My husband did not grow up in a family of culinary adventurers. His mother cooked with only three “spices”: salt, pepper and paprika. Like many home cooks of her time, she only added paprika to a dish for its color, never for its flavor. For her, paprika was an accessory, like wearing a scarf or a belt with a plain dress. That was the norm in her era; many cooks probably couldn’t identify paprika in a blind taste test.
Back then, paprika was not much more than a flavorless red dust. It’s hard to believe that a spice made from ground peppers could ever be considered bland. But times change, even in the kitchen, and today paprika is thought of as an ingredient with impact, not simply as an accessory.
Hungary, where paprika is considered to be the national spice, produces an intensely red-pepper-flavored spice, which today is available in most grocery stores. While there are many grades of Hungarian paprika, two varieties are most common in the United States: sweet or hot. Sweet is the one most often called for in recipes, but having a can of hot is a nice option for those who like a little more zip in their dishes.
A third version, however, has become the darling of many restaurant kitchens. It’s smoked paprika, harvested in Spain and dried over a wood fire. It’s not hot in flavor, and lends a rich smokiness to any dish.
Goulash, Hungary’s version of beef stew and perhaps its most celebrated dish, uses a liberal dose of paprika to give the famous earthy flavor, which seems perfect as we move into the cooler months. While goulash is a family favorite, cooking it low enough and long enough to produce tender cubes of meat on a weeknight is not often do-able. That’s when I turn to the slow cooker.
While the idea of simply dumping all the ingredients into the cooker in the morning is tempting, this stew — and many others — benefits by thoroughly browning the meat first. Because I don’t usually have time to take that step in the morning, I like to assemble the entire dish the night before when I’m cooking dinner and have it ready to pour into the slow cooker in the morning. Then I only have to hit the “on” button to have dinner in the works.
If you’re one who only uses paprika as an accessory on your mother-in-law’s deviled egg recipe, give it another try in a dish that highlights its rich, sweet red pepper flavor. You’ll never think of it as just a splash of color again.
Meredith Deeds of Edina is the author of “Everyday to Entertaining” and “The Big Book of Appetizers.” Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @meredithdeeds.