Growing own paprika supplies fresh spices

  • Dried Corbaci peppers HILLARY NELSON—For LiveWell

  • A pile of freshly ground sweet paprika sits on a plate next to a dried Corbaci pepper. HILLARY NELSON / For LiveWell

  • Chicken Paprikas are easy to make with just a few ingredients. Traditionally, it contains a cream, but I use hard cider, white wine or tomato juice instead. The dish also freezes well. HILLARY NELSON photos / For LiveWell

  • Long, thin Corbaci ristra peppers are hung to dry. Dry them in a dehydrator set to around 135 degrees. This allows the peppers to desiccate quickly enough to keep them from becoming moldy on the inside, but slowly enough that they remain colorful and sweet, like the peppers on the reverse page.

Wednesday, April 05, 2017


It’s spring, and at my house that means indoor seed-starting time, when the garden of my December daydreams starts to become reality. Or not, as the case may be, like when all the snapdragons damp off, or the mice devour the sprouting sweet potatoes.

This spring ritual began 30-odd years ago, when I discovered my first Thompson and Morgan seed catalogue, with its drool-worthy color photos, strange terminology and arcane instructions. No matter that I did not know the difference between a “cold season annual” and a “warm season annual,” or what “cold, moist stratification” was. I suddenly realized I could plant exactly what I wanted to plant, not whatever was available at the local nursery, by starting my own seeds. This was power.

Each of the intervening years has meant new garden discoveries that make me feel a little more in charge of my life. For example, I learned I can grow a huge variety of the spices and herbs I use in my kitchen, and they will be more flavorful that anything I could buy at the grocery store.

Along these lines, I have been experimenting with growing hot peppers for sauces and dried chilies for the last ten years. But only in the past few garden seasons has it occurred to me that I should be searching out and starting the kind of peppers that are meant to be dried for sweet paprika.

Such peppers are quite different from “bell” peppers, the large, blocky, green or red varieties abundant in American grocery stores. Sweet paprika-type peppers are often heirloom varieties, that come in lots of shapes and sizes, colors and flavors, and are common in parts of Europe and the Middle East, but not usually seen in American gardens.

Such peppers, because they are meant for drying, are often long, thin, and not very juicy. That said, there are many varieties meant for making paprika that have thick flesh; these usually look like little tomatoes and will have the word “pimento” or “cheese” in their name. They take much longer to desiccate, but are great for slow-drying over wood fires; Spain is famous for traditional smoky paprikas made this way.

For the novice paprika maker, the long, thin-fleshed varieties are the easiest to dry, preferably in a dehydrator set to around 135 degrees. This allows the peppers to desiccate quickly enough to keep them from becoming moldy on the inside, but slowly enough that they remain colorful and sweet. The hallmark of a well-dried paprika pepper is that if you hold it up to the light, it looks like ruby-colored glass, the seeds plainly visible, but with no dark patches that indicate fungus.

Paprika can be hot or sweet or somewhere in between (though in the U.S. we tend to call hot paprika “cayenne”). I grow lots of different peppers for drying, but only this year did it finally occur to me, as I ground the last of my sweet peppers (I still have scads of hot dried peppers) that I go through sweet paprika much faster than hot paprika. Why? Because it’s hard to add too much sweet paprika to a recipe, whereas it is very easy to add too much hot paprika.

I recently scoured the internet for new sweet paprika peppers to try out, and will report back next fall on what I think of my trials. In the meantime, let me recommend two reliable sweet peppers that make excellent paprika: Corbaci and Jimmy Nardello.

Jimmy Nardello is an Italian variety that can be purchased from many seed vendors, including the reliable and inexpensive Maine company, Fedco Seeds (fedcoseeds.com). Corbaci is a Turkish variety available from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds (rareseeds.com) and Pinetree Garden Seeds (superseeds.com), both companies I trust. These two varieties will ripen to red in our cool climate, but Corbaci will produce more peppers than Jimmy Nardello, so if I had room for only one or the other, I would pick Corbaci.

There’s still a short window to plant peppers indoors in time to have strong small plants for the garden when the weather warms up in the first week of June. And I promise you, once you have made your own paprika from your own dried peppers, you will understand how insipid the grocery store version really is.

Here’s a recipe to hang on to until you have the real deal: Chicken Paprikas (though if you have access to a good spice shop, you may be able to buy a fresh, fruity paprika that will do the trick in the meanwhile.) It’s a recipe with just a few ingredients, and is super simple to make. Traditionally, it’s finished off with sour cream or heavy cream, but I prefer the cleaner flavor and tang produced by adding dry hard cider, white wine or tomato juice. However you make it, it is even more delicious the second day, and freezes well, so feel free to double the recipe.

Chicken Paprikas

2 cups chopped onions (about 3 large or 5 small)

4 tablespoons bacon fat or oil (grape seed or olive oil, preferably)

6 big chicken thighs, skin on, bone in (about 3½ pounds)

3 tablespoons freshly ground sweet paprika, divided

1½ teaspoons salt

1½ cups water

the juice of 1 lemon

1 tablespoon good vinegar, such as sherry wine or cider

1 cup of dry hard cider, white wine or tomato juice (use less salt if using tomato juice)

In a heavy skillet (cast iron works well), heat half the bacon fat or oil over medium heat. When shimmering, add the onions and stir well. Cook over low-ish heat for 10-15 minutes, not burning or browning the onions, but rendering them very soft, transluscent and golden. Meanwhile, pat the chicken thighs dry.

When the onions are golden, remove them to a bowl, add the remaining bacon fat or oil to the same pan (don’t clean it first) and when it is shimmering, add the chicken thighs, skin-side down. Cook over medium heat until the skin is crunchy and golden, lowering the heat if necessary to keep from scorching. Turn the thighs over and let them brown on the other side, then turn off the heat, and remove the chicken from pan.

Return the onions to the pan along with 2 tablespoons of the paprika and the salt and stir very well. Turn the heat back on low (paprika burns easily) and cook for a few minutes, then add the water, the lemon juice and the vinegar and return the chicken to the pan, nestling the thighs in the onions. Place a lid on the pan and cook on low, just simmering, for about 45 minutes. Turn the chicken occassionally and stir the sauce to make sure nothing is burning. If needed, you may add more water.

When the chicken is cooked through, remove it from the pan. Add the last tablespoon of paprika, the cider, white wine or tomato juice and let the mixture bubble. If desired, you may at this point use an immersion blender to puree the onions and make the sauce smooth (this may also be done in a food processor), but this is up to your taste. Let the sauce simmer gently until the flavors have melded and the it has reduced and thickened a bit, about ten minutes. Taste and add more vinegar or lemon juice, if desired, or more liquid if you like your sauce a little thinner.

Return the chicken to the pan and simmer until it is heated through. Place the chicken on a platter, cover with sauce and a sprinkle of paprika if desired and serve with, the rest of your hard cider or wine, a green salad, and something on the plate to soak up the sauce, such as rice, noodles, or a good crusty bread.