Paprika: Just a Pile of Dust?

She said: I’ve been making up excuses for not going to Barcelona for quite some time.

See, years ago, when E, always the wanderlust, initially suggested we take off to Barcelona for a long weekend, I was all for it. Then he started trying to woo me with tales of how we’d go from bar to bar ordering pulpo a la Gallega, octopus tossed with olive oil and sprinkled with copious amounts of paprika. Two octopus-eating fools in love.

Let’s be clear about a couple things. I love pulpo. I loathe paprika. I’ve been stalling ever since.

I’ve never understood paprika. When I was a kid, it was the most commonly used spice in my mom’s cupboard, unless you counted granulated garlic or dehydrated onion flakes. The tiny Schilling’s tin, with mounds of rust-colored dust that accumulated around the slightly raised holes on its top, was a constant presence in her cooking. Nothing, it seemed, livened up the surface of anything like a little—or rather, a lot—of paprika.

I can still see her tipping the tin and tapping it in measured fashion with her fingertip, and I can still hear the relentless dull thud as it echoed in my ears. I’d cringe inwardly each time. Casseroles. Tap. Tap. Tap. Baked potatoes. Tap. Tap. Tap. Not even corn on the cob was safe from that slightly spicy dust. Tap. Tap. Tap.

Paprika didn’t seem exotic to me in the same way that some spices conjure comparisons to frankincense and myrrh. Instead, it seemed the culinary incarnation of the similarly colored shag carpeting in the living room, which I admit I also didn’t like. The spice sort of tasted like I imagined that carpeting might, with something of a stale stuffiness or mustiness about it that, to me, seemed as dusty and as pointless as can be.

A couple of decades of life experience beyond that Iowa farmhouse kitchen haven’t persuaded me to the contrary. Ignoring paprika’s existence proved to be of little consequence for quite some time. And then E came along. Back when the dollar was being trounced by the euro, my excuse for staying stateside was easy. But lately I’ve been running out of reasons. And because life—and marriage—is full of compromise, Barcelona is currently situated squarely at the top of our travel list. I can’t imagine going to Barcelona and being the sort of annoying tourist who orders the octopus, hold the paprika. And yet I may not be above asking for pulpo a la Gallega, sin pimentón, por favor. 

He said: Renee, Renee, Renee (shaking head). Paprika is mother’s milk to me. There’s nary a dish my mother, grandmother, and aunts have made that didn’t contain anywhere from a pinch to a punch of the ruddy-red spice. And in honor of you, the very first dish I ordered at Miguelitos, a tapas bar here in Barcelona, was pulpo a la Gallega. The One and I clinked forks then dug in, and we loved it.

Now granted, paprika—especially the sweet kind—isn’t jam-packed with flavor. No, it doesn’t deliver the musky wallop of cumin or the fiery heat of the look-alike spice, cayenne. But my grandmother always considered paprika to be the “lipstick of the dish.” It adds a bit color to anything it touches. Avó Costa used to make a chicken and rice soup that had just a tinge of pink to it—pink being her favorite color. To this day, none of us can figure out exactly how she got the soup to blush. (So in love with the color was she, that she had a straight-sided hat covered with the tiniest pink rosebuds knotted out of straw. And she wore that to church every Sunday—looking as if she had a marvelous pink-frosted cake on her head.)

But Vovó didn’t just paint with paprika, she understood its subtleties. She knew that besides the traditional sweet and hot paprika that we all find in dusty tins on the supermarket shelf, there was an entire spectrum of the spice, from barely there to piquant. And she knew how to coax the flavor—and color—out of each type.

For example, when I was a kid, she’d fry up my aunt’s chouriço—pork sausage my aunt would pack with garlic and paprika—in oil. She’d strain the used oil into a large bottle she kept under the sink until she had enough. Then she’d ceremoniously slice up a pile of potatoes into fat fries and dump them in the orange oil. As the fries spat at her, she’d call upstairs to my cousins Barry and Wayne and me, “Sheeps! Sheeps!”—her accent mangling the word chips. We bolted into her apartment and scraped her kitchen chairs into place while she heaped the fries onto our plates. There we sat, all four of us, we three devouring the luscious, fat, rusty-colored fries, and Vovó, her chin cupped in her palm watching, smiling.

If that’s not an argument for the proliferation and preservation of this quiet, shy spice, nothing is.

While here in gorgeous Barcelona, I’ve of course enjoyed pimentón—smoked paprika—another of Iberia’s greatest gifts (along with Avó Costa). One look at the love affair we Americans have been having with pimentón the past decade is all it takes. Back home, I’ve had it sprinkled on everything from apricot purée (a revelation) to chocolate (not such a revelation). Bottom line: we love paprika.

So buck up and face your fears. Book passage to Barcelona and begin an indiscriminate, torrid affair. I’m sure E wouldn’t mind.

Octopus with Paprika

What about you? Where are you on the paprika spectrum?

Comments
Comments
  1. Renee says:

    Oh, Renee, how sad! That stuff we grew up on in the dust-covered brand name boxes from the grocery is a pale imitation of the good quality (read: real) paprika. I was convinced it was only for color, a flavorless sprinkle to add a false sense of drama to casseroles. Then I saw—or rather tasted—the light.

