A little while ago, I was out having a hungover brunch with my love and her friends, and the question was posed: “What is the worst meal you’ve ever had?”
Now I’ve had quite a few bad meals in my many, many years; nasty breakfasts in the greasiest of greasy spoon diners, cold beans and hotdogs while camping, and stomach churning fast food from a chain who’s slogan should be “Run for the bathroom”, instead of “Run for the border”, to name just a few. The worst meal I’ve ever had though is particularly tragic because it was completely self-inflicted.
When I was thirteen, my mother would often have to work until the wee hours of the morning, which sometimes meant I was responsible for making my own dinner. On one such occasion, I came home from my friend’s house to find my mother had already left for work, and she had left me a note stating that she hadn’t had a chance to get groceries that week, so she had left me a ten dollar bill on the kitchen table which I could use to buy something to eat. Unfortunately, our cat had decided the bill was a lovely new toy, and by the time I got home, there wasn’t much more than some saliva covered confetti. (Just a reminder… cats are jerks.)
I checked the pantry and fridge, the pickings were pretty slim. There were some macaroni noodles, a tub of margarine, some apples, a carton of milk, and not much else. I figured that my best course of action would be to cook up the noodles, and dress them up with a bunch of margarine and spices. When it came time to flavour the noodles, I thought they might be tasty if I used some paprika. This was a big mistake! I had confused the spice known as paprika with the pasta spice flavour mixes that were popular at the time. I dumped a bunch of margarine and paprika on the noodles, mixed them up, and gave my creation a taste. And nearly spit it out straight away. It was horrible! Not only was the paprika rather old, and kind of musty, but it was hot paprika. So the noodles had this weird, slightly bitter, slightly greasy, and very hot flavour that I could barely stomach. I couldn’t toss out my unholy concoction though, because I had idiotically used up all the noodles. I had a bit of a dilemma, but since I didn’t have any other options, I decided to just bite the bullet, and eat my dinner. I doused everything with ketchup to make it slightly more palatable, and ate my horrid pasta from the pot while standing over the kitchen sink. (Needless to say, I didn’t feel very good the next day. At least I had an apple for dessert.)
It was a long time before I could stand to use paprika again. Which is a shame really, because it’s an excellent spice to have around. Since then, my cooking knowledge has grown immensely, and now paprika is one of my must-have spices for my pantry, as I mention here.
Paprika is made from sweet red peppers, which are air-dried, then ground and packaged. The best paprika is produced in Hungary, and comes in various grades, as well as sweet and hot varieties. The noble sweet variety is the most commonly exported type of Hungarian paprika.Paprika is so popular in Hungary, it is used as a table condiment instead of black pepper, alongside salt. Spain also produces many types of paprika, including pimentón, a wonderful smoked paprika. Much of the paprika you find at the grocery store is from China or the United States, and is much less flavourful. Like any ground spice, paprika loses it’s freshness with time, so it’s best kept in an air-tight, opaque container out of the light, and it should be used within 4-6 months of purchase.
The best way to showcase paprika is with a popular dish from the country that is famous for their paprika, the Hungarian classic known as chicken paprikash. Chicken paprikash is a delicious dish of chicken, braised in a paprika and sour cream gravy. It’s a true comfort food classic, beloved by many people of Central-European ancestry. While you can make it with the normal paprika you find at the grocery store, I recommend going to a specialty European market or deli, and finding some imported Hungarian noble sweet (Édesnemes) paprika. I like a spicier paprikash myself, so I use both hot and sweet paprika. I use potato starch as a thickener for the gravy instead of flour, so this recipe is gluten-free as well.
(Prep time: 15 minutes. Cook time: 90 minutes. Serves 3-4.)
