I was introduced to smoked paprika the first time I went to Spain. I landed in Madrid after an awkwardly-long overnight flight, and Patri, whom I hadn’t seen in years, greeted me with a giant hug and guidance through the subway to the tiny apartment off the Plaza Real that she shared with her then-boyfriend (now husband and co-parent) Juan. Like any good host, she asked me not if I was hungry, but what I wanted to eat. Was meat okay? I was traveling, so the answer was yes. This turned out to be the right answer, because their neighbor down the hall had recently given them some chorizo that her family in the north had made. Patri put it in a pot with some lentils, onions, garlic, and bell pepper, and I looked at the first bite the way a jet-lagged person does: with the understanding that this will be good caloric intake but with fuzziness and low expectations of a life-changing experience. I ate.
What is this? I asked.
What? She said. It’s lentils, onions, garlic, pepper, and chorizo.
But it’s… it’s amazing, I said.
I didn’t know until long after I’d come back to the U.S., from that fateful first trip to Iberia, that that is smoked paprika, pimenton. I read an article once that described pimenton as “Spanish for ‘better than paprika’.” It’s glorious. You know how people always say that food tastes better when it’s cooked over a campfire? That’s because it tastes like it has smoked paprika in it. It makes your dish feel well cared for.
And while this stops short of being stupefyingly brilliant enough to be able to do your laundry and give you a pedicure, what it does do is make many vegetarian dishes taste like they’ve got bacon in them. Try putting it in your vegan split pea soup next time, or adding it to your breakfast potatoes.
This stew is one that I’ve made a few variations of since I started eating meat on a regular basis, about a year ago. The first time I made it was for 300 people, and it was so popular I had to stretch it out with white beans halfway through the day. I’ve been teaching a few small classes at home in the past year and when I made this one available, it was the hardest one to convince folks to sign up for (other options were salmon in chermoula and a vegan curry dinner, all very exotic-sounding compared to humble chicken stew), but it’s by far a sleeper hit. Pimenton elevates these simple ingredients into a sum greater than the parts. Serve with crusty bread slathered with excellent butter — or even better, http://parsnipsaplenty.com/2010/02/13/biscuits/.
Chicken Stew with Root Vegetables and Smoked Paprika
1 1/4 pounds chicken quarters or drumsticks, including bone and skin
at least 3 teaspoons smoked paprika, divided
2 tablespoons olive (not extra-virgin) or sunflower oil
1/2 pound yukon potatoes, diced in 1″ chunks
1/2 pound carrots, diced in 1″ chunks
1 pound sweet potatoes or winter squash (avoid delicata, which will make the whole stew very sweet)
1/2 pound rutabaga, peeled and diced in 1″ chunks
1/4 pound fennel bulb, diced in 1″ chunks
1 pound red onion, sliced
1/2 pound mushrooms, sliced
1/4 pound cleaned braising greens (yay kale!)
1 teaspoon dried thyme
4 tablespoons butter
6 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 1/2 quarts chicken broth
1/4 cup loosely packed fresh sage leaves, minced
1/4 cup loosely packed fresh rosemary leaves
Preheat oven to 400F. Rub chicken with 1 teaspoon each salt, pepper, and smoked paprika and place on a foil-lined baking sheet. Toss potatoes, carrots, sweet potatoes/winter squash, rutabaga, and fennel with 1 tablespoon oil and 1 teaspoon each salt, pepper, smoked paprika, and thyme, and spread out in one layer on another foil-lined baking sheet. (The one layer is important — it promotes even browning. If you pile all your vegetables three layers deep, the top layer will get a nice toasty brown and the bottom layer will just steam.) Put both pans in the oven and roast, stirring the vegetables every 10 minutes or so, until the chicken is cooked through and the vegetables are soft and crispy-brown on the edges, 30-45 minutes.
Meanwhile, make the gravy: Heat chicken stock in a 2-quart saucepan. Melt butter in a 2-quart saucepan over medium-low heat. Add the flour, whisking constantly to incorporate. Whisk frequently until the roux is golden and the raw-flour smell has changed into something lightly toasty. Set aside for just a minute to let it cool down from the napalm-like temperature it has achieved. Put it back on medium-low and whisk constantly while pouring in the hot chicken stock. Bring this mixture to a boil, making sure the roux is well-incorporated with the stock and that nothing is sticking to the bottom of the pan, and set aside.
In a 5-quart soup pot, heat 1 tablespoon oil and cook the onion and mushrooms with a dash of salt and 1 teaspoon smoked paprika, until they are softened and happily browned, about 5 minutes. If anything is sticking to the bottom of the pan, that’s fine — add a glug of water, white wine, or extra chicken stock you have around, and scrape the pan to pull those lovely bits up. Add the gravy, sage, rosemary, and roasted vegetables. Remove and discard the skin from the chicken and pull the meat off the bones. Add the meat to the stew. Bring the whole shebang up gently to an easy boil — blasting the heat on this will just make the bottom burn. If it needs a little extra oomph, add some more smoked paprika. Let it simmer for 15 minutes and serve.