Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Herbs & Spices are your Friends -- Paprika

My parents received a spice rack with about 20 jars of spices as a wedding present. More than 50 years later those same jars safeguard 50 year-old spices. I did not grow up with interesting food. Although Julia Child demonstrated French cooking to Americans during the 70's, Epicurians were viewed as self-indulgent. In college, my Adlerian desire to compensate grew. Immediate access to Ethiopian (Oromo) restaurants and hippie co-ops with mysterious produce fanned the flames.

My Kitchen philosophy is Adlerian -- compensation and overcompensation for all the dull food of my childhood. Alfred Adler was stuck on compensation for "feelings of inferiority." Inferior feelings, inferior food, not so far off.

Vienna (the city of Freud) is a city of Sussigkeiten, Sacher Torte and the like. I'm a salty guy. When I was a student there, I looked for a different kind of food, which I found nearby in Budapest: the culture of paprika. At the time, my interest was linguistic, but the food clinched the deal. I snuck off from my Austrian history classes to practice a Magyar nyelv and explore their ennivaló.

Hungarians astonished me. There seemed to be a bookstore on every corner in Budapest. Everything has been translated into Hungarian, and the bags of paprika were huge. Hungarians didn't buy paprika in little glass jars. It was sold in quarter or half kilo cloth sacks. The spilled fiery red powder covered shelves in food markets. My parents' wedding stock of paprika wouldn't last an ordinary Hungarian family a week.

About Paprika

Paprika is not per se a spice (ground seed or bark). Paprika is made from dried ground peppers (a fruit). Not surprisingly, Paprika can have a range of flavors and degrees of heat almost as wide as the fruit it is made from. The very hot, coarse pepper flakes found in some Asian groceries could be called paprika, but I've never seen it labeled as such. This variability can make paprika frustrating to shop for. Retailers sell sweet, hot and smoked paprikas, but its hard to know which you're getting -- neither the distinctive fire-engine red nor the country of origin are reliable guides. Hungarian paprika is almost always labeled sweet, whether or not its also piquant is seldom clear. Most of the large spice wholesalers (McCormick, Spice Islands, Penzey's, Spice House) will indicate whether or not it is smoked, and perhaps mention the country of origin (most likely Hungary or Spain, but possibly Turkey, USA or South America). Hungary alone claims to produce 40 different varieties of paprika. I've included some useful Hungarian descriptions of different types of paprika with their Hungarian names (courtesy of the Budapest Tourist Guide):

Special quality (Különleges) - this is the mildest of all paprikas and has the most vibrant red colour
Delicate (csípősmentes csemege)-mild paprika with rich flavour
Exquisite delicate (csemege paprika) –slightly more pungent than the Delicate
Pungent Exquisite delicate (csípős csemege), even more pungent
Noble sweet (édesnemes) – the most common type, slightly pungent with bright red colour
Half-sweet (félédes) – a medium-pungent paprika
Rose (rózsa) – light red colour, mildly pungent
Hot (erős) – the hottest of all paprikas, light brown-orange colour

For an encyclopedic look at paprika (and many, many more spices) with elaborate etymologies, biochemistry and history, I recommend Gernot Katzer's Spice pages. This guy's dedication to spices is amazing.

Cooking with Paprika

When cooking with paprika, three facts should be remembered:

  1. It's vibrant color misleads cooks into thinking it is a potent flavoring. Paprika is a mild flavoring by weight. Hungarians don't buy it by the pound because they have a dull sense of taste, they use a lot so they can taste it. You may need two or three tablespoons (less for smoked paprika) to bring out a strong paprika flavor. This is an advantage when serving dull looking food if you don't want a strong paprika flavor: A sprinkle makes a colorful garnish.

  2. Paprika releases it's flavor when heated. Adding it to a cold dish (e.g. potato salad) isn't an effective flavor booster.

  3. Paprika turns bitter when burnt. Time the introduction of paprika so that it doesn't spend much time in hot oil or in direct contact with high heat.
No discussion of paprika would be complete without a goulash (gulyás) recipe. Traditionally, this stew was the staple of herdsman (gulyás means herdsman is Hungarian). It has become the best known and most widely consumed dish in Hungary. I had been making goulash for years, but the recipe we were taught in my class at Cooks of Crocus Hill was much better than mine, so I am using a slight variation on it. It is also close to recipes I've seen in the books peddled to tourists in Budapest, but more suitable to American ingredients.

Hungarian Gulyás

3 Tbs Bacon fat or pork belly fat
3 Large white onions, sliced
3 Lbs stew meat, or beef shoulder cut into 1 inch cubes
3 Tbs Paprika (preferably mild pungent)
1/2 Tbs Hot Paprika (if unavailable, use 1/4 tsp cayenne pepper)
1 Tbs Kosher salt
Pepper to taste
1 Cup tomato puree

Zest of one lemon
2 Cloves garlic
2 tsp Caraway seeds

  1. Heat the pork fat (bacon fat or lard) until it begins to render. Add the sliced onions and cook until softened and transparent.
  2. Season the beef with paprika, salt and pepper.
  3. Add the seasoned meat and tomato puree to the onions.
  4. Cook covered in a covered pot at 450 degrees for 1 1/2 hours. Remove and stir two or three times so that the meat is well coated.
  5. While the meat is cooking, chop the lemon zest, garlic and caraway seeds very finely.
  6. When the meat is tender remove from the oven, and mix in the gremolada.
Serve over csipetke (spaetzle) or other small noodle. This dish is frequently served with a dollop of sour cream.


Eugenia said...

I love Hungarian food, too. Nice blog! I try to find my paprika at Eastern European import stores (often delis). Even the highest quality spices (I'm thinking Penzey's here) don't match the flavor of the stuff directly from Hungary. Not sure why.

I still find the paprika classifications baffling. Extra pungent??

Bruce Harrington said...

When I see "pungent" in this context I mentally substitute "earthy."