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As a little girl, I was a very picky eater, wary, suspicious and precise in my preferences, which have not changed all that much. Sweet watermelon, backyard tomatoes, Dungeness crab and rare meat remain among my favorite foods today, just as they were when I first discovered the pleasures they conveyed.

There have been changes, though, some that came from within as my palate matured and some that came when what was available simply got better. Paprika is a good example.

My mother sprinkled it on deviled eggs and cottage cheese and when I protested she told me it was just for color, that it had no taste. It did have a taste, I insisted, but it was more like dust than food. I didn't see the point and scraped it off when I could.

This was the paprika Americans knew for decades and it was, for the most part, used to add color atop pale foods.

Now we have a huge array of flavorful paprikas and other similar ground chilies. There are local ones in our farmers markets. Some markets now have spice vendors, too, who import high-quality organic spices and ground chilies.

Excellent Hungarian paprika is readily available in almost any good supermarket and specialty shop. Penzeys Spices has two varieties of Hungarian paprika and one California paprika, which is sweet and mild.

Stores like the Spanish Table have excellent Spanish pimenton, available both online (spanishtable.com) and at their stores, two of which are in the Bay Area, one in Berkeley and one in Mill Valley.

Now that we have good paprika, let's take a minute to consider what it actually is.

It is not, as many believe, simply a kind of chili; it is a seasoning made in a range of different chili blends. Hungarian paprika is probably the most universally recognized and over centuries farmers there have perfected several dozen varieties that provide the unique flavor they want. Yet the name itself does not refer to any fresh chili but to the ground version, which has a place on tables in Hungary alongside salt and pepper.

"Paprika" comes from the Hungarian "paparka," a variation of the Bulgarian "piperka." Trace it back a bit further, and you end up with "piper," the Latin term for pepper.

How exactly did a chili, a New World plant, end up being a signature spice in Eastern Europe? There is much speculation -#8212; some researchers say it was introduced by Turks, others name Italians as the source -#8212; and books have been written on the topic. It is an intriguing trail to explore if you are interested in culinary history.

If you simply love the range of flavors of paprika and other dried and ground chilies, it may be enough to know that they are now easily available, though I say this with one proviso. The last time I was in Spain, I brought home Campeador pimenton, a brand I found in a small shop somewhere west of Barcelona. Both the sweet and the hot versions have a depth of flavor I've not found in other brands, but so far I've not found a domestic source for it.

<b>Chicken Paprikash</b>

Traditional Hungarian paprikash is served with dumplings. But I prefer something lighter, roasted new potatoes, perhaps, or tender fresh pappardelle. For full flavor, you must use the very best Hungarian paprika or Spanish pimenton available.

Makes 4 servings.

<i>8 chicken thighs or 4 leg-thigh combinations

Kosher salt

1 tablespoon medium-hot Hungarian paprika

4 tablespoons lard, duck fat, chicken fat or butter

2 yellow onions, cut into small dice

5 garlic cloves, crushed and minced

1 tablespoon hot paprika

2 tablespoons sweet paprika

3 tablespoons brandy

1 tablespoon concentrated tomato paste

1 cup chicken stock, hot

1 fresh hot red chili, if available

? cup creme fraiche or sour cream

3 tablespoons chopped fresh Italian parsley</i>

Set the chicken on a clean work surface and season it lightly all over, first with salt and then with the tablespoon of medium-hot paprika. Set aside for at least 15 minutes and as long as several hours or overnight, in the refrigerator.

To finish the dish, put the fat into a heavy frying pan or skillet set over medium-high heat. When hot, add the chicken and brown all over. Use tongs to transfer the chicken to a plate and set aside.

Reduce the heat to medium-low, add the onions and saut?gently until soft and fragrant, about 12 to 15 minutes. Add the garlic and saut?2 minutes more.

Season with salt.

Reduce the heat to very low, add the paprikas and stir for 1 minute. Add the brandy and continue to stir, picking up any bits of chicken or onion stuck to the pan.

Return the chicken to the pan, along with any juices that have collected on the plate, and turn the chicken to coat it with the paprika mixture.

Whisk the tomato paste into the stock and pour it into the pan. Add the fresh chili, if using.

Increase the heat until the liquid boils, return the heat to low, cover the pan and cook very gently for about 40 to 50 minutes, depending on the size of the pieces of chicken.

Transfer the chicken to a serving platter and keep warm.

Increase the heat under the pan and reduce the cooking liquid by about one-third, until it begins to thicken slightly. Return the heat to low and stir in the creme fraiche.

Taste, correct for salt and pour over the chicken. Sprinkle with parsley and serve immediately.

---

<b>A Very Simple Pasta for a Very Busy Night</b>

This simple pasta is a fallback dish when I've been too busy to plan ahead and don't have much on hand. I find it deeply satisfying and even better with a simple soup before hand, a simple salad after and a glass of wine alongside.

Makes 1 serving, easily increased.

<i>Kosher salt

3 to 4 ounces dried pasta, such as spaghettini

2 tablespoons butter

2 tablespoons creme fraiche

2 teaspoons paprika or pimenton, a mix of sweet, smoked and hot

2 ounces grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, dry jack or other similar cheese

Black pepper in a mill

1 tablespoon chopped fresh Italian parsley, optional</i>

Fill a medium saucepan half full with water, season generously with kosher salt and bring to a boil over high heat. Add the pasta, stir until the water returns to a boil and cook according to package directions.

While the pasta cooks, warm a bowl. When it is warmed, put the butter, creme fraiche and paprika or pimenton into it.

When the pasta is cooked, drain but do not rinse it.

Put it into the warmed bowl, add the cheese and use two forks to lift it over and over until the butter is melted and the ingredients cloak the strands of noodles.

Season generously with black pepper, add salt to taste and scatter the parsley, if using, on top.

Enjoy.

Variations:

For a more substantial dish, saut?a few large shrimp in butter and minced garlic until just done.

Remove from the heat and season with salt, black pepper and a generous spoonful of paprika or pimenton.

Serve atop the pasta.

You can also use rock shrimp or bay scallops in the same way, instead of large shrimp.

<i>Michele Anna Jordan hosts "Mouthful" each Sunday at 7 p.m. on KRCB 90.9 - 91.1 FM. Email Jordan at michele@micheleannajordan.com. You'll find her blog, "Eat This Now," at pantry.blogs.pressdemocrat.com.</i>