Bridging a Gap With Paella

It would be a gross understatement to say that this weekend I got together with old friends and cooked. It is much more accurate to report that I went back in time and returned to my roots.

The town of Bala Cynwyd (say KIN-WOOD), Pa., is where my tadpole brothers and I morphed into frogs. In 1971, my very young parents (both 28) moved us into a big ole fixer-upper on a tree-lined street where we rode bikes, caught lightning bugs and made snow angels.

My parents were highly social creatures, whether it was entertaining in the multi-colored dining room with the pink piano or dressing up in platform shoes to go out with friends. When I look into my mind's eye, I see swatches of leisure suits, squirt cheese in a can and the game of "Clue." I can hear my father singing to the musical stylings of Charlie Rich and Jimmy Buffett on the stereo, and we'd dance to the Village People. For the most part, it's a collage of color and texture, but the energy still feels warm and lively, like a patchwork quilt.

And then there are people and places and chinks in the chain of life that are much more than a blip on the screen of time travel. They are like markers on a map that are forever etched in your heart, like a stick on wet cement. They are part of who you are, wherever you go. And those people are the very people I cooked with this weekend.

I was 11, maybe 12, when I began to notice my father had a best mate. His name was Richie. The neighborhood soccer league was their raison d'etre, but their love for each other is what brought their wives together as well as their kids, and the wives and kids of other families, like Steve and Ann's. Our families were inseparable. If it wasn't a soccer game that brought us all together, it was dinner, sleepovers, vacations. Richie's family was our family, and our family was theirs.

The chink in the chain is dated October 16, 1982, the day my father died. Nothing would ever be the same. For several years hence, we all tried to keep the momentum, and to a certain extent, we did. And then we didn't. And nobody really knows why. And everyone got too busy to ask.

It would be 20 years before we would gather again under one roof, and that reunion took place on Saturday night. Richie, who now likes to cook, was keen to learn a few new kitchen tricks. For a group of our size (12, give or take a few), I suggested paella, the communal rice dish from Spain.

I drove up the interstate in the rain on Friday afternoon, and Richie and his wife, Sue, greeted me at the house I had known so well as a teenager. I have to admit, I was a little nervous. After such a prolonged absence, we would be engaged in the intimate activities of cooking and sharing food.

Days after my father died, Richie and Steve taught me how to drive. And now, I was teaching Richie how to peel ginger, cut squid and segment an orange. Before the guests arrived, we sipped wine and munched on pretzels. Time certainly has changed the physical landscape and configurations of our lives, but in the heart, time has stood still. It was clear we all love each other just like we did back in 1978, that what was then is now.

Seafood Paella
As taught to me by Washington chef and cookbook author Jose Andres

Notes: The amounts below are for six servings. For our group of 13, I doubled the amounts without a hitch. We also added about eight ounces of chopped chorizo and about 12 ounces of boneless chicken breast. Feel free to mix and match surf and turf.

Approximately 6 ounces squid
Approximately 12 shrimp (depending on size), peeled and chopped¨
4 ounces monkfish¨
1 pound mussels¨
4 cups water
olive oil¨
2 cloves garlic, chopped¨
Approximately 9 ounces grated fresh tomato or tomato puree, depending on time of year¨
1 bay leaf¨
1/4-1/2 tsp. saffron¨
1/2 cup white wine
salt¨to tastes
1 pound (2 cups) short-grained rice, such as Bomba, Calasparra or Arborio

Make stock from mussels. Boil water and add mussels (in batches, if necessary) to boiling water for up to one minute. Remove with a slotted spoon and place in a bowl. When cool, take mussels out of their shells and discard shells. Mussels will continue to release water, which you can add to your pot of mussel stock. Keep stock on the stove, at a simmer.

Rinse squid under water and dry with a towel. You will notice a clear, tough, plastic-like tendon running along the side of each piece. Remove with a knife. Cut pieces into triangles and set aside.

Prepare shrimp (cutting into smaller pieces, if necessary), monkfish (slice into smaller pieces) and set aside.

Heat up the paella pan and add olive oil. When pan is hot, add squid to saute, for about 2 minutes, before adding shrimp and monkfish. When shrimp becomes opaque and pink in color, remove all seafood from pan and set aside.

Add more oil and cook garlic, until, as my paella tutor Jose Andres says, "they dance." (When heated, the garlic moves around the pan in the bubbling oil.) Add tomato and let it cook for at least five minutes, until the color has transformed from red to a more golden, orange-brown shade. Add bay leaf and saffron. Then add white wine.

Return all seafood, except the mussels, to the pan. Add stock. Bring up to a boil. Salt well. You want the mixture to be slightly salty. This is your last chance to add salt before the rice is added.
Add rice and set timer for 14 minutes. For the first four minutes, you may stir gently. After this point, NO MORE STIRRING OR TOUCHING. Otherwise, you will have a gummy rice concoction. (This is also why you can not add salt at this stage.)

Add mussels and let them rest on top. Reduce heat rather than add more liquid if you find the paella absorbing liquid too rapidly. The end result should be on the dry side, by the way.

