Saturday, July 05, 2008

It's A Paella Party!

Smoked French Fries doing their thing.

It's the Fourth of July and everyone has gathered at my house for another year of food, drink, fireworks and... rain.

Damn rain. For days before, it's beautifully sunny, but on the day it counts: rain. Puta y Madre.

Last year I hosted a Lechon Party where we roasted a whole pig over an open fire in the method of our Philippine grandfathers. It was a splendid day - except for the rain, and I had planned on doing a BBQ Party until Gordon Ramsay got into my head.

It must have been his episode of Kitchen Nightmares where he goes to Spain and ends up cooking a large paella on the beach. It looked amazing and I decided then that the paella was what we had to do for this years' party.

Gathering 'round the Paella.

As quick search on the Internet turns up all sorts of possibilities for paella. From pans to burners to recipes and ingredients. I'm flummoxed but decide that a proper party just isn't a paella party without a proper paella pan. Most commoners would max out at at the 18" pan, but that's just not a proper size for a proper party. I decide that the 31" pan is the right size for our efforts.

At nearly three feet in diameter, this pan is quite serious. The largest is 52" and sells for a whopping six hundred dollars. Okay, I'm serious, but not that serious. The 31" pan is designed to serve up to 40 people. That should be plenty.

The biggest hindrance to the party is my trip to Europe. I'm scheduled to return on July 1st, which gives me just enough time to procure and prep everything. Of course, I'm delayed in Frankfurt and arrive a day later, which leaves me with one day to get everything together for the party. It's an absolute mad scramble.

In one day, I'll hit the farmer's market, the farms, the market, another supermarket, two liquor stores and have a proper breakfast - not to mention setting up my outdoor kitchen featuring full refrigeration, heating cabinets, prep tables, sinks, grills, smoker and the piece de resistance: my forty pound deep fryer.

Around 2pm on the 4th, friends start trickling in. CapitolSwell, Athos and SonSo1 make their way, as does Matt S. visiting from Florida. Everyone gets to work on the deep prep for the paella.

For weeks, the paella perplexed me. Until I met Elisabeth from Barcelona in Copenhagen. All these recipes and Elisabeth boiled them down to the most salient point: screw the recipes, just use whatever is fresh at the market that day. Evidently, it's what Spaniards like Elisabeth does when they're making paella: whatever is fresh.

With those words, the weight of Espana was lifted off my shoulders. Shopping for exotic Spanish ingredients is stressful. Shopping for whatever is fresh and local is, well, normal.

My trips to the market yielded the following bounty:
Tomatoes, sweet onions, garlic, cilantro, basil, rosemary, sage, cebollas, corn, cherries, blueberries, raspberries, watermelons, honeydew melons, lemons, limes, oranges, apples, russet potatoes, Alaskan salmon, Marvesta shrimp, Old Salte Clams, Springfield chicken, ancho sausage, medium grain rice, string beans, mushrooms - all of which would go either into the paella or the sangria.

From there, the paella is relatively simple. Sweat the onions and garlic in olive oil, saute the chicken and sausage, add the veggies, add the rice, add the saffron, add the chicken stock and simmer. About fifteen minutes later, stir in the rest of the seafood and let the whole thing cook down until ready.

To be honest, I had never made paella before. In my entire life. I was flying completely blind. Completely on instinct. I didn't know what I was doing but I was plowing ahead come hell or high water. Imminent disaster was at every turn. There's easily five hundred dollars worth of ingredients in the pan and I could fuck it up at any moment.

This was cooking not for the feint of heart.

Meanwhile, the deep fryer was doing it's thing with our smoked french fries. It's a technique we pioneered at the Woodberry Kitchen/Ideas In Food dinner where you smoke the potatoes and then finish fry. It adds a deep character to the fries that's complex and delicious. Ours were smoked in Mesquite for twenty minutes.

To tide the prep crew over, we whipped up some steak frites and passed them around. Not to mention the beer and sangria to keep everyone company.

Almost ready.

After a brief technical problem with our heat source, the paella was running at full speed ahead. It took longer than expected (about two hours) but the paella came out pretty well I think. Chock full of veggies and proteins, what could one ask for?

The rain chased some of the fireworks and revelers away this year but the ladies came, allowing me to show off my prowess in handling a big stick (the stirring paddle).

Next year I'm looking for something to top this one. Maybe Lechon Baka - baby cow roasted over an open fire.