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There’s a smoky new spice in town. Pimenton

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SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In western Spain, in Extremadura, from where many of the conquistadors of the New World departed, there grows a type of pepper that, ground into a powder, probably is the favorite spice in all of Spanish cooking.

The spice is called pimenton. While, at first glance, you might think it’s just paprika, Spanish pimenton has its differences. Think of it as paprika’s hot-blooded relative.

“My veins run with pimenton, not blood,” declares Jesus-Maria Fernandez, a former president of the Pimenton de la Vera producers’ cooperative, who has spent a lifetime growing peppers and making pimenton.

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While pimenton is made in several areas, the pimenton from La Vera is special, with a haunting smokiness that comes from being dried over smoldering wild oak.

In eastern Spain, where pimenton also is produced, the hot, dry Mediterranean climate allows the peppers to be sun-dried. But in La Vera, early autumn rains when the peppers ripen make sun-drying impossible.

That’s why, Fernandez says, the La Vera peppers are smoked. A brilliant solution! The slow smoking fixes the natural carotenoid pigments of the peppers, producing an intensely red spice. It also adds an ineffable natural smokiness that complements many foods.

Pimenton is produced from the capsicum annuum pepper, the chile pepper discovered by Columbus on his first trip to the New World. He was looking for the “Indies,” the source of “pepper,” pimienta in Spanish. When he found the hot-tasting capsicum, Columbus called it pimiento, from which comes pimenton.

Columbus carried peppers and other New World fruits back to Spain, where they were cultivated by monks in various abbeys. The Hieronymite monks at the Yuste monastery in La Vera were the first to dry the peppers and use the powder as a flavoring and food preservative.

Emperor Charles V, when he abdicated the Spanish throne in 1555 and retired to the Yuste monastery, supposedly got to like the spice (he was a notorious gourmand) and recommended it to his sister, Queen Mary of Hungary, where it became paprika.

Spanish pimenton comes in three flavors-dulce (‘sweet’), agridulce (‘bittersweet’) and picante (‘spicy hot’). Each is made from a different subspecies of pepper. Sweet pimenton, smoked or unsmoked, is the most versatile, while the bittersweet adds an interesting complexity to a dish. The spicy-hot is packed with flavor and really not at all fiery to most palates.

Pimenton de la Vera, the only pimenton with a surname, enjoys denominacion de origen designation, a guarantee of quality from the La Vera governing board. Look for D.O. numbered labels on cans or packets of the spice.

In Spain, the lion’s share of pimenton goes to the sausage-making industry. The most emblematic Spanish sausage, garlicky chorizo, is colored and flavored with it.

Pimenton is widely used in home cooking too, and not just as a sprinkle for color. Heaping tablespoons of it go into sauces, where it provides richness of flavor. In Extremadura, where La Vera pimenton is made, it is the preferred type. Elsewhere in Spain, unsmoked pimenton is used lavishly, even in paella and other rice dishes.

In my kitchen, I substitute Spanish pimenton in any recipe calling for paprika. It gives a little flamenco flounce to Hungarian goulash. I use the La Vera spice, with its earthy, smoky aroma, in barbecue sauces, marinades and spice rubs. The bittersweet version adds pizazz to beans and lentils, gratin dishes, seafood cocktail sauces. The hot stuff is a wake-up call for humble deviled eggs or potato salad.

Stir pimenton into a little water and blend it smooth before adding to a sauce. As with paprika, take care not to scorch the pimenton, lest it becomes bitter. If using pimenton on barbecued food, add it during the last few minutes of grilling so that it doesn’t burn.

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Mendel is author of the award-winning “Traditional Spanish Cooking.” She is working on a new book about the Spanish kitchen to be published by HarperCollins.

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* Garlic Soup photo: napkin from Bristol Kitchen stores; bowl from Freehand, Los Angeles.

Double-Mashed Potatoes (Patatas Revolconas)

Active Work Time: 25 minutes - Total Preparation Time: 50 minutes

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Serve these potatoes as a supper dish accompanied by fried eggs or as a side dish with pork chops or roast chicken.

3 pounds baking potatoes

Salt

1 bay leaf

1/3 cup olive oil

4 cloves garlic

1 tablespoon sweet pimenton de la Vera

Hot pimenton

1/2 teaspoon ground cumin

2 slices bacon, diced

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* Peel the potatoes, cut them into chunks and cook them in a large pot of boiling salted water with a bay leaf until they are fork tender, about 20 minutes. Drain, saving 1 cup of the cooking liquid, and discard the bay leaf.

