On Paella.

For a time, my mother lived in Spain — she had moved there from the Philippines with some friends, but at age twenty-four she stepped off an airplane at JFK.  I find this incredibly fascinating; I’m older now than my mother was then, and the only foreign country I have ever lived in is Massachusetts.  I hope I can one day catch up.

While she lived in Madrid my mother befriended several Spaniards, including a painter who made delicious paella.  He had a ring attachment for his stove called an hornillo, which was quite wide in order to accommodate his paellara, the traditional large and shallow pan that the dish is cooked in.  It was my mother’s first paella, and she loved it.  Since then, she’s been making it, though over the years her recipe has evolved so much that I’m sure a purist would dismiss it as something else altogether.  I can’t speak to that, but I can tell you that I’ve been eating versions of this my entire life and, regardless of whether or not it is traditional, it is delicious.  So delicious, in fact, that when Keith and I went to New York to visit, I requested it, along with a cooking lesson.

My mother’s paella can be made with a wide variety of fish and shellfish; it was through this dish that I was first introduced to mussels, which I thought were more like castanets than food.  I loved their nacreous and opalescent insides, which I would stroke with my finger as if it were a pet.  Nowadays, my mother tends to use crab, since my father has begun to fastidiously pick out all of the mussels and put them to the side of his plate.

During our paella lesson, my mother produced a bouquet of some truly massive crab legs.  Keith, who hadn’t known to expect such a thing inside the fridge, had a little bit of a surprise earlier that day he when went looking for a cold drink.  (“Um, did you know your mom’s got some huge crab legs in the fridge?”)  Here’s a photo of one of the monster legs; I had my mother put her arm in for a sense of scale.

As I said earlier, my mother’s paella is nontraditional.  For example, she doesn’t have a paellara; she cooks it instead in a huge stainless steel pot.  Also, my mother uses long grain rice; she says its easier, but I think the fact that it is what she normally has on hand, aside from sticky rice, has a lot to do with her decision-making process.  Another of my mother’s departures from convention is that she doesn’t allow the rice on the bottom of her pot to caramelize and crisp up the way most paella-makers do.  (I don’t know why she doesn’t do this, because that part of the rice is fantastic.  Oh well.)  Two more deviations of hers are her use of peppers in place of pimientos, and her substitution of pepperoni for chorizo.

My mother’s has some pretty strong thoughts on paella, and cooking in general: take the recipe as just a string of advice rather than strict rules.  While I love her food and hope one day to have a repertoire as vast as hers (I know she’s got a few decades of cooking clocked in than I do, but still) I absolutely hate asking my mother for a recipe.  They’re usually of measurements like “a pinch or two,” “a little bit” and “just eyeball it.”  Very frustrating.  Then again, I think she was just as frustrated with me when I kept on interrupting our lesson to ask how many cloves of garlic to mince or how may cups of rice.  It all evens out, I suppose.

Not-So-Purist Paella
Makes ten servings

1 ½ cups long grain rice
1 ½ pounds chicken breast, julienned
½ pound each squid (calamari), shrimp, scallops and cooked crab legs (you may also use mussels, clams, lobster, etc.)
1 onion, chopped
5 large cloves garlic, minced
½ teaspoon (generous) saffron threads
2 bell peppers, red, orange or yellow
½ stick pepperoni
5 ounces sweet green peas, frozen or fresh
8 ounces canned whole tomatoes, roughly chopped and juice reserved
Olive oil
Salt and pepper

  1. Roast peppers.  If using a gas stove, turn flame to high and place peppers directly over fire, otherwise use oven’s broiler.  Using tongs, rotating the peppers occasionally, until peppers blister and blacken all over.  Transfer roasted peppers to a paper bag; seal and allow to steam inside the bag.
  2. While peppers cool, sauté onions and garlic in oil in a large heavy-bottomed pot until translucent, stirring frequently.  Remove and set aside; add chicken and sauté until cooked through, cooking in batches if necessary.
  3. Add rice and saffron strands; stir until rice is thoroughly coated with olive oil and the saffron has colored everything a golden yellow.  Return onions and garlic to the pot; add the chopped tomatoes and about half of the juice.  Mix with rice, chicken and saffron; add two and one-quarter cups boiled hot  water, a pinch of salt and some freshly ground black pepper.  Place pot over medium-high flame, reducing heat to medium once water boils.  In the meantime, remove the roasted red peppers from the bag and use a knife to scrape skin off peppers.  Cut off the stem, slice pepper open lengthwise and use knife to scrape out seeds.  Julienne peppers and set aside.
  4. Slice pepperoni about one-eighth to one-fourth of an inch thick.  Arrange on a paper towel covered plate; cover with another paper towel and microwave for about two and a half to three minutes, or until pepperoni is just crunchy.  Discard paper towels and set pepperoni aside.  Clean shrimp and remove crab legs from shells; set aside.  Separate squid tentacles from bodies; set tentacles aside and chop bodies into even thirds, then set aside with tentacles.
  5. Once the majority of the water has been absorbed, add peas, pepperoni, roasted peppers and tomatoes.  Mix in seafood, salt and pepper to taste, and mix until completely combined.  Let cook until the rice has absorbed all liquid, and the seafood is cooked through.  Serve warm.
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