A passion for paprika ignited in me during a recent trip to Spain. As I wandered through the pepper fields in La Vera, a district in the remote western part of the country, I could see and smell something happening in the long, rustic farm sheds ahead of me, where aromatic wisps of smoke curled from the rooftops. Harvest time had just ended, and I could spy a few small red peppers still peeking from the low foliage. I followed my nose and entered one of the sheds. In front of me sat huge mounds of crimson peppers. Below the peppers, smoldering oak logs sent heat and smoke up through a slatted floor. This age-old process would go on for ten days or more until the peppers, dried and infused with strong, smoky flavor, would be pulverized between millstones to become the glorious, rusty-red spice called pimentón.
Until that fateful day, I had counted myself a solid, though lust-free, fan of genuine Hungarian paprika (and a serious disdainer of the typical supermarket stuff, which can be relatively tasteless). Now, both Hungarian and Spanish paprikas hold unshakable positions in my pantry.
All paprikas derive from the same family of peppers, Capsicum annuum (the plant world’s richest source of vitamin C). Different varieties within this family account for the unique flavors and degrees of spicy heat found in different paprikas. The country of origin (there are also paprikas from France, Portugal, and several Eastern European countries), the region, and the drying process also add to the nuances of flavor.
Hungarian paprika comes from the areas around the southern cities of Szeged and Kalocsa, where fresh peppers were traditionally strung into long scarlet garlands and then hung to air-dry from the house eaves. These days, they’re more commonly dried in commercial ovens before being stone ground. And while Hungary produces six special varieties of paprika, they export just two to us—sweet and hot (in this case, sweet simply means not hot).
For Hungarians, paprika is an indispensable element of cooking. As a part of their culinary “holy trinity”—onions cooked in freshly rendered pork fat with paprika—it contributes its unmistakable, intensely concentrated vegetal flavor to dishes such as soups, stews, and cabbage dishes. It’s impossible to imagine such classics as chicken paprikás (chicken simmered with onions, green bell pepper, tomato, paprika, and sour cream), stuffed cabbage (leaves stuffed with ground pork and beef, rice, paprika, onions, and garlic), or mutton gulyás (lamb stewed with green peppers, onions, tomatoes, potatoes, and hot paprika) without their earthy, piquant paprika seasoning.
It would be just as unthinkable for a Spaniard to find the big, toasted taste of pimentón missing from chorizo sausage, from ajada (olive oil sauce fragrant with sautéed garlic), or from fideuá (a Valencian fish, shrimp, and pasta dish).
Spanish pimentón has an affinity to all sorts of foods, from potatoes, rice, beans, and eggs to seafood, pork, lamb, and game. Hungarian paprika is good in luscious cream and sour cream sauces, stews, potatoes, vegetables, and soups. Either is terrific as part of a seasoning rub for roasts and grilled foods. I also like to add a teaspoon to a quick meat or vegetable sauté at the last minute so the paprika cooks long enough to infuse its flavor into the dish but doesn’t burn.
Both Spanish and Hungarian paprikas come packed in small tins with tightly reclosable lids to keep air out and flavor in. They’re best stored away from heat and light and used within six to nine months. Most supermarkets carry the familiar red tins of Hungarian Szeged paprika in both sweet and hot types. If it is unavailable at your local market, try Otto’s Hungarian Import Store. For now, Spanish pimentón (available in three heat levels: dulce, agridulce, and picante, from the sweetest to the hottest) is available only by mail-order and online; try La Tienda.
Experiment with paprika
• Sauté cabbage with onion, caraway seed, and paprika; stir in sour cream at the end.
• Make a thick potato soup with caramelized onions and paprika; garnish with crisp bacon.
• Stew chunks of veal or sausage with lots of tomatoes, sweet bell peppers, onion, garlic, freshly ground pepper, and paprika.
• Braise thick pork chops in a little broth with garlic, onion, and paprika; stir in a bit of cream or sour cream at the end and sprinkle with fresh dill.
• Sear strips of beef fillet and toss with sautéed mushrooms, onions, garlic, and paprika; add sour cream at the end.
• Dip fillets of white-fleshed fish in paprika-seasoned flour and sauté in lard (or use pimentón and sauté in olive oil).
• Brown chicken thighs with whole shallots and garlic cloves, season with paprika and fresh thyme, and simmer in a little white wine.
• Flavor an omelet or scrambled eggs with pimentón; fill with or fold in goat cheese and sautéed mushrooms.
• Sauté thinly sliced potatoes and onions in olive oil until browned and tender; stir in pimentón at the end. Or, dress a baked potato with spoonfuls of extra-virgin olive oil seasoned with pimentón.
• Flavor a rice pilaf with grated lemon zest and pimentón.
• Season a lamb and chickpea or white bean stew with pimentón.
• Coat a pork or lamb roast with a crumb crust flavored with olive oil, thyme, parsley, and pimentón.
• Top grilled fish fillets or sea scallops with a dollop of pimentón–rosemary butter.
• Toss roasted red peppers and chunks of roasted tomato with a garlic-pimentón vinaigrette; serve as an appetizer or side dish.