This is an embarrassing admission for someone who thinks of herself as an adventurous eater — but I’m a spice wimp.
Truly scorching spices singe my tongue, and leave my palate dead to the world of whatever they touch.
Still, winter begs for flavors that fend off the chill.
So, more often than not, I reach for spices that warm, without causing internal combustion.
Cumin. Curry. Mild chili powders. And the passion of the moment: paprika.
It lends subtle heat and earthy undertones to all kinds of dishes. Its brick red color injects coziness into bleak winter nights. And if you’re one of the many people who think paprika’s primary role on the spice rack is as a garnish for deviled eggs, you might want to think again. You’re missing a world of taste.
Like all chiles, the peppers used to develop paprika originated in the New World.
By the 1500s, they were cargo on Spanish ships sailing home. From Spain, they traveled to Asia and Africa, and within decades, they had landed in Central Europe.
European farmers got busy cultivating milder, sweeter varieties. The peppers used to make most paprika today are distant descendants of the ones that first left Mexico.
The Spanish are justifiably proud of their paprika — known in that country as pimentón, a derivative of the word pimento. If their smoked version isn’t in your pantry, it should be. It’s become quite inexpensive, and it instantly adds a smoky earthiness to anything you’re cooking.
Spanish cooks use pimentón to season everything from soups and stews to fried foods, fish and meats. They pour copious amounts — about 75 percent of their crop — into charcuterie. Pimentón figures into mojos and rice dishes. At tapas bars on the Mediterranean, you’ll see patrons gleefully digging into bowls of mussels steamed in little more than pimentón and water.
But Hungary is recognized as the place where paprika reaches its zenith.
Authorities generally agree that Hungarian paprika is the world’s finest, partly because the climate is decidedly hospitable to paprika peppers. In fact, Turkish conquerors were growing them in Buda (now part of Budapest) by the mid-1500s.
Given romantic names like “Delicate,” “Exquisite Delicate” and “Noble Sweet,” it’s clear that the many varieties of paprika are held in very high esteem by Hungarians. And it seems they never relegated paprika to the status of mere garnish; it’s fully embraced as a mainstay of the cuisine.
Beloved dishes like goulash and paprikash call for paprika not by the teaspoon, but by the tablespoon. And at Hungarian home tables, you’ll find a paprika shaker next to the salt.
Today, paprika brings interest and color to dishes in far-flung corners of the globe.
It figures into Moroccan spice blends. It gives Mexican (and Spanish) chorizo its intriguing flavor and vibrant color. And it figures prominently into barbecue rubs from Houston to Tucson and Kansas City.
So if you’re the type of person who craves spice that doesn’t require an extinguisher, think paprika. Your palate may thank you for it.
Serves 4 to 6.
Note: This recipe for what is essentially Hungary’s national dish is adapted from “The New Classics Cookbook,” by Saveur magazine. I’ve removed the suggestion of lard; canola oil works just fine. And while the original recipe calls for Italian frying peppers, I used the more readily available Anaheim. If you want to keep things really mild, substitute a green bell pepper. Like many Hungarian dishes, this plays out rather soupy — if you prefer a thicker sauce, you could remove the chicken at the end of cooking, stir sour cream into the sauce, taste for seasoning, then return the chicken to the pan to enrobe it in the sauce before serving. Or, as Saveur suggests, use sour cream as a garnish. You’ll want to serve this with something to help mop up the sauce. Think crusty bread, mashed potatoes or egg noodles bathed in a bit of butter and parsley.
• 1/4 c. canola oil
• 1 whole chicken, cut into 8 pieces
• Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
• 1 large yellow onion, diced
• 3 tbsp. Hungarian sweet paprika, plus more for garnish
• 2 c. chicken stock
• 2 plum tomatoes, seeded and chopped
• 1 small Anaheim pepper, cut in half lengthwise, seeded and chopped (see Note)
• 1/2 c. sour cream, for serving
Heat oil over medium-high heat in large heavy bottomed pan.
Cut excess fat off chicken, and season both sides with salt and pepper. Fry chicken skin side down until golden. Flip, then fry skin side up until the bottom develops nice color. (Depending on the size of your pan, you may need to do this in batches.) Transfer chicken to a plate and set aside.
Add onion to pan and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened. Add paprika and cook, stirring for about 2 minutes.
Return chicken and its juices to pan. Add stock, tomatoes and Anaheim pepper, and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer, partially covered until chicken is fully cooked, about 30 minutes.
Transfer chicken with sauce onto a serving platter. Dollop sour cream over it, and garnish with — you guessed it — more paprika.
Nutrition information per each of 6 servings:
Calories 390 Fat 27 g Sodium 140 mg
Carbohydrates 7 g Saturated fat 7 g Calcium 55 mg
Protein 30 g Cholesterol 98 mg Dietary fiber 2 g
Diabetic exchanges per serving: 1 vegetable, 4 lean meat, 3 fat.
Fish Fillets in Paprika Sour Cream
Note: This dish will be quite sour and a bit hot. If your paprika has little flavor, either buy a new supply or spike it with cayenne. The recipe should be finished with fresh herbs. From “The Best Recipes in the World,” by Mark Bittman.
