It’s always nice to have friends, and not just when you need money or you’re your wife has thrown you out. They’re especially wonderful when they can cook, and especially if they’ll teach you how. Drinking you’ll have to learn on your own, although friends can be very helpful there, too.
I don’t disparage anyone’s cooking. Great Cuisines cover the world. None of them bad, unless you catch the Koreans on a night when they’ve run out of meat and you notice their dog isn’t barking. Mexican menudo?…not a fan.
The Europeans in general? Superb. But, when it comes to the trifecta, drinking, eating, and partying, the Spanish take a backseat to nobody. These folks can start in the late afternoon and finish up with supper at midnight. Everyone know the prime restaurant seating in Madrid is 10:30 p.m.? Show up a couple of hours early and you’ll have the place to yourself.
Through my wife, I met a couple, he American, and she Spanish. Pili gives cooking lessons, which may also be classed as party lessons, or drinking lessons. You gather hungry friends. You make sangria. You talk for hours and eat well, with discussions on anything that comes to mind after you've been hitting the sangria ... hard!
Lesson number one, Paella. But with a Spanish woman, cooking is never just cooking. It’s about having a few noshes to whet the appetite, washed down with wine, sangria, beer, whisky, or anything else that’s wet. Then there’s an hour or more of conversation, and discussions on the merits of various foods, condiments, the prime importance of bread, and sentimental trips into the childhoods of everyone present. The lips must be lubricated, as well as the stomach.
Only Americans are willing to eat without conversation and a migratory pilgrimage to the kitchen. For the Spanish household, if you want to eat, these things are obligatory. Followed by chopping, dicing, and more intense drinking, interspersed with bubbling conversation and impromptu belly laughs. Oh, yeah, also a few million instructions on creating Paella. Pili is an exacting cook, which is a major reason why her paella is the stuff of hungry dreams.
If you’re not familiar with paella, here’re some hints. Big, flat-bottomed pan. Rice. Seafood. Chicken. Time. Patience. If you don’t have the slow moving P word in abundance, make another plan. Above all, paella takes time and preparation.
Let’s cut to the historic chase. The dish dates only from the mid 19th Century. Paella comes from several words in several languages, all of them meaning pan. The typical paella pan is round and flat-bottomed, with two-inch high sides that lean outward, and support opposing handles. A lot of non-Spaniards think of paella as Spain’s national dish, but a Spaniard with tell you no, no, no (with a shake of the head and a wagging of the index finger)…it is a regional dish, from the east coast, specifically the region around the city of Valencia. Lots of different types of paellas. Truth is, you can put in any meat you want.
The Spaniards do.
You make paella in two parts, the pan cooking part and the broth part. Then you combine them with a finishing flourish and a swish of the spoon.
The Recipe (for 6-8 people)
Part I, initial cooking in the paella pan
Olive Oil (I use only Spanish olive oil!)
3 garlic cloves, thinly sliced.
1 small onion, diced
1 small green bell pepper diced
1 small red bell pepper, half of it diced and half of it cut in medium strips
2 large chicken breasts (or 4 thighs) skinned, boned, and cut in bite sized pieces
2 calamari steaks, cut in strips (easy to do with scissors)
2 medium tomatoes, peeled and diced
2 cups small grain rice (risotto rice works well)
1 cup small scallops
18-24 shrimp (cleaned)
12 mussels ( An hour before cooking, put them in cold, salty water. This will wash out any grit. )
A handful of peas (not canned, but frozen is ok)
Part II, The Broth
2 cloves garlic, mashed in a mortar, with salt and chopped parsley
4 cups fish or chicken broth
½ teaspoon smoked paprika
½ teaspoon colorante (either adobo or turmeric)
2 teaspoons chopped parsley (see garlic above)
pinch of saffron
salt to taste (along the way, you will want to taste from time to time to make sure the paella or the broth is not too salty)
Putting it all together: (you’re going to be dancing back and forth from paella pan to broth. Read carefully. Stick with it!)
1. Coat the bottom of the paella pan with olive oil. Add the 3 sliced garlic cloves and the calamari. This is to flavor the oil.
2. Lower the heat. This is where patience comes in. Add onions, peppers and peas, along with a bit of salt to help the vegetables sweat. Add the tomatoes. And stir them in.
3. After a few minutes, take the garlic and calamari out and set aside. You’ll use them later.
As the vegetables slowly cook, make the broth in a separate saucepan. This allows you to taste the broth and get the flavors and color perfect before you add it to the paella pan. Pour the fish/chicken broth into the saucepan and add the paprika, colorante, reserved sliced garlic and mashed garlic, and a splash or two of either sherry or brandy. This will help tenderize the meat when the broth is added to the paella pan. Use a white spoon to stir and you will be able to see that the broth is a rich yellow. If it’s too pale, add more colorante. Cook the broth separately for about 15 minutes to let the flavors meld.
4. Take the strips of red bell pepper out of the paella pan. They will be used to decorate the dish before serving. Add the chicken pieces to the paella pan.
5. Do not stir too much, only enough to turn the chicken. Don’t worry about the chicken being uncooked. The paella/chicken will continue to cook as more ingredients are added.
6. Add rice to the paella pan and stir. You want the rice to get a nice coating of oil and vegetable juices before you add the broth.
7. Add the broth to the paella pan and stir quickly, then do not stir again.
8. Add the prepped mussels to the paella pan. (Do not eat any mussels that have not opened after they are cooked.) Cook for 15 to 20 minutes.
9. With 5 minutes to go, decoratively add the scallops and shrimp on top. Also add the reserved strips of red bell pepper and reserved strips of calamari.
10. Taste to make sure the rice is cooked. When it is cooked to your liking, cut a lemon decoratively and put the pieces on top of the paella. Cover the paella with foil and let it rest for 10-15 minutes.
Remove the foil and serve the paella in a burst of steamy goodness. Don’t forget the bread, salad, water, and more wine!
Watch your greedy guests smile! Oh, well, they did bring the wine, right….I mean, they did, didn’t they??
Next lesson: Tapas!