    There is an indy spice merchant up in Milwaukee and Chicago called The Spice House who carry amazing paprikas. Yes, plural. I’m hopelessly addicted to the Hungarian half-sharp sprinkled liberally over buttered popcorn. About twice a year I order spices from them, and the Spanish smoked sweet and Hungarian half-sharp are always on my list. Now that I know what the GOOD stuff tastes like, it has become the most-used spice in my kitchen.

    • Renee Schettler Rossi, LC Editor-in-Chief says:

      A false sense of drama. How apt! Although you make a compelling argument to the contrary, Renee. I’ll consider trying that smoked sweet paprika of which you and so many others speak…but no promises.

    • David Leite says:

      Renee, we need to start a campaign to convert Renee (Rossi Schettler).

      • Renee says:

        I think we just did! :)

        Just don’t get me started on cinnamon. I now have four different kinds in my pantry. Of course I have four different kinds of paprika in the freezer, too. (Is there such a thing as Spices Anonymous?)

        • Lorraine says:

          I’m a paprika fan. And I became an even more ardent fan last weekend when a friend went into my kitchen and prepared this disTheh. Paprika, it seems, is a perfect companion for shellfish. I’m wondering what music it might make with crab?

          Anyway, want something with amazing depth of flavor, yet light. Try this simple dish:
          Heat 1/4 cup olive oil in pan. When warm saute 1 pound of shrimp. Cook 2 to 3 minutes then add 2 tablespoons smoked paprika, 1 teaspoon cumin, and 3 to 5 chopped cloves of garlic. Finish cooking and serve!!!

          • David Leite says:

            What interesting is your recipe is almost EXACTLY like my dad’s. Except he doesn’t add cumin. Instead he adds some hot sauce.

  2. Deborah says:

    Sorry, Renee, I’m in David’s camp on this one. I have three varieties of paprika in my pantry right now. Especially love using the sweet smoked paprika, Pimenton el Angel by Hijo de Angel Rodriguesz Rivas from Caceres, Spain.

    • Renee Schettler Rossi, LC Editor-in-Chief says:

      No apology necessary, Deborah. Contrary to appearances, I’m a big believer in to each their own. I just don’t like to be told what to believe! But tell me, how do you prefer the sweet smoked? If you could only use it in one fashion from now on, what would it be?

  3. Ling Teo says:

    LOVE THE STUFF. am jealously hoarding a can of La Chinata pimenton a la vera, wishing I had asked my friend to score more for me when she went to London. Thanks for posting the pulpo recipe; I’ve been known to scarf a number of entire servings of it at tapas bars here. David, lovely lovely story about your Vovo and her “sheeps”! :D

    • David Leite says:

      Ling, my pleasure. The recipe is wonderful, as were the different versions of pulpo a la Galaga I had in Barcelona. And thanks for the props for vovó Costa. She’s probably sitting like an empress somewhere, smiling.

      • Ling Teo says:

        Oooh – Renee (the first poster) mentioned the Spice House in Chicago – they have a fabulous steak rub called Milwaukee Avenue Seasoning that has hefty amounts of Hungarian paprika! *excited* Am putting in another order when colleagues head over to Chi-town in October!

  4. Chiyo says:

    David, you have solved a decade-long mystery for my husband and me. When we visited our dear friend’s family in Fall River, MA (yes, they’re Portuguese; yes, they have two kitchens), we couldn’t help but notice that EVERYTHING his mother cooked–and she made a million things in the kitchen in the basement–had a reddish orange hue. We couldn’t figure out what made her food orange. Besides the make-anyone-moan deliciousness, there was no common thread flavor wise among the various dishes. So paprika, eh? Love it. Oh and the octopus–love that, too!

    • David Leite says:

      Chiyo, I’ll bet dollars to doughnuts it was paprika. All the Portuguese cooks use it. And in our basement kitchen (my mother refused to have the one upstairs get used and look worn!), many a tin of paprika was emptied into everything from stuffing, rubs, stews, soups, and braises.

  5. phyllis ostrofsky says:

    I adore Syren’s smoked Pimenton.

  6. Sofia says:

    I am a big fan of paprika, or colorau. There is nothing like a turkey leg baked in the oven with a paste made of red wine, paprika, lots of crushed garlic, bay leaves and salt. Actually it was our dinner last night. Also love love a good pork loin with paprika.

    I must say I am surprised in Iowa people would use paprika. I lived in Iowa for 4 years, and people, even though I must admit are VERY open to trying different foods, their daily meals were pretty blend. Love love Pulpo a la Gallega!

