine trees in the sun are enough to make me happy. In winter… I am a skier, do I have to explain? I’ve been coming to some of my favorite Tahoe ski resorts for years, some seasons every weekend plus a few week days, when the snow report makes it impossible to go to the office.

Every mountain has its character, defined both by the terrain and people who work there. There is a place that has a famous ski school and offers lessons on advanced techniques and guided backcountry tours; another one is so enormously big that you can ski there for days and never do the same run twice; there is a mountain with the best fresh runs in the trees, and one where the lifties always play just the right kind of music.

However, all California ski resorts are missing one important thing: good food on the mountain. Skiing is a sport, and very energy-consuming one, if you do it right. It makes one hungry. And if you got hungry in the middle of the day on one of our mountains, the options are few:
- Go to one of the messy crowded slopeside “restaurants” and see if you can stand the look and smell of the fast-food-quality food on bent paper plates (and can afford it).
- Call it a day, and go to a restaurant in town, or back to the cabin and cook.
- If you brought sandwiches and were carrying them in your backpack, chances are that you fell a couple of times, or leaned on the back of the lift chair, or something. Then you and your buddies can get your sandwiches out and have some good fun comparing resulting shapes and counting pieces. But the sandwiches will be cold.

My solution so far has been: smashed and broken homemade ham and cheese sandwiches or beef pierogi from my backpack + paper cup of hot wine from a cafe.

A few days ago I found a blog post of my friend’s friend, posting from San Anton am Arlberg, a Tyrolean ski resort where my brother from and I like to meet and ski for one week every few years. We would stay in the village of Lech (San Anton covers two valleys and five villages, you can get from one to another by bus, or on skis and lifts – this takes some time and work). That blog post reminded me how we used to get on the lift next to our hotel in Lech in the morning and ski down the other side to Zurs. There we would enjoy some very long steep red pistes, some off-piste powder skiing, and by the lunchtime we would come to Seekopf, the ski foodie’s dream.

The restaurant sits in the middle of the mountain, overlooking Zurssee lake, lifts and ski trails; accessed by chairlift. It has a large patio and an extensive ski rack outside. Mostly Tyrolean traditional food is great, and you eat it from real plates, and drink your weissbier from a tall elegant glass, and your gluhwein from a cozy ceramic mug, while watching avalanches going down distant slopes.

Sausages rule the menu, of course. For soups (and the weather calls for a soup) they have Austrian goulashsuppe and an unlikely chili. (Californians should all go to Austria to sample chili and to learn how to make it. The best chili is not made from a can in a microwave, but is actually cooked using meat, beans, and peppers. )

Austrians adopted goulash from their Hungarian neighbors, who make it as a thick stew of beef and beef heart with a lot of paprika. In Austria, they left out the beef heart, and made goulash into a soup. Hot, fragrant, and filling, perfect lunch on a cold day.

My goulashsuppe is reverse-engineered from what I had in Zurs. I cooked it at home this time, but I wish I could get a bowl of it, or a decent chili, and a mug of hot wine, in any Tahoe ski resort, right next to the lift.

Hungarian paprika comes in hot and mild varieties. I am not very heat-tolerant, so I always use mild. That's just personal taste.

Goulash soup
4 large servings

2.5 lb beef chuck, trimmed of fat and cut into 1 inch cubes
1 large yellow onion, chopped
3 garlic cloves, chopped
2 Tbsp olive oil + more if needed
1 large (28 oz) can whole peeled tomatoes, with juice
1 red bell pepper, cored and chopped
3 cups beef or chicken stock
2 tsp Hungarian paprika
1 tsp caraway seed
2 bay leaves, broken into a few pieces
4-5 dried oregano sprigs (1/2 tsp)
4 juniper berries, lightly crushed
salt, pepper

Optional garnish: 4 tsp creme fraiche, 4 sprigs of parsley

Brown the beef on all sides in a heavy large sautee pan with some oil over high heat.

Heat a little oil in a medium heavy pot over medium heat. Add onions and cook, stirring, until transparent. Add garlic and cook another minute. Add tomatoes, peppers and stock. Bring to a low simmer. Season with paprika, caraway, oregano, bay leaves, juniper berries, salt and pepper.

Reduce the heat to maintain the lowest simmer. Cook until the beef is very tender, about 2 hours.

Divide between bowls, garnish with creme fraiche and parsley. Serve with a mug of hot wine, or a glass of beer.

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