I have a problem.
One of a culinary nature, an addiction that isn't nearly as bad as most vices in this culture. After all, what's the problem with sprinkling a little lurid red dust across a plate?
I have a smoked paprika problem.
I do. I love it. (Why don't you marry it? Pee Wee Herman might say. And really, I say, I just might.) I want to pinch my fingers around a tiny spot of vivid red-orange powder and dance it into eggs, onto rice, into soups, onto roasted pork. My baked kale chips have an extra surprise: smoked paprika. My roasted tofu glows red. My roasted vegetables have a smoky glow instead of a burnt char. All of this thanks to smoked paprika.
Stop me before I put some in a dessert. Actually, that might not be a bad idea.
Also known as Pimenton de la Vera, Dulce, smoked paprika is made by smoking sweet red peppers over slow oak fires for several weeks. You know that smell your sweatshirt has when you've been sitting on the beach on a warm evening, your friends surrounding you, the bonfire spitting sparks into the sky? You've been there for hours, talking and feeling at peace with the people you know and your place in the world. When you go home, your sweatshirt smells of the bonfire and all that joy. That's what smoked paprika smells like.
(Also, I've never been a smoker. But every once in awhile, I turn a corner and pass someone taking in a deep drag off a cigarette, and I think, Okay, I get it. Smoked paprika smells like that, without the nicotine.)
Since smoked paprika is so deeply smoky, it adds a depth of flavor to vegetarian dishes that make people eating not miss the meat. And, without the heat that spicy peppers give that can leave the roof of our mouths feeling the pain, smoked paprika makes even a simple dish like roast chicken taste like a celebration.
Those of us who have to live gluten-free can feel, at first, that are our lives are going to be bland and not memorable. Let me tell you, folks—after I shook my first dash of smoked paprika on roast cauliflower with cocoa powder, I felt alive. I have never stopped using smoked paprika since then.
Also, there's the color. Remember the brick-red crayon from Crayola? Add flecks of pepper, a glow like the horizon just after the sun has set, and a hazy red that stays in your mind long after you have closed the spice drawer.
I'm a goner, as you can see. Just today I ate a delicate salad of fresh fava beans, sauteed onions, salt cod, and little slivers of dill. It sounded good on the menu. When I saw the plate, dusted with a touch of red, I knew I was in for a memorable lunch.
And you? What foods do you enliven with a bit of smoked paprika?