Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Arroz con Cosas

Donald Made a Diva Cake
The big 50!

We celebrated Ann's 50th with a lot of friends and family on Sunday and I was so wrapped up in having a good time that I forgot to shoot many pictures. I did get a picture of the awesome diva cake that Donald made for Ann, chocolate cake under the pink skirt and raspberry and white chocolate for the base.

For a fall day, it sure was unseasonably warm outside, especially when coupled with a roaring fire. Because of the 90-plus degree heat, Ann stayed inside in the air conditioning and so missed the making of the paella. So this post is for her and hopefully answers her question, "How did you make the paella?"

Speaking of paella, I may as well go ahead and call my concoction by the somewhat derogatory term arroz con cosas as a pre-emptive strike against those Valencians who insist that true paella can only be made in a single way. The paella snobs sniff almost sotto voce, "That's not paella, it's arroz con cosas (rice with things)." Sorry guys, this is my yard, my party, and my freaking paella. Thanks for the idea, but like The Chairman said, "I did it my way!"

Chicken Wings and Salvadoran Chorizos
This was my first attempt at making paella outdoors over a fire. Sure, I have made paellas aplenty in hotel pans at the restaurant, but there is something really awesome about heating up a really beautiful paellera over a wood fire. And this super-thick Pata Negra paellera from La Tienda in Williamsburg is a thing of beauty. I love this mild steel pan in the same way that I love our black steel sauté pans at the restaurant. It takes a lot of maintenance to keep it from rusting, but it is so responsive and a joy to cook in.

While it was my first attempt at paella over a fire, I am no stranger to cooking over a fire, having done it quite a lot in the days of my misspent youth. Armed with a big stack of dogwood and cherry wood from the field behind us, it took almost no time to get a nice blaze going, especially after the last couple of months without rain.

Then Onions, Red Peppers, and Hard Spanish Chorizo
Because the cooking action is so quick in making a paella, you need to have everything prepped in advance. In the days before the party, I made a couple gallons of pretty saffron-yellow stock from pork necks, pig's feet, chicken feet, vegetables, saffron, and mussels. I like to add the saffron to the stock to get even distribution in the rice. And after straining the stock, I salted it to taste. When cooking a paella, it is sometimes hard to get the right amount of salt: salting the stock helps with that. Not too much salt, mind you, because the stock does evaporate in cooking and will concentrate the salt.

I also diced red peppers, yellow onions, green onions, and a small hard chorizo on Saturday and had them waiting in containers, ready to go in the pan to make my sofrito. In the photo above, you see that I have moved the meat to the outside of the pan and am frying the sofrito in the center. Once the vegetables started to soften, I added two huge scoops of minced garlic and Italian parsley and let it cook with a couple tablespoons of pimentón before adding heated stock to the pan.

Stock is Boiling Gently; Rice Always in Sign of the Cross
How much stock, I'm not sure, though I started with a couple of gallons. You see in the photo above that I filled the pan to the bottom of the handle rivet. And the rice, now I know for sure that my 55cm (more than half a meter! that's a good-sized pan!) paella pan takes a kilo and a half of rice. Tony and I just eyeballed it and judged it just right at one-and-a-half kilo bricks of rice.

Once the rice was in the pan, everything was pretty much on autopilot and all I had to do was mind the flame and rotate the pan now and again to place a different part of the pan over the hot spot. There was no way to avoid a hot spot: a constant gusty breeze kept the leeward side of the pan much warmer than the windward, and that's nothing if not normal when cooking over a fire.

Almost Done! Listening to the Crackle of the Soccarat!
As the rice started to plump, I added artichoke hearts and soon the rice got thick enough to embed the mussels and to support the shrimp on top. At this point, it was just a matter of letting the soccarat—the coveted crisp rice crust that is the sure sign of a well-cooked paella—form on the bottom of the pan as the seafood finished steaming on top of the rice that was in the final stages of just becoming tender.

I started with a big fire when cooking the chicken and vegetables and then let it die down to a simmer while the rice cooked. At the end, I threw more wood to the fire to get it really hot again and spent the last few minutes listening carefully to the pan, listening for the stock to boil off and the soccarat to crackle. This pan rewarded us with the most amazing soccarat ever!

Dig in!
Happy Birthday, Annie! I hope you enjoyed it! And thank you Valencia for one of the greatest party foods ever! Even if it is just rice with things.

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