Lecsó – Hungarian Pepper, Onion, Bacon And Tomato Stew

Lecsó (pronounced, if I have it right, “lehtch-o”) has been on my mind ever since we made that first trip to Hungary last fall to learn more about the country’s rich culinary heritage. It is actually a very simple dish, akin to ratatouille in texture but of course with a Hungarian flavor all its own. Every cook seems to have their own version, along with strongly held opinions about the “right” way to make it. There’s clearly no totally “wrong” way to make it so I’ll get over the fact that I’m a relative novice and just share what I know.

Our trip to Budapest last fall was well timed for many reasons, one of which is that the markets were loaded with great produce. Vegetables are a big deal in Hungary. To quote George Lang, “In Hungary vegetables are not just ‘cooked;’ they are ‘prepared.’ The difference between an American vegetable dish and a Hungarian one is similar to the difference between plain boiled meat and a meat stew.” So, you see, although making the dish isn’t really very difficult, making lecsó is not a thing to be taken lightly. Lang calls lecsó, “… one of the most ingeniously used vegetable dishes in the Hungarian kitchen.” Gábor tells me that in his interpretation, “lecsó is basically a pepper stew. The key ingredient when I make it is the onion. This will provide you with a thick, rich, sauce. Lots of onions.”

Most of the lecsó recipes I’ve seen, and what I’ve been doing at home, are a mix of onions, peppers and tomatoes, cooked in lard or oil, and seasoned with bacon, salt, and Hungarian paprika. Most recipes add some sugar, but I prefer this (and most things) less sweet so I’ve been leaving it out. You can finish the dish by mixing in some beaten egg, and I’ve done that on occasion as well. For onions, I’ve been using sweet onions from the market. For tomatoes, when the season comes, I’ll use whatever heirlooms look good; right now, in the Michigan spring, I’d stick to really good canned tomatoes. And for the peppers, the Hungarian long yellow wax peppers.

In Hungary we had lecsó that was spicy and lecsó that wasn’t, so clearly not all Hungarians are in agreement on whether you should use the hot peppers or the sweet peppers. Normally, people don’t make it too spicy and individuals add their own heat at the table with fresh hot peppers, crushed pepper, dried whole peppers hot paprika or anything else you like. I’ve been doing a blend of hot and sweet peppers. I’ve also been throwing in some long red peppers, too. Bacon levels also varied a lot, and some of the lecsó had sliced sausage in it as well. In Hungary, people like to add sour cream to their lecsó at the table.

George Lang, says that its origins are Serbian, and that it’s “very closely related to their djuvets.” Serbia lies just south of Hungary and pepper-based dishes are eaten all over the Balkans. I’ve also heard it’s similar to a dish made in Romania, though there I guess they would roast the peppers first giving the dish a bit smokier flavor. In Romania it would often be served over m˘am˘alig˘a (polenta).

To make the lecsó, take a good bit of Hungarian bacon and chop it into small pieces. Cook it on low heat in a deep skillet for a few minutes. I’ve been using the double smoked Hungarian bacon we have at the Deli but you can of course use any good bacon you like (well, you can use bad bacon too but . … ). The guanciale or smoked jowl that we have at the Deli will be delicious, too. If the bacon gives off enough fat, you can continue to cook just in that. If you’re in need of more grease, and you have bacon fat standing by you can just use that. Alternatively, you can use oil—in Hungary sunflower oil seems to be the choice, but I’ve been addicted to olive oil for so long that’s what I’ve been using.

Add a good-sized onion, sliced medium, to the skillet. Sprinkle on a pinch of sea salt, and then cook over moderately low heat for above five or six minutes ‘til the onion is soft.

Meanwhile cut the peppers into half-inch slices. It will likely seem like a lot of peppers if you’re not used to doing this but they’re the key element of the dish, not just a back up ingredient. I’ve been using a high ratio of peppers (about a pound probably) to the one good-sized onion. When the onion is soft, add the peppers. Sprinkle on a touch more salt and cook over low-medium heat for another ten to fifteen minutes or so. (The salting makes a difference because it pulls the moisture out of the peppers.)

While the peppers are cooking, cut three or so large tomatoes into chunks. Or, if you’re using canned, open a large can of Italian tomatoes. Add the tomatoes to the pan, along with a touch more salt and some Hungarian paprika. Generally people seem to use the sweet paprika rather than hot, but I’ve used some of each. It’s your lecsó and you can do what you like. Stir well and simmer another ten to fifteen minutes. I’ve been cooking it covered to keep the mixture moist but you can also add a bit of water as you cook. It should have the texture of a vegetable stew, like ratatouille or coronate—thicker than a soup, but not totally dry either. You should be able to spoon it onto toast if you so desired. Taste for texture, salt and spice level and adjust accordingly.

You can eat the lecsó right away, but it also cools and keeps really well too. If you like, add some beaten egg in at the end and let it set into vegetable mix before you serve. Alternatively you can cook the lecsó without the bacon but of course … then it won’t have any bacon in it. Or if you want to go part way with it, Molly Stevens favors cooking it in bacon fat but not using any actually pieces of pork in the dish, so you can try it that way.

Molly Stevens, whose wonderful new book, All About Roasting, is winning awards all over the country, has come to love lecsó, too. “I’ve been doing a lot of what the chef showed us with the pork loin at one of the restaurants in Budapest. You sear the meat (pork or chicken would both be good), then set it into a skillet with a bed of warmed lecsó and cover and cook till meat/poultry is cooked through. This application underscores how lecsó is like a Spanish sofrito or a tomato sauce in other cuisines—it’s a real foundation of the cuisine and used in many dishes AND also served as a side dish.”

Interestingly, George Lang suggests another version of lecsó you might make to use as a base for other dishes when peppers and tomatoes aren’t in season—a lot of onions, cooked slowly in bacon fat, and then simmered with paprika and salt. Basically a winter version of lecsó that would be good right now in the Michigan spring as well.