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.
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
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
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.
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