Turn off heat and let sit for at least five minutes. Serve immediately.

By Kim ODonnel |  January 14, 2008; 11:20 AM ET Family
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Hi Kim:

Love the reminiscences--it must have been a bittersweet weekend.

I've always wanted to make paella, but I can't eat the "shell" type of shellfish (mussels, clams etc., although shrimp, crabs are ok). Could I make a stock out of shrimp shells, or should I just use chicken stock?


Posted by: Bethesda Mom | January 14, 2008 12:55 PM

Hi Kim!

Beautiful story behind the recipe and the cooking this weekend.

I wanted to know what other things could be substituted into a paella-like meal... seafood where I live is iffy, at best.

Posted by: Centre of Nowhere | January 14, 2008 1:08 PM

Bethesda Mom, for six servings, you'll need 4 cups of stock whatever you decide. However, you'd need a lot more shrimp than called for to make 4 cups of shrimp stock. If you decide on chicken stock, homemade is preferred because it will yield most flavor, but I know, not always realistic.

Centre: See my notes in italic at top of recipe; we added chicken and chorizo sausage to the mix, which you could use exclusively instead of shrimp. Up to you. Rabbit is also a common ingredient in traditional paella.

One more thing: re: size of pans: For 12 servings, I bought a paella pan 22 inches in diameter from, which sells pans in a variety of sizes and grades. The thing to remember about paella is wide and shallow. It helps with the cooking of the rice.

Posted by: Kim O'Donnel | January 14, 2008 1:18 PM

Hi Kim,
The weekend was all of that and more. Time did stop and then started again.

Thanks for you joyful spirit, your exuberant teaching and your impeccable cooking skills; without which this wonderful weekend would never have happened.

Posted by: Sue | January 14, 2008 1:31 PM

I think I've got all the ingredients to try this dish. However, I'm mystified at cooking the shrimp at the beginning, removing it, and then cooking it for 14 minutes with the rice as it cooks. Wouldn't the shrimp come out rubbery?

Posted by: Sean | January 14, 2008 3:14 PM

Hey Sean, you raise an excellent point, and I admit I was worried the first time. I've done this dish a number of times, and the shrimp magically does not rubberize. I think it has to do with the low temp it's cooking at, plus it's swimming in liquid.

Posted by: Kim O'Donnel | January 14, 2008 3:28 PM

Here in Middle Earth, where everything is frozen... what do you think of using flash-frozen fish? I saw a mixed package the other day at the grocery store-- mussels, clams, and a couple other things I can't remember at the moment. At the time it seemed to me it would make a good paella mixture or hot soup or a Spagetti Al Pescatora (sp?) But I am leery... has anyone tried this?

Posted by: FrozenTundra | January 14, 2008 4:35 PM

Hi, Kim:

Back when I was 2 years old, I met my best childhood friend, Josie. We were inseparable as kids and lived next door to each other.

Time passed, as it sadly does, and we ended up moving away and seeing each other at weddings and funerals.

With the arrival of the internet and e-mail we reconnected. Now Josie, her daughter, my sister and her boyfriend and I all meet for lunch every month and spend a few hours reminiscing. What a blast! We can't believe we lost touch for 25 years.

Old friends really are the best friends!

This has nothing to do with cooking, which we all love, but your memories triggered mine.

Thanks for the warm fuzzies.

Posted by: Judi | January 15, 2008 8:22 AM

On the subject of seafoods... I saw a reference the other day in a piece from Europe about economical cooking. The reference was to "river lobster." Is there such a creature or is this a euphemism? My first thought was crawfish... but maybe it is something else?

Posted by: River Lobster? | January 15, 2008 10:20 AM

Hi Kim--
I made the paella last night and it came out beautifully! I used shrimp, sea scallops and 2 links of chorizo. The last time I made paella it turned into a drawn out thing what with cooking the chicken, sausage, shellfish, etc. ahead before even starting the rice. Limited to just three items, all of the protein was cooked quickly in just two batches.

I also have a vegetarian paella recipe that calls for bell pepper and onion, so I sauteed those both after seafood. I also cut the recipe in half since I was just cooking for two, which had me concerned when I got to the point of adding the one cup of rice as I obviously had way too much liquid. I added another half cup of arborio and even though there was a lot of liquid, the rice just absorbed it, though it came out more on the moist side but was not gummy.

I see now why there's no stirring after the first few minutes as the rice grains have to stay completely immersed in the liquid to ensure even cooking. At a slow simmer, my dish needed another 8 to 10 minutes beyond the initial 14 to reach al dente, and frankly it could have used a few minutes more but we were just too hungry! I also got to use saffron from Penzeys and I can say for the first time that I could smell and taste what flavor saffron adds to paella. Now I'm looking for other recipes (besides risotto) that call for saffron. All in all, an excellent weeknight dish! Thank you Kim (and Jose)!

Posted by: Sean | January 16, 2008 1:03 PM

What a great weekend.

The lessons were invaluable and almost as much fun as reconnecting and spending some heartwarming time together.

Thanks ...R

Posted by: richie | January 18, 2008 12:23 PM

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