Even after this weekend's fabulous meal, I could count the number of times I've eaten paella on one hand. But after this weekend, I feel like I could actually make a paella, perhaps even on the grill like our talented hosts did.
Apparently, paella is something that inspires people to go whole hog on things. We heard stories about the mythical Gary who had special tools forged and built a beautiful table to fit his gigantic paella pan. I need to see this. But I also read that the world's largest paella was made in a pan 65 feet in diameter and fed 100,000 people in 1992. How do you stir a pan that is 65 feet in diameter?
I understand paella is the traditional dish of Valencia, Spain, sort of in the way hot dish is the traditional dish of say Red Wing, Minnesota. Like hot dish, paella has many variations. Our paella had chicken, chorizo, shrimp, fava beans, and sugar snap peas in it. Hopefully I'll be able to get the recipe but what I observed was this:
- Fire up the grill and when the coals are grey, put the paella pan over the grill with a goodly amount of olive oil (more than enough to make you feel guilty). When the oil is hot, fry the chicken pieces until browned and probably halfway cooked. Take that out. Fry the chorizo (if it's raw) until browned and cooked and take that out.
- Then fry the onion, garlic and peppers until beginning to carmelize. This mixture is the sofrito, part of every paella, no matter how much the other parts might be interchanged.
- Next add the paprika and rice and glaze it with the olive oil until beginning to brown. Add tomatoes, chicken, peas, chorizo. Not sure if there was any saffron involved.
- Once things are all in the pan, add hot broth to cover the rice. When the rice is about halfway cooked, put the final ingredients on top (the ones that don't take long to cook): shrimp, fava beans, snap peas.
- When everything is cooked and the rice is done, remove pan from heat and cover with a towel. Let sit for 10 minutes.
What was interesting about this process, besides the fact that John was cooking it over the grill (aka white man's fire), is that after adding the chicken and vegetables to the rice and sofrito mixture, you don't stir it again until it's on the table and you're eating it. The reason for this is that you want the bottom of the rice to form a brown and crispy crust called the "socarrat" - the best part of the paella for which everyone is diving in to fish out pieces. For hot dish, this would be comparable to the fried onion rings on top. The trick is, you don't want the socarrat to burn. I understand burnt socarrat is about as tasty as burnt popcorn. I don't know how he did it, but the socarrat for this paella was perfect - deliciously brown and crispy - and I can understand why people might get stabbed in the arm with a fork if they are hogging too much of it.
I made a salad with Brines Farm greens, some herbs and flowers from my yard, and the goat cheese from the market. Margaret made a lovely rhubarb crumble with rhubarb from Sonia down the street. I think this is what the Slow Food thing is about - standing around the fire drinking wine with friends as the sun goes down and a burst of raindrops makes a rainbow behind the lilacs. Watching each step, smelling each smell, finally going inside to eat where it's warm. Drinking a little too much and staying a little too long, but feeling like you want it to go on and on.
"Eating with the fullest pleasure - pleasure, that is, that does not depend on ignorance - is perhaps the profoundest enactment of our connection with the world."
Wendell Berry, from The Pleasures of Eating