Up until a couple of centuries ago, the only people who could afford spices were aristocrats.
Spices were rare; they were picked in foreign lands and perilously shipped by land or sea. But at some point, the poor began to grow, harvest and, most important, use their own spices.
And that’s where paprika comes in, at least according to “The Paprikas Weiss Hungarian Cookbook” (Random House, 1988, 192 pages). Authors Edward Weiss and Ruth Buchan make the case that after Hungarian peasants were introduced to paprika in the 16th century by Turkish invaders, they began growing their own. As Weiss puts it: “Paprika was the first democratic spice.”
It was so popular among the common people that the Hungarian nobility began using it, too. It is now considered the unofficial national spice of Hungary – it’s practically the national religion. It is also an essential ingredient in the cuisines of Spain and Portugal, and it is an important ingredient in berbere, a spice mix used commonly in Ethiopia.
Not bad for a plant that is actually a native of the Americas.
Capiscum peppers – that’s the same family that includes the common bell pepper – were first brought back to Europe on Christopher Columbus’ second voyage. What we now know as paprika is simply chili peppers (several varieties can be used) that have been dried and ground into a powder. Generally, paprika comes either sweet (which is actually just mild) or hot. But in Spain, the peppers are sometimes smoked before they are dried, adding an entirely new layer of flavor to the spice.
Because there are three types of paprika, I decided to make three dishes to explore its possibilities. I used sweet paprika to make beef goulash (I simply had to do something Hungarian), hot paprika to make the lamb-based Indian classic rogan josh and smoked paprika to create a sweet and smoky dish, Cornish game hen with honey and paprika.
Ordinarily, I would begin talking about the goulash because of the Hungarian connection, because it is one of the things you think of when you think about paprika and because it was what I made first. But I want to start by talking about the rogan josh because it is so amazingly spectacular.
I love Indian food, but nothing I have ever cooked has tasted even close to the food you get at a restaurant, until now. This rogan josh – tender lamb cooked in a spice-filled sauce – is every bit as flavorful as that at an Indian restaurant. A good Indian restaurant.
I shouldn’t be surprised, I suppose, because the recipe comes from Madhur Jaffrey, who is one of the world’s foremost names in Indian food. It calls for 19 ingredients, most of them spices, which is where the dish gets its exotically blended, marvelously complex taste. The largest amount of spice, at least by volume, is paprika. I used hot paprika for mine and the dish came out quite fiery, but you can easily tone down the heat by using sweet paprika and reducing or eliminating the amount of cayenne pepper.
It will make you think about opening your own Indian restaurant.
The goulash was very nearly as good. A goulash is sort of a cross between a stew and a soup – it’s a stoup – and it is remarkably hearty and satisfying.
In goulash, the paprika is the star. I used sweet paprika, but hot would work well, too. Because so much paprika goes into the dish – 2 tablespoons for four servings – smoked paprika would make it taste much too smoky.
As with the rogan josh, the meat (I used chuck steak) is slowly braised until tender. While it simmers, it picks up all the flavors of the braising liquid: onions, garlic, carrots, green pepper, caraway seeds and especially paprika. Diced potatoes are added most of the way through the cooking to add extra heft, but I left out the tomatoes that are often found in goulash because they are not traditionally Hungarian.
I suspect that tomatoes are sometimes added solely to give the goulash its signature gorgeous red color. But goulash that needs extra enhancements to achieve that color is goulash that does not have enough paprika in it. My version makes full use of its generous portion of paprika to create its color and, more important, its wonderful, full-bodied taste.
For my smoked-paprika dish, I decided to keep things nice and simple. I was in the mood for Cornish game hen, so I decided to glaze a couple with an easy mixture of honey, lemon juice and smoked paprika. That way, it would be a little bit sweet, a little tart and a little smoky.
The result was delightful, and it was almost effortless. The honey presented two problems, but I solved them with ease. Because honey is too thick and sticky to mix with the other ingredients, I made it more syrupy by tossing it into the microwave first for 15 seconds (you can get the same result by heating it in a pan over medium heat). The other problem is that the sugar in honey tends to burn easily, but that was easily overcome by keeping an eye on the birds while they were in the oven. As soon as they started to get too brown, I just covered them loosely with a piece of aluminum foil.
With just a handful of ingredients, they provided easy elegance. And because you can use the same recipe with chicken, it is the kind of democratic elegance that anyone can afford.
Cornish game hen with honey and paprika
Note: This recipe (which can be doubled or tripled) can also be used with chicken. Double the ingredients and cook at 425 degrees for 50 minutes to 1 1/4 hours, depending on the size; it is done when a meat thermometer inserted into the thigh registers 140 degrees).
Recipe by Daniel Neman.
