In the house where I grew up, paprika was the curly parsley of my mother's spice rack.
She used it to "fancy up" a dish like egg salad.
Or to "color up" a dish like flounder.
Or to cover up a blooper.
My mother never used paprika as an ingredient, at least not that I can remember, though the red-and-white Szeged tin, ubiquitous on supermarket shelves, was a fixture in her pantry.
If only she'd put that paprika in contact with some heat, she would have realized that paprika is more than just a pretty red spice in a pretty red tin...
...it has pretty terrific flavor, too!
Native to the Americas, capsicums (peppers) traveled with Christopher Columbus to Spain, and it was the Spanish who first dried and ground peppers. From Spain, seeds were carried to Turkey and throughout the Ottoman Empire.
Paprika is a bright red powder, made not from a single plant, but from grinding together a variety of dried peppers ranging from sweet bell peppers to mild chiles. The best of these peppers grow in Hungary, where paprika is graded into six major classifications: kulonleges, the highest grade, is made by grinding only the unblemished flesh of fully ripe peppers (delicate and sweet); edesnemes (darker red, more robust, not bitter), is most widely exported; delicatess (slightly hot and fruity); feledes (semi-sweet); rozsa (hotter, because it's made from the whole fruit including the seeds); and eros (more pungent, hot, and bitter). Spanish pimenton is similar, but milder than Hungarian paprika.
Sweet paprika -- not to be confused with smoked sweet paprika -- features in the Hungarian national dish, goulash.
Buy Szeged paprika (mild or hot) in a tin at your local grocery store; be sure to check the tin carefully, as the two varieties look identical. Penzeys sells Kulonleges sweet and half-sharp, along with California sweet; the California paprika tends to be quite mild, while European varities will have a more vibrant taste. A 1.1-ounce jar is $2.89. Stored in a cool, dark part of your pantry (or freezer), it will keep for up to two years.
Of course, if you're like my mom and just use it for culinary repairs, it will last forever.
Salmon tagine with chermoula
I make this in a tagine, but you can use a Dutch oven, too. The sauce of tomato, olives and preserved lemon with herbs -- the chermoula -- makes a gorgeous and flavorful topping for grilled chicken or vegetables (eggplant, zucchini, peppers). Use any fish that looks good at the market; cod loin and halibut are particularly delicious. Buy pitted Kalamata olives at your supermarket salad bar. This recipe serves 6 as a main course, and 8-10 as part of a buffet meal.
3 tsp ground cumin
1-1/2 tsp ground coriander
3 cloves garlic, minced
3/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1-1/2 tsp paprika
1/2 tsp cayenne pepper, or 1-1/2 tsp harissa, to taste
3/4 tsp kosher salt
1/3 tsp black pepper
1-1/2 oz fresh lemon juice
2 Tbsp flat-leaf parsley, chopped
2 Tbsp fresh cilantro, chopped (or double the parsley instead)
3/4 grilled red bell pepper (or jarred roasted red peppers), chopped
1 whole preserved lemon, pulp removed, finely chopped
1/2 cup small cherry tomatoes, halved
6 Kalamata olives, pitted, halved
3 stalks celery, cut in half lengthwise, then into 3-inch long slices
1-1/2 to 2 lbs salmon, cut into 6-8 pieces
For the sauce:
1-1/2 Tbsp tomato paste
1 tsp sugar
3 tsp lemon juice
2 Tbsp olive oil
Make the chermoula: In a small, dry frying pan, toast cumin and coriander until slightly fragrant, about 1 minute. Remove to a large bowl.
In the same pan, sauté garlic in 1 Tbsp olive oil until lightly cooked, 1 minute. Add to the mixing bowl, along with paprika, cayenne, salt, pepper and lemon juice. Whisk well. Add remaining olive oil slowly, then add parsley and cilantro. Then, add chopped red pepper, preserved lemon, tomatoes and olives, to make the chermoula.
Set aside 1/4 of the chermoula. Place fish in a nonreactive glass or ceramic baking dish, and rub on all sides with the remaining 3/4 of the chermoula.
In the base of a tagine or Dutch oven, arrange celery stalks to form a “platform” for the fish. Arrange fish pieces on top, along with the chermoula marinade.
Mix together the sauce ingredients, and pour over the fish. Add 1/2 cup of water.
Cover and cook on lowest heat for 20-25 minutes, until the fish is just cooked. Top with reserved chermoula, and serve over couscous or rice.
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