• 1 1/2 to 2 lb. fillets of red snapper, halibut or grouper, skinned and cut into 1-in. cubes
• 1/4 c. fresh lemon juice
• Salt and black pepper
• 3 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
• 1 small onion, chopped
• 1/2 c. sour cream
• 1/2 c. water or fish stock
• 2 tsp. hot paprika, plus more to taste
• 1/4 c. chopped fresh dill leaves
• 1/4 c. chopped fresh parsley leaves
Toss fish in a bowl with the lemon juice and some salt and pepper.
Put the oil in a large skillet (preferably nonstick) with a lid, and place over medium-high heat. Add onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened, about 5 minutes. Stir in sour cream and 1/2 cup water or fish stock, and lower heat to medium-low to maintain a gentle simmer. Add fish with its marinade, cover and cook until a thin-bladed knife passes through fish with just a little resistance, about 5 minutes.
Stir in the paprika and dill, and simmer until the sauce thickens slightly. Taste and adjust the seasoning, garnish with the parsley. Serve hot over rice or buttered noodles or with crusty bread.
Nutrition information per serving:
Calories 330 Fat 18 g Sodium 95 mg
Carbohydrates 4 g Saturated fat 5 g Calcium 100 mg
Protein 36 g Cholesterol 77 mg Dietary fiber 1 g
Diabetic exchanges per serving: 1 vegetable, 5 lean meat, ½ fat.
Note: From “Come One, Come All / Easy Entertaining With Seasonal Menus,” by Lee Svitak Dean.
• 3 lb. boneless beef chuck steak or boneless stew meat, trimmed of fat and cut into 1-in. cubes
• 4 tbsp. oil, divided
• 3 large onions, cut into slices (about 3 c.)
• 2 tbsp. red wine vinegar
• 3 tbsp. Hungarian sweet paprika
• 1 (10 1/2 oz.) can beef broth, divided
• 1 tbsp. tomato paste
• Salt and pepper
• Sour cream, for garnish
• Finely chopped parsley, for garnish
• Additional Hungarian sweet paprika, for garnish
In a Dutch oven or large pot, brown cubes of meat in 2 tablespoons oil; remove meat from pan.
Add remaining 2 tablespoons oil to pan and over medium heat sauté onion slices until limp. Return browned meat to the pan with onions, along with vinegar, 3 tablespoons paprika and 1 cup beef broth.
Cover mixture, bring to a simmer, and braise for about 45 minutes, or until meat is tender, adding more beef broth if liquid cooks away. During last 5 minutes, stir in tomato paste; season to taste with salt and pepper. The sauce will be very thin, which is the Hungarian way. However, if you prefer a thicker, gravylike sauce, remove the meat and vegetables at the end of cooking, and thicken the sauce with a little flour stirred into additional beef broth or water to create a slurry, which should be whisked into the sauce. Cook the sauce until it thickens to your liking. Then return meat and vegetables to the sauce before serving.
Serve goulash on top or alongside egg noodles or spaetzle. To garnish, top with a dollop of sour cream and sprinkle with finely chopped parsley and paprika.
Nutrition information per serving:
Calories 520 Fat 33 g Sodium 300 mg
Carbohydrates 9 g Saturated fat 11 g Calcium 64 mg
Protein 44 g Cholesterol 124 mg Dietary fiber 2 g
Diabetic exchanges per serving: ½ bread/starch, 6 lean meat, 3 fat.
Hungarian Paprika-SpiceD Cauliflower and Dumpling Soup
Note: This recipe for paprika-spiced cauliflower soup comes from the restaurant Bagolyvár in Budapest. Note that this recipe calls for hot paprika. From Saveur magazine.
• 1⁄3 c. flour
• Kosher salt
• 6 tbsp. unsalted butter, cubed and chilled, divided
• 1 egg
• 1 1⁄2 tbsp. Hungarian hot paprika
• 1 large yellow onion, finely chopped
• 6 c. vegetable stock
• 1 small head cauliflower, large stem removed, cut into florets
• 1 medium carrot, peeled and finely chopped
• Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
• 1 small bunch flat-leaf parsley, stemmed and finely chopped
To make the dumplings: In a bowl, stir together flour and 1/2 teaspoon salt; add 2 tablespoons butter and, using your fingers, rub into flour until pea-size crumbles form. Add egg, and stir until dough forms; refrigerate until ready to use.
To make the soup: Heat remaining 4 tablespoons butter in a 6-quart saucepan over medium-high heat. Add paprika and onion, and cook, stirring, until soft, about 5 minutes. Add vegetable stock, cauliflower and carrot; season with salt and pepper, and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium, and cook, stirring occasionally, until vegetables are tender, about 15 minutes.
Using a 1⁄2-teaspoon measuring spoon, portion out and drop all dumpling dough into simmering soup; cook, stirring occasionally, until dumplings are cooked through, about 3 minutes.
To serve, ladle soup and dumplings into serving bowls, and garnish with parsley.
Nutrition information per serving:
Calories 277 Fat 19 g Sodium 270 mg
Carbohydrates 23 g Saturated fat 11 g Calcium 75 mg
Protein 5 g Cholesterol 92 mg Dietary fiber 4 g
Diabetic exchanges per serving: 1 vegetable, 1 bread/starch, 4 fat.
Jo Marshall is a Minneapolis ad writer with an appetite for food, history and culture.