- 1 1/2 lbs. whole chicken thighs (approx. 4-5)
- 1 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
- 100 grams pancetta, cut into small cubes
- 1 medium yellow onion, thinly sliced radially
- 3 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 1/2 tbsp noble sweet Hungarian paprika
- 1 tbsp hot Hungarian paprika
- 1 tsp dry ground mustard seeds
- 1 tsp freshly ground black pepper
- 1 tbsp hèrbes de Provence
- 1 tbsp kosher salt
- 4-5 small sweet peppers, seeds and stem removed, cut into rings
- 3 cups chicken broth
- 2 bay leaves
- 2 1/2 tbsp sour cream
- 1 tbsp potato starch
- Juice and zest of 1 lemon
- 1 tbsp flat leaf parsley, finely chopped
- 2 tbsp salted butter
Rinse and pat dry the chicken thighs, then season the skin side with a little kosher salt. Heat the olive oil in a large dutch oven style pot, over medium-high heat. Place the chicken skin side down in the pan, and sear the chicken thighs in the hot oil for 4 minutes, until the skin is golden brown and crispy. Turn the thigh over and cook the other side for 4 minutes. Work in batches if necessary, don’t crowd the pan. When the chicken is done, place it on a plate, and set it aside for the moment.
Add the pancetta to the oil, and fry it for 3-4 minutes, until it is nice and crisp. Then add the garlic and onions, reduce the heat to medium, and sweat the onions for 4-5 minutes, until they are juuuuuust beginning to brown. At this point add the paprikas and mustard, and fry them with the onion mixture for 1 minute. Be careful not to let the paprika burn. Add 1/4 cup of the chicken broth to the pot, and scrape up the crusty bits stuck onto the bottom of the pan. Add the rest of the spices to the onion mixture, then the pepper rings, and cook them for 3-4 minutes, or until the peppers have begun to soften.
Nestle the chicken thighs -skin side up- amongst the peppers. (Make sure to pour any juices that have collected on the plate that the thighs were on into the pot as well.) Then pour the chicken broth into the pot so that the chicken thighs are almost covered. (Don’t forget to add the bay leaves to the pot.) Reduce the heat to low, cover the pan, and let everything sit and stew for 45 minutes. While you are waiting on your paprikash, throw some Lizst on the stereo, and dance the Csardas in your best floppy hat.
By now, the aromas coming from the pot should be intoxicating. I know it’s tempting to just dive right in, and start chowing down, but have patience. You only have a few more steps to go. In a small bowl, whisk together the sour cream and potato starch, then add a couple of ladles of the braising liquid from the pot, a little at a time. Whisk everything until the sour cream mixture is nice and smooth, and there aren’t any lumps of starch. (Don’t add the sour cream straight into the pot without tempering it first, or it will curdle.) Remove the chicken to a separate plate, and then slowly add the sour cream mixture to the pot, stirring constantly. Keep stirring until the gravy is nice and thick, and all the sour cream is incorporated. (Take this opportunity to taste the gravy, and adjust the seasoning if necessary.) Add the lemon juice and zest, and 3/4 of the parsley to the sauce (use the rest of the parsley as a garnish), and then nestle the chicken thighs back in the gravy.
Simmer your paprikash for another 5 minutes to incorporate all the flavours. To finish off your creation, add the butter to the gravy, and carefully stir it in to give that extra richness to the dish.
Go ahead, give your paprikash a taste. It’s so amazing! The flavour is both hot, rich, and sinfully decadent. I’ll be honest, this isn’t the healthiest meal out there, but it is great chilly-gloomy-rainy-I’drathterdoanythingthanbeoutsidebecauseitscoldandmiserableoutthereohmygodwheresmyblanketijustwanttosnuggleuponthecouchandwatchdumbsitcoms- comfort food.
If you want to keep it gluten-free, serve your paprikash with some rice. I prefer to have mine with traditional spatzle egg noodles, tossed with butter, lemon zest, and cooked, frozen kale leaves. The noodles are a great way to balance out the heat from the paprikash, and the kale adds some greens to the plate. So it seems maybe I was onto something, and that horrible meal I made all those years ago was the inspiration for a delicious meal after all.
(No it wasn’t.)