In fourteen hundred ninety-two
Columbus sailed the ocean blue.
He made it to Florida
But didn't find any gold.
So, he journeyed again
With new ships and men,
And this time — Eureka!
He discovered paprika.
(And I've discovered a previously-hidden talent for crafting really bad poetry.)
Lucky for us, he brought that paprika (also known as pepper) back to Spain, where he presented it to his patrons, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, at a monastery in the Extremadura. The monks planted the seeds, and today the descendants of those original peppers are cultivated throughout that region of southwest Spain, in the alluvial soils along the river in La Vera.
Each Fall, entire families go out into the fields to harvest the small, round peppers. The peppers are placed in special drying houses where they are smoked over oak wood for 10-15 days, hand-turned every few hours, to create Pimentón de la Vera, a regional specialty that was granted a Denominacíon de Origen (D.O.) in recognition of its unique quality. Like Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese or real balsamic vinegar, each tin of pimentón comes with a mark of authenticity.
Wait a minute....isn't paprika from Hungary? Yes, but it's not pimentón. Legend tells us that when King Carlos abdicated the throne of Spain in 1555 and retired to the Yuste monastery, he tasted pimentón, loved it, and recommended it to his sister, Queen Mary of Hungary. So, if you believe the legend, the two paprikas really are related.
Like cumin but a bit sweeter, pimentón imparts a slightly smoky flavor to any dish. The defining flavoring in chorizo, the lusty Spanish sausage, pimentón adds amazing depth to stews, chili, soups, and roasted potatoes. Pimentón comes in three varieties: sweet (dulce), bittersweet (agridulce), and hot (picante).
Try them all. Though at first I added pimentón to my pantry for paella, I've taken to sprinkling a bit here and there with beans, rice, eggs and fish, too, for a subtle and mysterious flavor boost. Olé!
Paella a la Valenciana
There's no better source for paella recipes than Penelope Casas' Paella, which is where this recipe originated. I've adapted the ingredients a bit, but I follow her method faithfully, and my paella comes out perfect every time. Serves 6-8.
2 cups chicken stock, homemade or low-sodium canned
3 sprigs fresh rosemary
Kosher or sea salt
1/4 tsp crumbled thread saffron
3 lb chicken pieces, bone-in, a combination of thighs, drumsticks, and breast (cut into chunks)
8 Tbsp olive oil
1 green bell pepper, finely chopped
1 medium onion, finely chopped
8 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 lb green beans (preferably broad, flat beans, but round ones are fine), ends snapped off and cut in half crosswise
1/2 lb snap peas or snow peas, strings removed
I box frozen artichoke hearts (already quartered)
2 medium tomatoes, finely chopped
2 Tbsp minced flat-leaf parsley
1 tsp Spanish smoked paprika (mild or hot, to taste)
3 cups imported Spanish bomba or valencia rice, or Arborio
1 roasted red pepper (good quality from a jar), sliced lengthwise into 1/4 inch strips
Heat the broth, rosemary, salt, saffron, and 4 cups water in a covered pot over the lowest heat for 20 minutes. Remove the rosemary.
Sprinkle chicken pieces all over with salt.
Keep the broth hot over the lowest heat. Preheat the oven to 400°F for gas, 450°F for electric.
Heat the oil over fairly high heat in a paella pan measuring 17-18 inches at its widest point (or in a shallow casserole of similar size), over 2 burners if necessary. Sauté the chicken over high heat until brown (it should not be fully cooked), about 5 minutes, turning once. (Be careful -- this will splatter.) Add the green pepper, onion and garlic, and cook until slightly softened, keeping the heat high. Stir in the green beans, snap peas, and artichokes, and cook on high for about 3 minutes. Add the tomatoes and parsley, cook 1 minute, then mix in the paprika.
Stir in the rice and coat well with the pan mixture. Pour in the hot broth and bring to a boil. Taste for salt and continue to boil about 5 minutes, stirring and rotating the pan occasionally, until the rice is no longer soupy but enough liquid remains to continue cooking the rice, about 5 minutes.
Arrange the red pepper strips over the rice in a "wagon wheel" pattern, and transfer pan to the oven. Cook, uncovered, until the rice is almost al dente, 10-13 minutes in a gas oven, 15-20 minutes in electric.
Remove to a warm spot, cover with foil, and let sit 5-10 minutes, until the rice is cooked to taste. Return the paella to the stove over high heat and cook, without stirring, until a crust of rice forms at the bottom of the pan (be careful not to burn it). This will take 3-4 minutes.
*Note: the crust is called the socarrat — a thin layer of rice at the bottom of the pan that becomes brown and crusty and is considered the quintessence of the paella. It is scraped off after the rice is served and passed around so everyone can have a share of it!
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