Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Smoke Signals - Pimentón-It's Not Your Mama's Paprika

Also available on SheSpeaks

When I was growing up we used paprika in one of two ways: as a garnish on potato salad or deviled eggs, and in Chicken Paprikash (because of my Hungarian ancestry). Beyond that, paprika simply sat in the spice rack. I suppose that’s the way most of you think of paprika too. It's kind of just for color. Well, no more!

When I was in culinary school I had an epiphany. I was studying Spanish food and discovered smoked paprika, called pimentón. What an exciting discovery. It changed the way I think about paprika forever.

Spanish pimenton comes in three styles: dulce (literally meaning sweet, but more accurately mild), agrodulce (bittersweet or slightly spicy) and picante (spicy hot). The flavor is amazing. There's a depth to it - layers of smoky, dusty, peppery flavors - and depending on the style, heat and spice.

The best pimentón comes from an area called La Vera valley in Spain. It’s not so much the growing of the peppers in La Vera but what they do at harvest that makes it the best. In the fall, pepper varieties are hand-picked and smoked in small smokehouses near the fields. The smokehouses are simple structures with concrete floors. Wooden grates are suspended several feet above the floors over smoldering oaks fires. The peppers are dried over the smoke for 10 to 15 days. The smoking process imparts a deep, rich, smoky aroma that you don’t get from typical grocery-store brand paprika.

Pimentón is a staple of Spanish cooking. It's used in sausages, papas bravas (spicy, fried potatoes), garlic shrimp and other tapas dishes, as well as stews, Paella, and sauces.

I've been experimenting with it lately. My preference is pimentón picante because I like the kick, and used sparingly I don't think you'll find it bites you. I've mixed it into guacamole. Tossed it with mixed nuts. Stirred it into lentil soup. Rubbed in on roasts and barbequed ribs. Coated fish fillets for frying. And, (my grandmother will roll over in her grave) I've used it in place of Hungarian paprika in Chicken Paprikash!

You can find pimentón at specialty grocers or online. Try to purchase pimentón de la Vera to ensure you're getting good quality and flavor. Go ahead give it a try. You'll never think of paprika the same way again.

Have you ever tried pimentón? How do you use it? Do you have any recommendations?

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