Sunday, May 10, 2009

When Local Just Won't Do #2: Pimentón de la Vera (Spanish Smoked Paprika)

I began my series on essential non-local ingredients with salted anchovies.  Although anchovies show up in numerous Spanish preparations, they are hardly unique to Spain.  In contrast, today's ingredient is one of the most unique ingredients in the Spanish kitchen: pimentón.  Spanish smoked paprika appears in countless signature dishes, including chorizo, pulpo a la gallega (Galician octopus with potatoes), salsa brava, etc...Penelope Casas Tapas: The Little Dishes of Spain contains over 50 recipes (out of approximately 300...1/6 of ALL her recipes and not even counting those incorporating it stealthily in chorizo) that require the smoky/earthy/ruddy spice.
To put it bluntly, there is no easier way to add a Spanish flavor to your cooking than by adding a spoonful of pimentón to your dishes.  Mark Bittman has raved about it and admits to a near obsession.  Pimentón is made by smoke-drying red chiles of various heat levels and then grinding them into powder.  Spaniards hold the highest quality pimentón from the la Vera region in such regard that they have granted it the much-coveted Denominación de Origen status.

Luckily for lovers of Spanish food, pimentón is easily available and highly affordable.  A standard-sized tin should run you less than $7.  If you decide to stock up on all 3 varieties (dulce or sweet, agridulce or bittersweet, and picante or hot), you'll still have change leftover from a $20 bill.  More importantly, you'll have an invaluable ingredient for a plethora of traditional and improvised Spanish dishes.  For today's recipe, I've gone the improvised route: a quick pasta sauced with jamón (cured ham), yellow bell peppers, tomato paste, and (of course) a healthy dose of pimentón.

Linguine with Jamón, Peppers, & Pimentón
serves 2-3, depending on appetite
Cost: ~$3.50

4 tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
1/2 onion, sliced thin
2-4 oz. jamón or other cured pork product, in small dice
1 yellow or red bell pepper, sliced thin
1 tbsp. tomato paste
1/2 tbsp. pimentón, heat level by preference
freshly ground black pepper
2 tbsp. parsley, minced
1 cup aged cheese, grated (manchego would be wonderfully Spanish, parmigiano would work fine, but I happened to have some Vella Aged Jack in the fridge)
10 oz. linguine (or other strand pasta)

1) Bring at least 4 quarts of salted water to a boil over high heat.

2) Heat the olive oil in a  12" skillet (non-stick is fine) over medium-high heat.  When hot, add the jamón, onion, and bell pepper.  Cook for 5-6 minutes or until the mix becomes tender.

3) Reduce heat to low.  Add  the tomato paste and pimentón.  Stir thoroughly and add salt to taste.

4) Cook the linguine in the salted water until al dente.  Reserve 1/2 cup of the pasta cooking water.  Using tongs, transfer the pasta directly to the skillet with the pepper mixture.  Drain some of the water but don't be too thorough.  The starchy water will help create a nice saucy consistency.  Toss the pasta with the pepper mixture.  Add the parsley and 3/4 cup of the cheese.  Toss again, adding reserved pasta water as needed to achieve the desired consistency.  Taste and adjust with salt and pepper.

5) Transfer to serving bowls, top with the remaining 1/4 cup cheese, and enjoy!

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