I do a great many of the things I do simply because I can. Making paprika at home is one of those things.
One of my life’s guiding notions has been that people should be good at something — maybe several things — and then be basically competent in many other things. Writing, cooking, fishing and foraging I am good at. I am a competent hunter and gardener, and now, spice maker.
Why bother making homemade paprika? A fair question. After all, the Spanish and Hungarians are better at it than I ever will be, right? Why not just call up Penzey’s or somesuch and order some? Well, I do. Making something like paprika at home is not so much something I did out of necessity as it was an exercise in whether I could do it at all.
It’s not that I think the world is about to collapse and oh where oh where will I get the paprika to make my chorizo or chili or goulash, not to mention deviled eggs? It’s that I have a fascination with how things are made — I am a sucker for those shows on Discovery Channel or NatGeo. So I asked myself: “What would it take to make enough paprika for our household use for one year?” And just how do you make paprika?
Turns out making paprika is easy, but it takes a while; it’s like that famous recipe for Stewed Elephant that starts with “cut elephant into bite-sized pieces.” You basically need to start paprika a year before you want the powder.
I planted three paprika plants last year, but not to make paprika powder — the thought had not yet occurred to me. I like the fresh chiles fried in olive oil with a little garlic. But life got in the way and at the end of the season I had several strings of peppers hanging in our garage. And there they sat.
Until yesterday. This first thing I learned as I broke them into smaller bits was this: Chiles need to be dried in arid, hot shade. Drying in the sun bleaches away color. Heat adds an almost cooked aroma to the chiles. And humidity is the enemy. I had dried a couple peppers in the (more humid, cooler) house and when I opened them up they were all fuzzy inside. None of the peppers in the garage had mold.
Do you need paprika chiles to make paprika? No, but you would need a fairly large, thin-walled pepper. Thick walls have too much moisture and will mold up. Bad. (I’ve tried it.) And there is definitely a color thing. You want a dark colored pepper. Like a paprika pepper…
Making the powder consisted of breaking the peppers into pieces small enough to jam into a spice grinder. Seeds are no bueno. The grinding takes a few steps, because you always get a a few pieces that don’t want to grind. Keep sifting the bits through a fine-mesh sieve until you get an even powder.
In the end I wound up with 10 tablespoons of paprika. Definitely not enough for a year, but maybe for a few months — unless I make a huge batch of chorizo or Italian hot sausage. I reckon I’d need 10-15 plants to supply me for a year.
The cool thing about this experiement is that 10-15 plants is actually a doable number in my garden, if I so chose to devote that much space to paprika. And since I am decent enough at growing chiles from seed I could have a perpetual supply for nothing.
What’s more, my homemade paprika tastes just as good as the expensive kind I buy from Penzey’s. That was something of a surprise — and confirmation that there is no great mystery to making this spice. (Spanish smoked paprika is quite another thing…)
What did I do with my freshly ground paprika? Why I cooked octopus with it, of course.
I love to cook Spanish style whenever I can, and I happen to be particularly fond of their use of paprika and garlic sauces. I found a recipe for pulpo a la gallego in one of my favorite Spanish cookbooks, Penelope Casas’ The Foods and Wines of Spain. I changed her cooking method to suit what is the absolute best way I have learned to cook octopus, which can be tough as a tire: Blanch it, then braise the octos in their own juices on a bed of herbs. (you can find the method here.)
I gotta say that this recipe was damn good. Really damn good. Cold pizza on a hangover Sunday good. I’ve posted it in full on my About.com Fish & Seafood Cooking site here.
But still. Was it all worth it? The planting and the hanging and the year’s wait? Probably not. In the grand scheme of things, having my own paprika — as good as it is — is not so high on my list of priorities that I need to allocate time towards it. But I am glad I did this.
I had a track coach in college who was a champion runner in his day. He made his kids play sports, but did not tell them which sports to play; he encouraged them to try all kinds. He figured they’d find those they loved the most and would stick with them. And he was right.
It’s the same with me, and probably with you. We wander through life trying different things and working at some of those things until we become good at them. We decide that a few of our chosen pursuits are worth carrying on doing all our lives. Others fit only a certain place, a certain time.
And a few things we do just for shits and giggles. Like make paprika.