    • Renee Schettler Rossi, LC Editor-in-Chief says:

      Pleased to hear you love the pulpo, Sofia. I have to say, what I loved most about the food in Iowa is that it was quite simple in a good way. But this only does justice to garden-fresh ingredients. It’s when this tactic is applied to less-than-worthy ingredients that this manner of cooking becomes, as you’ve experienced, rather troubling. At any rate, I know some home cooks in those parts who don’t stand for bland, so I’m going to demure on saying any more on the topic…

      • Sofia says:

        Renee,

        You are very right. I have amazing memories of IA, their people, the quality of produce and pork, of course. Also, I must admit Des Moines has an amazing selection of restaurants, from traditional midwestern food to Thai, Ethiopian, etc. I was also very lucky to live near a farm where they did sustainable agriculture and non-hormone-fed animals. There is no better corn than Iowa’s!!! And indeed there are many home cooks that do not stand for bland, hence I believe their acceptance of my cooking that always has strong tastes in cilantro, onions, garlic, paprika, and so on.

  7. Stephan Steve says:

    I Love Hungarian Chicken Paprikas! I remember there used to be a Hungarian Store in NYC called Paprikas Weiss on Second ave and Eighty Second street that carried So Many great varieties of Paprika. The Stuff from Szeged was the Best! I know there are few other Hungarian shops in that area that have a good variety.

    • David Leite says:

      I never went to Paprikas Weiss, but I’ve heard of it. Is there a similar store in the city?

  8. Allison Parker says:

    Gee, Renee… Looks like you might be going to Barcelona “CON pimentón” in the not-too-distant future, if David and those who have commented so far have any influence. But to toss in a few words of support… I love your sensory memories of the (clearly inferior and ubiquitous) boxed version of paprika you grew up with. If we had paprika in our kitchen when I was a kid (and we usually did not) it was the same exact type—and I never got it, either.

    But happily, as David and others point out, I don’t have to get it; there are clearly many other, more seductive varieties. This article is inspiring me to trash the tired container of paprika currently in my cupboard, and go in search of something fresher, smokier, and more alive.

  9. Nadine says:

    I guess I have only had the “decorative” kind (aka what’s found on deviled eggs). It reminds me of the 70′s, but I’m willing to give it a second look.

    • Renee Schettler Rossi, LC Editor-in-Chief says:

      I look forward to hearing how it goes, Nadine. And I envy you your freespiritedness. Perhaps—just perhaps—I’ll take a cue…

    • David Leite says:

      Nadine, you must. Try the smoked kind. I have several recipes in my cookbook that call for it, especially this marvelous rub. Try it on roast chicken.

      • Brenda Carleton says:

        Smoked sweet paprika is an obsession of mine. Whenever I travel I pick some up so I have quite a collection. David, your Amped-Up Red Pepper Paste is incredible. I just made another batch and am using it on roasted potatoes this evening. It makes me happy to see the jar in the fridge and even happier to devour it. Truly amazing stuff! Cannot wait to try it on roast chicken this weekend as you recommend.

  10. Carol Hargis says:

    I always had a plain-Jane container of paprika in my spice collection. Growing up, Mom only used it to “color” white fish fillets that she broiled in butter. Then I got busy creating in my own kitchen and eventually graduated to hot Hungarian and sweet paprikas. Loved both of them and had to replenish them often. But the day I brought home the tin of smoked Spanish paprika was the day my cooking was set free! LOVE IT! There’s really nothing like it, for everything from paella to creating custom rubs for grilling.

    • Renee Schettler Rossi, LC Editor-in-Chief says:

      I know those colored fish fillets well, Carol, with the rust sprinkles becoming smudged and slightly streaky as the fish baked. Appreciate how you explain your cooking being set free by the smoked Spanish stuff. Inspiring, indeed…

  11. Jessica says:

    I’d have to agree with David’s comment about paprika being “common” however my mother only seemed to use it on deviled eggs. Why, I have no idea, but her favorite spice seemed to be garlic..and salt. It wasn’t until I was on my own and tired of the “same old dishes” that I became aware of the cornucopia that herbs and spices bring to the table. (yes, pun intended…lol)

    Upon reading everyone’s comments about paprika though…I believe a reevaluation of this beautifully colored spice is long overdue. Thanks everyone for sharing!

  12. carolyn says:

    I didn’t really “get” paprika until I moved to Hungary, and then I was forced to “get” it. Now I buy homemade paprika by the kilogram, and somehow we go through it all! Buy the good Hungarian paprika, if you can. There really is a difference when you use the good stuff! For some reason, they don’t smoke their paprika here in Hungary.

  13. I’m headed to Barcelona in October and so am writing my shopping list :-). It wasn’t till yesterday that I realised Spanish paprika comes in 3 flavours – sweet, semisweet and hot. And I claim to love it. Along with my ‘from Hungary’ paprika which always suprises me with its flavour when lightly fried as part of the base of Chicken Paprikash. And it tastes wonderful, heated in butter with macrona almonds to boot, piled upon green, lightly steamed broccoli florets. Yum

  14. Paprika on pineapple and paprika on cottage cheese. The influence? My Mexican-born mother “chili-fied” most things: mangoes, limes, tortilla shreds sautéed in oil! I guess this puts me in David’s camp.

    • David Leite says:

      And, Gilda, you are welcomed with open arms–there’s plenty of room in my camp. Come in and have a seat. (Oh, so sorry, Renee. Another paprika-ist.)

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