Paprika: Spain's Secret Ingredient

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It's basically little more than an afterthought in North America, but paprika is an essential element of regional cooking in many parts of Spain. I love it because it's such an easy thing to use to add life to just about every kind of savory food you can think of.

It's funny these peppers have become such integral elements of Spanish cooking when there were of course no peppers existent in Europe before Columbus' voyages at the end of the 15th century. But then I guess the same is true of tomatoes in Italy or paprika in Hungary or... So let's just appreciate the transfer for agricultural products and the great flavors that came out of them. Paprika, if you don't already know, is made by merely drying fresh red ripe peppers, then grinding them into a powder. The quality of the paprika is obviously dependent on the quality of the pepper variety and skill of the growers and then on the grinding and handling work.

If you're into getting hooked on powders of any sort, this is one that you can healthily and happily get addicted to.

The two best-known paprikas of Spain are produced on opposite ends of the country. Pimenton de la Vera, which has gotten to be quite familiar to American cooks over the last decade or so, comes from the west. It's dried over smoldering oak logs and hence has a lovely smoky flavor. It really is pretty great; deeper than deep, compelling to its core. Because of the smokiness not everyone loves it but those of us who do are pretty hard and fast fanatics. If you're into getting hooked on powders of any sort, this is one that you can healthily and happily get addicted to.

The other paprika comes off the east coast, from the region of Murcia to be exact. It's a lot less known in this country, probably because it's subtler in flavor and because--since it's neither smoked nor spicy hot--it's a lot less glamorous than the above-mentioned Pimenton de la Vera. But it's really good and it's unique. And I love it for mashed potatoes, fresh fish, rice, and just about anything else you can think of. Great with olive oil on toasted bread from the Bakehouse. It's also a key ingredient in one of my favorite Spanish dishes--polpo gallego. Despite the fact that it lies at literally the farthest corner one could get from Murcia and still be in Spain, this is the most famous dish of the region of Galicia is polpo gallego--octopus boiled, drained, and then dressed with good olive oil, a touch of salt, and lots of Murcian paprika.

You can use either of these paprikas with pretty much any kind of food you can think of; pork, potatoes, fish, eggs, rice, paella, salads. Hard to go wrong on any road you go down with these two. Stock 'em and sprinkle at will.

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Ari Weinzweig is co-founder of Zingerman's Community of Businesses, in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He is also the author of Zingerman's Guide to Good Eating. More

After graduating from University of Michigan with a degree in Russian history, Ari Weinzweig went to work washing dishes in a local restaurant and soon discovered that he loved the food business. Along with his partner Paul Saginaw, Ari started Zingerman's Delicatessen in 1982 with a $20,000 bank loan, a staff of two, a small selection of great-tasting specialty foods, and a relatively short sandwich menu. Today, Zingerman's is a community of businesses that employs over 500 people and includes a bakery, creamery, sit-down restaurant, training company, coffee roaster, and mail order service. Ari is the author of the best-selling Zingerman's Guide to Good Eating and the forthcoming Zingerman's Guide to Better Bacon.
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