By now, Top Chef is old hat.
(Of course you're watching it. We're all watching it. We're hooked. We don't want to be hooked on a reality show, but we are.)
If you've been with Top Chef for a while, you remember Season 2, the season when molecular gastronomy met traditional Spanish cuisine, the season of Sam-who-should-have-won, the season of Marcel vs. Ilan, the season of saffron and pimentón.
Until a couple of years ago, I'd never heard of pimentón, the smoked paprika from the La Vera region of southwestern Spain. Now, it's everywhere (Penzeys, McCormick, Spice House). So, how do you know which is the good stuff?
Is all pimentón smoked paprika? Yes.
Is all smoked paprika pimentón? No.
Smoked paprika is made by slowly smoking pimientos -- peppers -- over oak, which gives it a distinctive, husky aroma and flavor. The paprika can be mild or strong, depending on the variety of pimiento used. Small round peppers produce a dulce, or sweet, paprika; longer, dark red peppers make agridulce, a medium hot (often called bittersweet) paprika; and several types of long red chiles can become hot (picante) smoked paprika.
Pimentón de La Vera was the first chile pepper product to be granted a Denominacíon de Origen, or controlled name status, which means that other varieties of paprika cannot be called pimentón. The letters "D.O." on the label ensure that the product is made from peppers grown in the La Vera region and processed in the traditional way. If it doesn't have the D.O., it's probably not pimentón -- it's smoked paprika, from somewhere else.
In La Vera, peppers are harvested in the Fall and set out to dry in special drying houses, where they are placed on racks above oak fires, and turned once a day for two weeks. The peppers are then taken to mills to be stone-ground, slowly, to preserve as much of the flavor and color of the paprika as possible. Though parts of the process have been mechanized, much is still done by hand.
Each type of pimentón is used in a particular culinary arena: dulce pairs well with eggs, potatoes, rice, and fish; agridulce enhances smoked meats, beans, game dishes and stews; hot (picante) is best for winter soups, chorizo and octopus. In a pinch, you can substitute New Mexican ground red chile mixed with a bit of ground chipotle.
Most often packaged in tins to keep the light out, pimentón will last in your cupboard for up to two years, though once you've tried it with asparagus, roasted red pepper-tomato soup, penne with shrimp and arugula, tomato paella, herb jam with olives and lemon, grilled chicken Morocco or sprinkled atop deviled eggs, you'll be replenishing your supply more frequently.
Clean the Freezer Chili
I laughed and laughed when, last Spring, my friend Mary sent me the following recipe with the note, "I just made chili that was darned good. I thought that the list of ingredients was funny -- reflective of our imperfect pantry." Any pantry that can produce such a wonderful chili is a perfect pantry indeed! Of course I started checking my own freezer, cupboards and spice rack, to see how many of these things were in it. This recipe is the definition of Julia Child's favorite phrase, "proportions aren't terribly important." Improvise to your heart's content -- and empty your freezer now, before this summer's harvest begins.
Chopped onions and celery -- sautéed
Tempeh -- simmered in broth, then crumbled
The last of last summer's roasted tomatoes
Ditto on the pesto
A good amount of mole sauce (at least a cup)
1/2 of a flat beer
Some OJ (orange juice)
A dash or two of balsamic vinegar
Dark chili powder
Smoked paprika (pimentón)
You know what to do -- throw everything into a pot, taste and taste again, and simmer until the flavors combine.
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