* Mash the potatoes with a potato masher or wooden spoon, adding 1/2 cup of the reserved liquid. Set aside.

* Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium heat and cook the garlic until it is golden, 2 to 3 minutes. Put the cooked garlic in a blender, add the sweet pimenton and hot pimenton to taste, cumin, 1 teaspoon of the salt and the remaining 1/2 cup of the liquid and blend until it is smooth.

* Add the bacon to the skillet and fry it over medium-high heat, stirring, until it is crisp. Add the mashed potatoes and fry them, stirring, 1 minute more. Pour the garlic oil into the skillet and stir it into the potatoes. Cook, stirring the potatoes and the oil, until they are heated through.

6 servings. Each serving: 334 calories; 436 mg sodium; 2 mg cholesterol; 13 grams fat; 50 grams carbohydrates; 5 grams protein; 3.74 grams fiber.

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Fish in Pimenton Sauce (Pescado al Pimenton)

Active Work Time: 15 minutes Total Preparation Time: 30 minutes plus 30 minutes standing

This can be made with any solid-fleshed fish, such as monkfish. If you like experimenting with unusual catch, try it with skate. You can serve the delicious sauce with lots of bread or add boiled potatoes to the cazuela to soak up the flavor. A cazuela is an earthenware casserole; if you use one, serve the fish from it.

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1 1/2 to 2 pounds fish filets, such as orange roughy

Salt

4 slices French bread, crusts removed

4 cloves garlic

2 tablespoons sweet or bittersweet pimenton

1 teaspoon oregano

1 cup fish broth

3 tablespoons olive oil

Small boiling potatoes, cooked and sliced

2 teaspoons Sherry vinegar or sour orange juice

Chopped Italian parsley, for garnish

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* Cut the filets into 3-inch pieces, sprinkle them with salt and let them stand 30 minutes.

* Soak the bread in water to cover until it is softened. Squeeze it out and put it in a blender with the garlic, pimenton, oregano and broth. Blend until smooth.

* Heat the oil in a skillet or heat-proof cazuela over medium heat. Pat the fish dry with a paper towel and fry the pieces of fish about 1 minute on each side; the fish does not need to brown.

* Add the blended pimenton sauce and cook until the fish is about halfway cooked, about 10 minutes. If the sauce thickens too much, add additional broth or water.

* Add the cooked potatoes; continue cooking until the fish just flakes easily, about 5 more minutes. Add the vinegar and cook 2 minutes more. Sprinkle with the chopped parsley and serve.

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4 to 6 servings. Each of 6 servings: 254 calories; 738 mg sodium; 18 mg cholesterol; 14 grams fat; 16 grams carbohydrates; 16 grams protein; 1.29 grams fiber.

Herb-Roasted Marinated Pork Loin (Lomo en Adobo, Asado con Hierbas)

Active Work Time: 15 minutes Total Preparation Time: 1 hour 15 minutes plus 24 hours marinating

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An adobo marinade traditionally was used for preserving uncooked meat or fish. Pimenton is an excellent preservative. This recipe is an adaptation-the marinade is more of a rub for the meat, with only enough vinegar to give flavor, not preserve the meat.

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4 cloves garlic

1 tablespoon pimenton (if possible, use part sweet, part bittersweet)

1 tablespoon fresh oregano leaves

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper

Dried thyme, crumbled

Dried rosemary, crumbled

1 teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon olive oil

1/2 cup Sherry vinegar or other wine vinegar

3 pounds boned pork loin

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* Puree the garlic, pimenton, oregano, pepper, a dash of thyme and rosemary, salt, oil and vinegar in a blender container until it is smooth. Place the pork in a non-aluminum bowl and rub the marinade into it. Cover it and refrigerate 24 to 48 hours, turning the meat several times.

* Heat oven to 350 degrees. Drain the meat and place it in a roasting pan. Roast uncovered to an internal temperature of 165 degrees, about 1 hour, depending on the thickness of the meat. If you don’t have a thermometer, test the meat after 1 hour by cutting into the center. The meat should be juicy and only slightly pink in the center. If it is still red, roast it another 15 to 20 minutes. Remove the meat from the oven and cover it loosely with foil for 10 minutes before slicing.

8 to 10 servings. Each of 10 servings: 576 calories; 330 mg sodium; 147 mg cholesterol; 48 grams fat; 2 grams carbohydrates; 33 grams protein; 0.27 gram fiber.

