Spanish Pimentón

Peppers drying in the sunPeppers drying in the sun
Saffron may be Spain’s costliest spice, but pimentón, or paprika, is surely its most used. More than a colorful garnish, pimentón is valued among Spanish cooks for its robust flavor. It is never missing from Spanish chorizo, from the spicy fried potatoes known as patatas bravas, or from the rustic sopa de ajo (garlic soup) of Castile. Many paellas include pimentón, as do many recipes for romesco sauce and fish soup.

Spain produces more than half the paprika imported to the United States. Although most of that paprika is mild, Spain in fact produces three types: mild (pimentón dulce), bittersweet (pimentón agridulce) and hot (pimentón picante). All come from the Capsicum annuum species, but from different varieties. The hot pimentón is pleasantly piquant but not fiery by any means.

Of course, Columbus brought Capsicum annuum to Spain, and it was planted in monastery gardens in the Extremadura region, where it thrived. Even today, this region of western Spain is a major pimentón producer. The other major area of production is the region of Murcia, in eastern Spain.The peppers are planted in the spring, harvested in the fall, then dried and ground in commercial mills.

In Murcia, where autumn is warm and sunny, the freshly harvested peppers can be sun-dried. In Extremadura, where it may rain around harvest time, growers came up with another approach: drying the peppers indoors with wood smoke. The famous pimentón de La Vera is dried slowly over an oak fire. The peppers are laid on a grid several feet from the smoke and turned once a day for about 15 days. Then they are taken to the mill for grinding. The result is a subtly smoked paprika that adds incomparable depth of flavor to dishes. Pimentón de La Vera has DOP status, the protected denomination of origin, which guarantees its authenticity.

Red and yellow, the colors of the Spanish flag, dominate the Spanish kitchen as well. The yellow comes from saffron; the red from tomato and pimentón. Just a few of the Spanish dishes that wouldn’t be authentic without pimentón:

Caldereta extremeña: lamb stew, Extremadura style, with paprika and red wine
Coliflor al ajo arriero: cauliflower with garlic and paprika sauce
Costillas de cerdo en adobo: pork ribs marinated with sweet and hot paprika and vinegar
Fabes con almejas: white beans with clams and paprika
Fabada asturiana: Asturian white bean stew with chorizo and paprika
Lomo adobado: marinated pork loin with paprika and garlic
Pulpo a la gallega: Galician-style octopus with paprika and garlic
Paella valenciana: paella with chicken, rabbit, snails, beans and paprika
Pinchitos morunos: grilled pork skewers marinated with paprika and cumin
Suquet: Catalán fish stew

Use Spanish pimentón to flavor potato, rice and fish dishes. Add it to marinades for meat or poultry; to soups of chick peas, lentils, or seafood; to sausage and stuffing mixtures; and to dressings for salads and cooked vegetables.

To release its aroma, pimentón is often sautéed first in olive oil; take care not to overheat it or it will burn and taste bitter. Spanish food expert Janet Mendel recommends blending it with water before adding it to a sauce or stew.

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