The Spice Trail
I get comments about my calling out of specific types of spices and whether or not that’s required.
My stock answer is, “You may use whatever spice choices as you may desire. But if you want to enjoy and savor the subtle flavors in these recipes, I suggest you hunt down and use the specific spices I call out.”
I use spices from different regions strictly because of the nuances that the spice brings to the food.
For example, you can buy the generic “Oregano” in your local grocery store and for most meals that is more than sufficient.
However, there is a subtle difference between Mexican Oregano, Mediterranean Oregano, and store-bought generic “Oregano.”
Store-bought Oregano is fine for most dishes. While it’s a generic, consisting of blends of oreganos from various areas, Its taste is not consistent from batch to batch, and the base flavor depends on which batch was prepared where.
I prefer Mexican Oregano for all of my Mexican dishes. Mexican Oregano has a stronger, more robust flavor, with a hint of earthiness that it adds to the food.
However, Mexican Oregano tends to overpower subtle dishes, such as you may find in Mediterranean cooking.
I use Mediterranean Oregano when I prepare recipes originating in the Mediterranean. The Mediterranean Oregano has a subtle flavor that enhances those dishes, but does not overpower them.
Similarly, you can use general, all-purpose paprika in your cooking. I, however, prefer the nuances of Hungarian paprikas over either the generic paprikas or the Spanish paprikas.
Don’t get me wrong: Spanish paprikas, being less intense that Hungarian paprikas, are desirable in Spanish cooking like Paella, but in goulashes or paprikash, I prefer Hungarian paprikas.
And just to confuse you more, There’s a taste difference depending on just exactly where the paprika was grown. In Hungary there are two major paprika producing regions: Szeged and Kaloscai. The Szeged region produces a paprika that owes its popularity to the region’s intense marketing efforts. The Kalocsai varieties of paprika, I find, are more nuanced in flavors. You’ll see the Szeged variety on store shelves more often than you’ll see the Kalocsai variety, but I assure you, for my taste, I prefer the Kalocsai variety.
In another vein, there are two varieties or preparations of paprika: plain and smoked. I do not, personally, like the taste of smoked paprikas, so I tend to stick with the plain varieties.
One word of caution: when buying Hungarian paprikas over the internet, please don’t buy a lot on your first purchase. I’ve found wild variations in flavors, even between paprikas labelled “Kalocsai”. As a consequence, I only deal with a small, select group of wholesalers, ones that I’ve tried and that produce a consistent product that fits both my taste buds and my budget.
I’m fortunate to have a local importer only a few miles from my house, so I drive over there, sample his wares, and select what tastes best for me.
Sweet Hungarian paprika (Édes-nemes) has a subtle mild, sweet and slightly bitter taste. You can use quite a lot of it before it overpowers.
Hot Hungarian paprika (Eros), on the other hand, can be intensely fiery, and a very little bit goes a long, long way. For example, you’ll see that in a particular recipe I might call for two tablespoons of sweet Hungarian paprika. But you’ll also see that I also call for something in the neighborhood of one-eighth teaspoon hot Hungarian paprika. Hot Hungarian paprika is that much stronger.
As a parting word of advice: Store your spices in tightly closed containers in your freezer! The spices will last longer and have a more intense flavor than when those bottles are carelessly stored in some dark cabinet in your kitchen.
The difference is because spices owe their unique flavors to essential oils that slowly evaporate, leaving a tasteless mélange of material behind. Placing them in the refrigerator or freezer markedly slows down the boiling-off of those essential oils.
If you want to have fun with paprikas, try this recipe:
[Potato Goulash with Sausages]
2 tablespoons Avocado oil
1 lb. Andouille sausage, sliced into coins
1 large yellow onion, halved lengthwise, then thinly sliced
1 tablespoon sweet Hungarian paprika
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon garlic powder
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
6 small russet potatoes, peeled and sliced into ½ inch thick slices
2 cups low sodium beef broth
In a 5 qt Dutch oven over medium heat bring the oil to shimmering.
Add the sausages and stir-cook until browned and slightly crispy.
Remove sausage rounds to a paper towel-lined plate.
Add the onions and stir-cook until translucent.
Add paprika, salt, garlic and pepper.
Stir-cook an additional 2 minutes to thoroughly combine all ingredients.
Add in the potato slices.
Continue to stir cook until the potatoes are well-coated with onions and the seasonings.
Add sausages and beef broth and bring to a boil.
Reduce heat, cover, and simmer until the potatoes are fork tender.