Artichoke Salad With Romesco (Ensalada al Romesco)

Active Work and Total Preparation Time: 40 minutes plus 1 hour marinating

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Unsmoked pimenton provides a stand-in for hard-to-obtain flora peppers in making this romesco sauce. The flora is a plum-sized, sweet, dried pepper, soaked and ground with garlic and almonds for the sauce. It’s the same pepper used for sweet pimenton.

6 stalks celery, cut diagonally into 2 1/2-inch pieces

Salt

2 teaspoons sweet pimenton (not smoked)

1/2 teaspoon hot pimenton

Water

2 dozen almonds, blanched and skinned

1/4 cup olive oil, divided

1/4 cup chopped Italian parsley

3 cloves garlic

2 tablespoons red wine vinegar

2 (13 3/4-ounce) cans quartered artichoke hearts, drained

3 cups chopped lettuce or escarole

1 hard-boiled egg, sliced

1 teaspoon chopped fresh mint leaves

1 tablespoon chopped green onion

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* Blanch the celery in boiling salted water 6 minutes. Drain and refresh it under cold water. Set it aside.

* Combine the sweet and hot pimenton in a small bowl and mix it with 1/4 cup water until it is smooth.

* Toast the almonds in 2 teaspoons of the oil in a small skillet over medium-low heat until they are golden, 3 to 4 minutes. Remove from the heat.

* Chop the parsley in a food processor, then add the garlic and process until it is finely chopped. Add the toasted almonds and process until they are finely ground. Add 1/2 teaspoon of salt, the vinegar and 1/2 cup of water and continue to process until the mixture is quite smooth. Add the pimenton paste and the remaining oil. This makes 1 cup of dressing. (The dressing can be served with other vegetables and salads.)

* Place the artichoke hearts and celery in a bowl and top with the dressing. Marinate 1 hour at room temperature. Prepare a bed of lettuce or escarole on a large platter. Arrange the artichokes and celery on top. Garnish with the egg, mint and onion.

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6 appetizer servings. Each serving: 272 calories; 246 mg sodium; 41 mg cholesterol; 23 grams fat; 12 grams carbohydrates; 8 grams protein; 2.85 grams fiber.

Garlic Soup (Sopa de Ajo)

Active Work and Total Preparation Time: 25 minutes

In Madrid this is made with unsmoked pimenton. In Extremadura it takes on another dimension with smoky Pimenton de la Vera.

* 1 baguette, sliced 1/2 inch thick (18 to 20 slices)

1/3 cup olive oil

2 ounces diced ham or bacon, optional

6 cloves garlic, coarsely chopped

1 tablespoon pimenton de la Vera

1/4 teaspoon ground cumin

6 cups reduced-sodium chicken broth

Salt

4 eggs

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* Toast the bread and set it aside.

* Heat the oil in a large soup pot or cazuela over medium heat. Add the ham and garlic and cook until the garlic begins to take on color, about 4 minutes. Stir in the pimenton and cumin; immediately add the broth. Add salt to taste.

* Add the toasted bread and bring the broth to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer 5 minutes.

* With the soup, bubbling, break each egg into a saucer and slide it onto the top of the soup. Cover the pot with a lid and let the eggs poach until the whites are set but the yolks are still liquid, about 4 minutes. Serve the soup in the same cazuela or ladle into bowls.

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4 servings. Each serving: 578 calories; 813 mg sodium; 246 mg cholesterol; 25 grams fat; 67 grams carbohydrates; 18 grams protein; 2:46 grams fiber.

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Where to Buy Pimenton

Pimenton de la Vera can be difficult to find locally, but it can be easily found from mail-order or Internet sites. Prices are reasonable, averaging about $1.50 an ounce (roughly one-fourth cup). Look carefully, sometimes it is listed even on Spanish specialty sites as “smoked paprika.”

* One local source for pimenton de la Vera is La Espanola Meats, 25020 Doble Ave., Harbor City. (310) 539-0455. The store also carries pimenton dulce, pimenton agridulce and pimenton picante. Its Web site is https://www.spaincuisine.com.

* Mail-order sources that carry pimenton de la Vera include:

The Spanish Table: (206) 682-2827 or https://www.tablespan.com.

La Tienda: (888) 472-1022 or https://www.tienda.com.

The Spice House: (847) 328-3711 or https://www.thespicehouse.com.


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