Quest for zest leads to dish from land of Quixote

May 24, 2006|By ROB KASPER

The midweek suppers and our house were leaning toward the ho-hum. So in an attempt to put a little spice in our weekday meals, I made pork chops La Mancha.

La Mancha is in the center of Spain and is perhaps best known as the land of Don Quixote. Don Quixote is the fictional 17th-century knight who livened up his life by riding around the Spanish countryside on horseback, righting wrongs and attacking windmills. It made for a good novel, if not a great career path.

I found a pork-chop recipe that looked promising in a new cookbook about this region of Spain, Cooking From the Heart of Spain, by Janet Mendel (Morrow Cookbooks, 2006). It called for marinating pork chops in lemon juice, six cloves of garlic and Spanish paprika.

Mendel is American-born but has lived in Spain for 40 years. After I cooked the dish I corresponded with her, via e-mail, from her home in southern Spain.

"La Mancha being a very pastoral region, lamb is probably the favored meat," she wrote. "But, as elsewhere in Spain, pork is very much a part of the traditional kitchen, providing fresh meat and lard as well as cured sausages, hams, salt pork."

Pork, she noted, also played a role in the story of Don Quixote. His idealized ladylove, Dulcinea, was adept at salting pork, a skill that Mendel said still is treasured in La Mancha today.

"Serrano and Iberico hams are really important to the cuisine here," Mendel said in her e-mail message, "cured in much the same way as in Dulcinea's day."

Pork also played a role in the turbulent history of the region, she said. La Mancha was a battlefield during the Reconquest when, in medieval Spain, successive Christian kings struggled to take back land lost to the Muslim Moors, Mendel said.

Then in 1492 Jews and Muslims were forced to convert to the Catholic Church or be expelled from Spain. "The flesh of the pig, of course, was forbidden to both Muslims and Jews," she wrote, "but many, forced to convert or be expelled from Spain, ate pork to prove their adherence to the new faith."

The La Mancha recipe for pork chops called for one ingredient, smoked pimenton, that caught my eye. Pimenton is Spanish for paprika. The smoked variety hails from western Spain, where the peppers are smoke-dried for 10 to 15 days over slow oak fires, and has an earthy aroma, Mendel said.

I set out on a search to find smoked pimenton. I called several gourmet grocery stores who reported they did not carry it. I drove to several small groceries in the Spanish-speaking neighborhoods of East Baltimore without much luck. I weathered a downpour.

Finally, I found a package of pimenton hanging on a spice rack in La Guadalupana, a small Mexican grocery store on the corner of Eastern Avenue and Wolfe Street. It was pimenton but it was not smoked.

I took it, put a teaspoon of the Spanish paprika in a food processor along with six cloves of garlic, 1/4 cup of fresh lemon juice, some olive oil, salt, pepper and thyme. I hit the pulse button and transformed the mix into a fragrant, pink marinade.

I put the pork chops in a dish, poured the marinade over them, covered them and put them in the refrigerator, where they sat for three hours. At suppertime, I sliced three potatoes and put them in the bottom of a glass ovenproof dish along with a couple of bay leaves. Then I added the chops and the marinade, covered the dish with foil and cooked it in a 375-degree oven.

About an hour later, dinner was ready. The lemon juice had given the pork chops a pleasing, citrus tang. The garlic was surprisingly mild. The potatoes were a bit chewy, but flavorful. The paprika was present, but lacked the intensity I had hoped for.

The pork-chop dish was good, but would have been much better with that smoky pimenton.

And so, like Don Quixote, I am now on a quest, roaming the landscape, looking for midweek excitement and for smoked pimenton.

Podcasts featuring Rob Kasper are available at

Baked Pork Chops With Lemon Marinade

Serves 4

6 garlic cloves, peeled

1/4 cup fresh flat-leaf parsley

1/4 teaspoon dried thyme

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon smoked pimenton (Spanish paprika)

1/4 cup fresh lemon juice

1/4 cup olive oil

freshly ground black pepper to taste

4 pork chops, 1-inch thick, bone-in, about 2 pounds

1 1/2 pounds potatoes, peeled and thinly sliced

2 bay leaves

Combine the garlic, parsley, thyme, salt, pimenton, lemon juice, oil, pepper to taste and 1/4 cup water in a blender. Process to make a smooth marinade.

Place the pork chops in a single layer in a nonreactive pan. Pour the marinade over them and turn the chops to coat both sides. Allow to stand at room temperature for 1 hour or refrigerate for up to 4 hours.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Place the sliced potatoes and bay leaves in the bottom of an ovenproof pan or casserole. Place the chops on top with all of the marinade.

Cover the pan with foil and bake for 45 minutes. Remove foil and bake for 15 minutes more. Before serving, allow the chops and potatoes to stand for 15 minutes and remove bay leaves.

From "Cooking From the Heart of Spain" by Janet Mendel (Morrow Cookbooks, 2006)

Per serving: 498 calories, 28 grams protein, 27 grams fat, 7 grams saturated fat, 35 grams carbohydrate, 3 grams fiber, 81 milligrams cholesterol, 671 milligrams sodium

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