See Red

Karl Wells
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Add a touch of the sun to your cooking with paprika - the red spice

In the Hindi language it's known as degi mirch; in Turkish, pul biber. The Greeks call it piperia, while in Mandarin it's called tian jiao and in Swahili, pilipili hoho.

We know it as paprika, that red powdered spice most of us use more for food decoration than for actual cooking. My mother used to sprinkle it over her potato salad or devilled eggs to spruce them up. One of our old family cookbooks only mentioned paprika once and that was as a garnish for soup - a dollop of whipped cream with paprika sprinkled on top for each serving, to be exact. Paprika's red colour always gave things a lift.

Some of the different types of paprika, and the peppers from which they are derived.

In the Hindi language it's known as degi mirch; in Turkish, pul biber. The Greeks call it piperia, while in Mandarin it's called tian jiao and in Swahili, pilipili hoho.

We know it as paprika, that red powdered spice most of us use more for food decoration than for actual cooking. My mother used to sprinkle it over her potato salad or devilled eggs to spruce them up. One of our old family cookbooks only mentioned paprika once and that was as a garnish for soup - a dollop of whipped cream with paprika sprinkled on top for each serving, to be exact. Paprika's red colour always gave things a lift.

Thank goodness I eventually learned the real value of paprika when it was actually cooked in a dish, as opposed to being sprinkled on top. Exposing paprika to heat and liquid develops its wonderful sunshine flavour. Of course, what's locked inside every powdery grain of paprika is the essence of the sweet sun-ripened peppers from which it is made.

That's not to say all paprika is the same.

Top-quality paprika is made from only the best ripened peppers that are sun dried and ground into powder. It's very bright red in colour and tastes mild, not bitter. The best paprika is almost exclusively sold in countries where it is an important part of the cuisine, namely Hungary and Spain.

Lower-quality paprika (mostly sold in our part of the world) is made from peppers that may have been artificially ripened and have some seeds and veins ground up in it as well. It does not have the bright red colour of the better paprika.

Gulyas

The first time I tasted paprika that had been slowly cooked in a dish was when I had authentic Hungarian goulash.

Here in Newfoundland goulash refers to a casserole containing ground beef or pork, macaroni and canned tomatoes. However, Hungarian goulash or gulyas is something completely different.

It's a slow-cooked stew of beef, onions, paprika, root vegetables and green pepper. Its flavours are incredibly rich and developed with the sweet, bright red flavour of the paprika punctuating every note.

Hungarians are the folk we have to thank for inventing the powdered form of paprika. Most agree that Hungary's is the best in the world, which comes from an area due south of Budapest called Kalocsa. It's almost impossible to overstate the importance of paprika in their cooking. It's used in almost everything. They actually cook paprika in fat to begin many dishes. They use it more extensively than we use our famous Newfoundland savoury - mind you, being practical, our savoury, doesn't have as wide a range of applications.

Paprika even helped bring fame to one Hungarian. His name was Albert Szent-Gyorgyi de NagyrÁpolt (1893-1986). Szent-Gyorgyi was the scientist who discovered vitamin C. He managed to isolate the vitamin from paprika (pepper) pods. That accomplishment earned him the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1937. So, not only is paprika tasty, it may also help ward off the common cold.

Pimenton

As mentioned, the Spanish love paprika or "pimenton" as well. Unlike Hungarians, they prefer to use paprika in their wonderful sausages like the sobrasada I had in Ibiza, chorizo, salchichon and fuet. They like smoked paprika, too. Smoked paprika from La Vera, Spain, was very trendy about five years ago.

It imparts a wonderful smoky, woodsy pimenton flavour that works especially well as a rub with barbecued meats. I have a tin of Pimenton de la Vera called La Chinata. I've used it often with good results.

Finally, if you plan to use paprika, watch the level of heat it's exposed to when frying. Remember that it burns easily because of its high sugar content. Store your paprika in a tight container in a cool, dark place.

Also, don't buy a large amount at any one time. Smaller amounts will stay fresh and the colour won't fade. Paprika is very versatile.

It works well with almost any cuisine; so you have lots of room to experiment with the delicious "red spice."

Hungarian Goulash

Serves 4

Ingredients:

2 lbs. stewing beef

3 tbsp. grape seed oil

3 onions, diced

3 cloves garlic, chopped

1 parsnip, diced

2 carrots, diced

2 green peppers cut in julienne

2 potatoes, sliced

1 tbsp. tomato paste

1 heaping tbsp. paprika

1 tsp. caraway seed, ground

sprig of celery leaves

1 large bay leaf

salt and pepper to taste

water

Method:

In a pot or deep sautÉ pan, fry onions over medium heat until golden. Remove onions and set aside.

Brown beef in sautÉ pan.

Add onions and paprika, and stir.

Allow ingredients to cook for a minute or two.

Add garlic, caraway, salt, pepper, bay leaf and enough water to slightly cover. Reduce heat to low and simmer uncovered for one hour.

Add potato, carrots, parsnip and celery leaves.

Cover pan and simmer for 20 minutes. Add tomato paste and stir. Spread green pepper on top; cover and simmer for 15 minutes. Stir mixture once more and serve.

Geographic location: Mandarin, Hungary, Spain Newfoundland Budapest Ibiza La Vera

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