2 Cornish game hens
2 tablespoons honey
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 1/2 teaspoons smoked paprika, or sweet or mild
Salt and pepper
Preheat oven to 350 degrees (or 425 degrees for chicken). Rinse game hens and pat dry with paper towels.
Microwave honey for 15 seconds (or heat in a small saucepan) until it becomes an easily pourable liquid. Mix in lemon juice and paprika. Brush game hens thoroughly with this mixture, season with salt and pepper, and place on a rack in a baking sheet.
Roast 1 hour for hens weighing less than 1 pound, 2 ounces or 1 1/4 hours for hens weighing more than that. Keep a close watch and lightly cover them with foil when the birds start to get too brown (it is actually the honey that will be browning). After 45 minutes, baste with more of the honey-paprika mixture.
Let rest 10 minutes before serving.
Per serving: 743 calories; 47 g fat (13 g sat.); 339 mg cholesterol; 58 g protein; 19 g carbohydrate; 17 g sugar; 1 g fiber; 207 mg sodium; 42 mg calcium.
Recipe adapted from “Madhur Jaffrey Indian Cooking” by Madhur Jaffrey (Barron’s, 2003, $35, 240 pages).
One 2-inch piece fresh ginger, peeled and coarsely chopped
8 cloves garlic, peeled
1 1/2 cups water, divided
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 pounds boned lamb shoulder or leg, cut into 1-inch cubes
10 whole cardamom pods
2 bay leaves
6 whole cloves
10 whole black peppercorns
1 stick cinnamon
1 medium onion, peeled and finely chopped
1 teaspoon ground coriander
2 teaspoons ground cumin
4 teaspoons paprika, hot or sweet
1 teaspoon cayenne pepper, or to taste
1 teaspoon salt, or to taste
6 tablespoons plain yogurt, divided
1/4 teaspoon garam masala
1 dash fresh ground black pepper
Put the ginger, garlic and 1/4 cup water in a blender, and blend well into a smooth paste.
Heat oil in a wide, heavy pot over medium-hot heat. Brown meat cubes in several batches and set aside. Put the cardamom, bay leaves, cloves, peppercorns and cinnamon into the same hot oil. Stir once and wait until cloves swell and the bay leaves begin to take on color, which will only take a few seconds.
Add onions and sauté 5 minutes, or until they turn a medium-brown color. Add ginger-garlic paste from blender and stir for 30 seconds. Add coriander, cumin, paprika, cayenne (if using) and salt; stir another 30 seconds. Add browned meat cubes and their juices. Add 1 tablespoon of the yogurt and stir 30 seconds until yogurt is well blended. Add the remaining yogurt, 1 tablespoon at a time, in the same way. Sauté for another 3 to 4 minutes.
Add remaining 1 1/4 cups of water and bring to a boil, scraping in all the browned spices on the sides and bottom of the pot. Cover; turn the heat to low and simmer 1 hour, or until meat is tender. Stir every 10 minutes while cooking to prevent burning.
When the meat is tender, remove the lid, turn the heat to medium-high and boil off some of the liquid, stirring all the time, until the sauce is thickened. Remove bay leaves, cardamom pods, cloves and peppercorns. Skim off the red oil on top, if desired, before serving. Sprinkle the garam masala and black pepper over the dish and mix them in just before you serve it.
Per serving: 450 calories; 30 g fat (11 g sat.); 126 mg cholesterol; 36 g protein; 8 g carbohydrate; 2 g sugar; 2 g fiber; 688 mg sodium; 77 mg calcium.
Recipe adapted from “The Paprikas Weiss Hungarian Cookbook” by Edward Weiss and Ruth Buchan.
1 1/2 pounds boneless chuck steak
2 tablespoons oil
1 medium onion, finely chopped
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
2 carrots, finely chopped
2 tablespoons sweet or hot paprika
4 cups water
1 green pepper, seeded and chopped
1/2 teaspoon caraway seeds
Salt and pepper
2 large potatoes, peeled and diced
Trim all fat and cut the meat into 1-inch cubes. Pat dry on paper towels.
In a large saucepan or Dutch oven, heat the oil over medium-high heat and brown the beef, a few pieces at a time, until well-browned on all sides. Remove with a slotted spoon. Add onions, garlic and carrots, and cook 3 to 5 minutes, until onions are translucent.
Return the beef and any meat juices to the pot, add paprika and stir to coat the meat evenly. Add the water, green pepper and caraway seeds; season with salt and pepper. Bring to a simmer, cover and cook at a simmer over very low heat for 1 1/2 to 2 hours. Add the potatoes and cook 30 more minutes, or until potatoes are done. If desired, serve with small pieces of pasta.
Per serving: 383 calories; 22 g fat (8 g sat.); 70 mg cholesterol; 23 g protein; 26 g carbohydrate; 3 g sugar; 4 g fiber; 85 mg sodium; 44 mg calcium.