Sometimes, what's in The Perfect Pantry isn't exactly perfect.
The nearest market, five miles away in our village, has come a long way in the few years I've been living in this rural part of Rhode Island. I can always pick up brie and green tea and Nutella, along with organic dairy products and mango nectar, daikon and dried figs.
On the day I ran out of my favorite Szeged Hungarian paprika, in the telltale red-and-white tin, my little market was out of stock.
So, I drove another five miles down the road, to the larger supermarket. Once again, there was not a single tin of paprika on the shelf.
And so, off I went again, five more miles down the road (by this time I was three towns from home, and wondering if the fates were conspiring against me), to another supermarket. No tins there, either, but I did find this organic paprika. Rapidly calculating the cost of gas I'd have to add to the price of the spice, I bought it, hoping it would be worth the 25-mile road trip.
It's good. Good enough, but not as robust as the stuff in the tin.
Paprika is a red powder, made not from a particular plant, but from grinding together a variety of dried Capsicum peppers ranging from sweet bell peppers to mild chiles. The best of these peppers grow in the Szeged and Kalocsa regions of Hungary, where paprika is graded into six major classifications: kulonleges (delicate and sweet); edesnemes (darker red, more robust, not bitter); delicatess (slightly hot and fruity); feledes (semi-sweet); rozsa (hotter, made from the whole fruit); and eros (more pungent, hot, and bitter).
Sprinkled on top of dishes like deviled eggs and potato salad, paprika adds color but no flavor. To release the flavor, marry paprika with heat, as in goulash, paprikás, or rice dishes. Paprika is essential to many spice blends, including Moroccan chermoula, and is widely used in Indian cooking for both color and flavor. It's a key ingredient in my husband Ted's favorite beef stew, too.
Find your own favorite, or keep more than one type in your pantry. Buy Szeged paprika in a tin at your local grocery store (you already know that my local store is out of stock!). Penzeys sells Kulonleges sweet and half-sharp, along with California sweet. A 1.1-ounce jar is $1.99-2.09, making this a very affordable way to taste and compare.
Whitefish Hungarian style
On a recent visit to Eagle Trading Company, an incomparable used cookbook store near Fall River, Massachusetts, I discovered Cooking with Love and Paprika, by Hollywood director Joseph Pasternak. Here's what he wrote to introduce this recipe: "While I was making the movie Anchors Aweigh, I knew that, when Friday night rolled around, I could usually expect a particular dinner guest. Gene Kelly would knock at the door, and say, grinning, 'Any baked fish?' Sometimes Frank Sinatra would come along, but I couldn't feed Sinatra much, except French onion soup or maybe some leftover lasagne! Frankie just didn't like to eat, but Gene did, and this is the dish he enjoyed so much." You can see why! I've adapted this recipe slightly. Serves 6-8.
3-4 lbs whitefish, thick filets (halibut, cod loin, etc.)
Kosher salt and ground black pepper
4 medium potatoes (Yukon Gold or red-skinned new potatoes), boiled and sliced
2 green peppers, cut in half, seeds removed, blanched, and sliced
3-4 tomatoes, sliced
1 tsp flour
1 tsp paprika
4-6 slices bacon, fried and crumbled
1 pint sour cream
2 Tbsp butter
Preheat oven to 400°F. Season fish with salt and pepper. Lightly coat a baking dish with olive oil. Layer in the potatoes, then the green pepper, and then half of the tomatoes. Season lightly with salt and pepper, and arrange fish on top. Sprinkle with flour and paprika. Cover with the crisp bacon bits and the remaining tomato slices. Pour the sour cream over the top, and bake for 15 minutes. Dot with butter, and continue baking for 5 minutes more, or until the fish is cooked.
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