Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Man Can Cook #20: Oooooh, I love Paella!

I have a general affinity for what I affectionately call "Po-folks food". This is by no means a slight, as to me it is simply a general term describing the food of working people who learn to make the most from the least. In my opinion it's far more difficult to make something amazing from the cheapest ingredients than it is to do so from the finest.

Paella is just such a dish. It's a Valencian dish dating back to the early 19th century. It's the stuff of shepherds and orchardmen who cooked the dish, usually over an open fire, out of what was available, cheap and easy to transport. There are many different regional variations of the dish from those dominated by meat, to seafood. Each variation tends to take on the flavor of the region in which it's prepared and features local and/or seasonal meats and vegetables. The mere suggestion of deviation from those regional formulae is cause to "step outside" in some parts of Spain. They take their Paella VERY seriously.

I'm Portuguese so I've no claim to a heritage with this dish so I feel somewhat free to use what I like. Kathy and I learned to make Paella at a Spanish cooking class a few years ago and I've made it a few times since on the stovetop but I've been dying to do it on the grille so I can add the flavor of woodsmoke to bump up the authenticity at least a little bit even if my ingredient list might earn me a black eye were I in Valencia.

It's really quite a simple dish to prepare. The only serious challenge is getting the timing right at the end so that the layer of toasted rice at the bottom of the pan, called "socarrat" in Spanish is just right. Not enough time on the heat and it's just missing, which isn't then end of the world, but too much time turns it from nutty, toasty, crunchy awesomeness into burnt rice.....which ruins the entire dish and causes great disappointment.

15" Paella pan (though a thin stainless skillet would probably work fine as well)
Outdoor Grille with a screaming hot pile of coals

1lb Chicken Wing "drum-ettes"
1/2lb Dry Spanish Chorizo
1/2lb Clams
1/2lb Mussels
2c Spanish "Bomba" rice (Italian Arborio will work too)
4c Chicken Stock
1 Large Onion (medium dice)
1tbsp Garlic (diced)
1-1/2c Peas
1 Lemon (cut into wedges)
1c Roasted Red Bell Pepper (julienned) 
1tbsp Saffron
Salt & Pepper
Olive Oil

Start by putting the saffron into the chicken stock to steep. Then, season the chicken wings with salt & pepper. Place your Paella pan over the coals with a bit of the olive oil and toss in the chicken. The pan should be good and hot so you are getting a good brown going on the chicken. Once it's about 1/3 cooked toss in the Chorizo and cook it for about 5min. Then toss in the onion & garlic and cook it for about 5min. It should look a bit like this right about now:

At this point, the chicken is about 2/3 cooked and there is a nice layer of fond in the bottom of the pan. Pour the rice in and add the stock and saffron. Give it a good stir to make sure everything is fairly evenly distributed. After this stir you wont touch it again until it's time to serve so make sure it's right. Close the lid on the grille and let it cook for about 15min. After this time has elapsed your rice will be about 1/2 cooked but there's still a lot of liquid visible in the pan (sorry, I forgot to take a photo of this stage of the process...I had my hands full...of beer).

Put that spoon down!
Don't stir it.
I know you want to, but don't.
Trust me.

Take a look at the liquid, it should be simmering, not boiling. If it's at a boil move the pan to a cooler part of the grille or raise the grate. Whatever means you have of modulating the heat, use it to lower the temp a bit. If you are at a simmer, then proceed by placing your shellfish into the pan. Just shove them into the liquid between the chicken wings and slices of Chorizo so they are evenly distributed. Sprinkle the peas around in a similar even fashion. Then arrange the wedges of lemon and red bell pepper in a similar fashion. Make it pretty or make it somewhat haphazard. It doesn't matter so long as they are evenly distributed so your guests get a bit of everything with each scoop of the serving spoon. Then close the lid on the grille again and let it cook until roughly 25min after the time at which you added the rice and stock.

Once that 25min has elapsed is where the tricky bit comes in. Your rice is cooked, but we need to make sure the "socarrat" has formed. You don't want to use the spoon to check it.

Put that spoon down!
Don't stir it.
I know you want to, but don't.
Trust me.
You need to depend on your sense of smell and hearing here. Lean in a bit (careful of the eyebrows over the grille) and smell. If it smells burned, order pizza, you blew it.  But if you get the scent of toasty, nutty, crispy rice and can hear it crackling a bit you're all good. If it doesn't smell burnt and thus bad or toasty and thus awesome, it's not done and you need to let it cook a bit longer. You might need to move the pan again to a hotter part of the grille.

Technology has not yet provided a means of demonstrating smell via the internet so we'll have to depend on the above photo. This is what it should look like when it's done. You'll have just cooked shellfish, plump rice delicately seasoned with saffron, moist juicy chicken and rich flavorful Chorizo combined with the bright acidity of the roasted bell peppers and lemon.

Kinda money if I do say so myself.

Furthering the Iberian theme of the evening, Kathy whipped up a batch of her mothers flan for desert. Deserts & pastries are not my thing. Cooking is a subjective thing, it's like painting or sculpture in that if you like it, it's right. Baking is chemistry. Either you got the formula correct and it turns out right...or not. Baking is Kathy's thing. I don't know if it's a right-brain vs left-brain deal or whatever but I do know that she got it from her mom. Her mother, Marge, was by all accounts a spectacular baker and was a whiz with all things desert. I never met the lady and that really saddens me as to the last, every person who did just positively beams when they talk about her. If she was anything like the daughter she raised she was an angel.

Anyway...the flan...this is Kathy's mom Marge's recipe and it's freakin amazing.

Medium saucier or skillet
2nd medium saucier
Wooden spoon
5-6 Ramekins
9"x12" Baking pan

2c Sugar (for caramel sauce)
1/3c Sugar (for custard)
3 Eggs
1/4tsp Salt
2c Whole Milk
Dash of Vanilla Extract
Fresh grated Nutmeg
2-4c hot water

Pre-heat your oven to 350deg F. To make the caramel sauce place the saucier or skillet over a medium flame for 30sec then add the sugar. Using the spoon, keep the sugar moving in the pan until it's completely melted. Don't step away lest it scorch. Once melted, the sugar will begin to take on an increasingly brown color. See the photo below for the color you are looking for. Once you've achieved that nice caramel color, VERY carefully pour an equal amount into each of your ramekins. Be very, VERY careful. Melted sugar is like napalm. If you get it on your skin it'll burn the bejeezus out of you.

Combine eggs, salt, vanilla & the remaining 1/3c of sugar and beat well. In your 2nd saucier, heat your milk to just below boiling point. While whisking briskly and continuously, very slowly pour the egg mixture into the warm milk. Once fully combined, pour in equal amounts into your ramekins and sprinkle a bit of grated nutmeg on top.

Place the ramekins into the baking pan and add hot water to the pan such that it comes about 3/4 up the sides of the ramekins. Pop in the oven for ~40min to bake. Once that time has elapsed, remove the ramekins from the water-bath pan and pop them in the fridge to chill for 2-3hrs to chill before serving.

When ready to serve, carefully cut around the custard to release it from the ramekin. Place a small plate on top of the ramekin and flip. Say a kind word or two to the deity of your choice and carefully lift the ramekin off. If everything went right it'll look like this:

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