What comes to mind when you hear the word paprika? More likely than not, it’s an image from Eastern Europe, and most likely Hungary, particularly goulash or paprikash. But despite the spice’s far-reaching trade in the Balkans and Central Europe in the 17th century, paprika didn’t become established in Hungary until the 19th century. Its first recorded use in the English language appeared circa 1831.

That’s a circuitous history for a spice derived from a varietal of the Capsicum annuum family, all of which are native to North America, and in particular central Mexico, where they were cultivated for centuries before making the reverse commute to the Old World with the conquistadores.

The peppers favored for paprika are generally milder and more delicately fleshed than their spicier cousins, but like the fiery hot chiles of Meso-American cuisine, all capsicum varieties are descended from the same wild ancestors.

Brought to Spain and known as pimentón since the 16th century — before being established in Hungary — these chiles spread via trade that extended to Africa and Asia, which obviously embraced it.

Almost all cultivars grown for paprika are of the “sweet” (thin-fleshed) variety, but their particular flavor, pungency and heat are as much, if not more, a factor of environmental factors as they are of genetics.

It can get a bit daunting. Hungary has at least eight poetically named grades of paprika: noble sweet, special quality, delicate, exquisite delicate, pungent exquisite delicate, rose, semi-sweet and strong, which is classified from sweet to hot.

Spain, on the other hand, has mild, mildly spicy and spicy.

By far the most common Spanish paprika has a flavor profile defined more by process than anything; because pimentón de la Vera is dried by smoking (typically using oak), it has a smoky flavor and aroma. It’s that smokiness which is the basis and selling point for this vaguely Iberian stew. My smoked paprika, though ostensibly Spanish, was sourced online from Penzey’s in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin, although the McCormick brand is a more readily available option.

Spanish Shrimp & Bean Stew with Capers and Olives

Serves 4 to 6

  • 2 tablespoons smoked paprika
  • 1 tablespoon sweet paprika
  • Kosher salt and ground black pepper
  • 1 pound (21 to 25) shrimp, peeled, deveined, tails left on
  • 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more to serve
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 1 large leek, white and light-green parts halved lengthwise and thinly sliced
  • 4 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 tablespoons capers, rinsed and drained
  • ½ cup black olives, drained and chopped roughly
  • 2 cups cooked white beans (cannellini, large limas or Great Northern whites)
  • ½ cup reserved bean cooking liquid
  • (Optional: 1 to 2 tablespoons Red Boat Fish Sauce)
  • 1 cup broth (shrimp stock made from peeled shells, canned or bottled clam or lobster broth, or a good commercial vegetable broth)
  • Chopped flat-leaf parsley for garnish

1. Combine both paprikas plus ½ tablespoon ground black pepper in a small bowl. Place raw, cleaned shrimp in a medium bowl and sprinkle 2 tablespoons of paprika-pepper mixture over shrimp. Shake to coat and set aside, reserving the remainder of the spice mixture.

2. Add oil to a large deep skillet (with cover) or a Dutch oven set on medium-high heat, until shimmering. Add shrimp in one layer (reserving the bowl). Cook without stirring for about 2 minutes, until shrimp get browned on the bottom. When they’re done, return the shrimp to the bowl, using a slotted spoon.

3. Lower heat to medium and melt butter in the same pot. Add leeks and cook, stirring occasionally, about 4 minutes, until softened. Add drained capers and olives and cook for another minute. Add garlic and reserved spice mixture and cook, stirring, for another minute, until fragrant. Add beans, reserved bean liquid and stock (plus fish sauce if using); stir to incorporate and bring to a simmer. Reduce heat to low, cover and cook for 10 minutes, stirring once or twice. While the stew simmers, prep the reserved shrimp. Remove tails, discarding shells, and cut in half crosswise; reserve again.

4. Remove pot from heat. Stir in the shrimp and their juices. Cover pot and let stand until shrimp are opaque (about 2 to 3 minutes). Correct seasoning. Serve garnished with parsley and an additional drizzle of olive oil.

Behind The Story

Type: Opinion

Opinion: Advocates for ideas and draws conclusions based on the author/producer’s interpretation of facts and data.

Dizney is a designer, art director and unrepentant sensualist. When the Cold Spring resident is not thinking about food, he is foraging for, cooking or eating it. Location: Cold Spring. Languages: English. Area of expertise: Food