The Magic of Spain's Smoky Paprika


Photo by jlastras/Flickr CC

A confession: I bought a present for a friend and kept it for myself, though it's not as terrible as it sounds. The present-to-be was a can of pimenton de la vera, a smoky Spanish paprika, and after I bought it I was beset by doubts and second thoughts, thinking that it would likely fall on deaf ears and "What was I thinking ...?" So I gave my friend something else (that she really liked). That's the round-about way I got the pimenton, whose delights I'd somehow forgotten, and became inspired.

When I opened the pimenton, a small blast of smoky, pungent paprika hit me full in the face, triggering all sorts of associations and "what if's": "What if I sprinkled some on warm, smashed hard-boiled eggs? What if I rubbed a fat pork chop with it, along with salt and pepper? Or stirred it into pasta sauce? Or marinated a goat cheese or some Manchego cheese in olive oil and the pimenton? Or sprinkled on a grilled cheese?" I tried out all these ideas and more as the pimenton became my new favorite taste: a bit of smoke and earth.

It is the perfect appetizer, or meal even, especially in summer when garlic is at its best.

It's miracle stuff, this powder made of ground smoked dried-over-smoky-oak fires peppers from Extremadura. A pinch can provide a layer of flavor to a dish that needs "something" or provide inspiration on it's own. I used it the other night to build in a subtle level of flavor to the most beloved appetizer in Spain: shrimp simmered in a bath of extra-virgin olive oil robustly flavored with garlic. You eat the shrimp and dunk crusty bread in the delicious oil as you sip chilled bone-dry Sherry like La Gitana. I also drizzled in a little Sherry vinegar, which added a lively savor.

It is the perfect appetizer, or meal even, especially in summer when garlic is at its best. Once you've prepped the few elements, the dish takes only a few minutes to cook, so it can be done at the last minute; serve it right out of the pan.

Pimiento de la Vera from Andalucia, Spain is available in the spice section of better markets and by mail-order from Zingerman's.

Shrimp in Olive Oil, Garlic and Smoky Paprika

The success of this dish depends upon really fresh garlic that is firm and unsprouted; do not use commercial minced garlic in oil.

Serves 4 as appetizers

• 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
    • 3/4 pound medium-small shrimp (about 20), peeled and deveined
    • 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
    • 5 garlic cloves
    • 1/8 teaspoon smoky sweet paprika (Paprika de la Vera) or a small dried chile
    • pepper (broken in half) or a scant 1/4 teaspoon hot red pepper flakes
    • 1 teaspoon Sherry vinegar, Banyuls or white wine vinegar
    • 1/4 cup finely chopped Italian parsley

Pat the shrimp dry with paper towels and sprinkle with salt. Set aside.

Halve the garlic cloves lengthwise and remove the green sprout. Mince or finely grate the garlic. (You will need 1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon.)

In a heavy medium skillet, heat the oil over moderate heat until hot but not smoking. Add the shrimp to the pan in one layer, along with the garlic and pimenton. Cook the shrimp about 1 to 1 1/2 minutes on each side, until they are pink and barely opaque, with a slight translucence (do not overcook).

Add the vinegar and parsley and shake to combine. Serve at once.

Note: to freshen up the flavor of frozen shrimp, soak them for 10 minutes in a brine made from 1 1/3 cup water and 1 tablespoon sea salt (or 2 tablespoons kosher salt). Drain, rinse and pat dry. Do not salt further.