Can you believe today, March 27, is National Spanish Paella Day? I wish I could remember the first time I had paella. I am sure I had some version of it growing up that was mediocre. More than likely, I had it as a child but did not appreciate it because I was probably going through a picky phase.
I do remember the most memorable meal of paella that I ever had. It was in April of 1999 in Brussels, Belgium of all places. Keller, who was an infant at the time, and I flew to Brussels to join his father for a long weekend. Bruce was conducting a series of trainings during a two-week period for a pharmaceutical company in Waterloo, a few miles outside of Brussels. With the hotel being covered by his employer, it made sense to join him for a visit and tour the majestic European capital.
I always do my homework when it comes to travel, especially when it comes to food and dining. On my lists of things-to-do was the Rue des Bouchers, a small stretch of cobblestone streets in the middle of old Brussels that is comprised exclusively of nearly 100 small restaurants, many specializing in paella. My first night there, Bruce, his colleagues and a still nursing Keller made our way to one of the restaurants for some paella. The reviews generally characterized the area as catering to tourists offering mediocre fare at best. It may not have been three-star-Michelin Guide good, but it was memorable in a very good way. The restaurant we dined at was charming, as was the staff. Keller drifted off to sleep during a brief stroller rider around the block just before the paella was served. And the paella itself was damn good. Each rice kernel was separate and firm. The seafood was tender and fresh. The wine was in abundance.
Flash-forward 19 years later and I am making paella for the first time in my life for my friends Carolyn and Dave, and Carolyn’s parents, Nina and Phil, as a thank you for their support of my blog and my consulting business. I had been wanting to make paella since my mom purchased an $8.00 IMUSA® paella pan for me at T.J. Maxx last summer but had not had the time to research recipes until recently.
I was surprised to learn that traditional Valencian paella originally consisted of rabbit, snails, green beans, butter beans and a sofrito—a sauce made of garlic, tomato, seasonings and sautéed in olive oil used as base in Mediterranean cooking. Occasionally chicken or duck was added, but much to my surprise, no seafood was part of the original recipe nor saffron, which gives the rice in the paella its rich, canary yellow color. Depending on what source is to be believed, the addition of seafood in paella was originated by Valencians living on Mediterranean coast and is also considered authentic or the seafood in paella represents bastardization of the original, best reserved for tourists dining at beach side chiringuitos (think boardwalk restaurants with a nicer view and better food), or cozy cafés in the Rue des Bouchers.
At some point chorizo, a smoky pork sausage, was added to paella, a controversial move according to purists, akin to the new Coke-old Coke-classic Coke debacle of the 1980s. In fact, traditionalists insist that paella consisting of ingredients other than the core original ones, be called “arroz con. . .” or “rice with . . .” Alas, no official certification for paella Valenciana exists much like there is for Champagne where in some countries it is illegal to call sparkling wine Champagne unless it is produced in the Champagne region of France and is produced under specific rules.
The recipe I settled for was one that I found in “The New Spanish Table” by Anya von Bremzen, the Chiringuito Seafood Paella (the link is to recipe as reprinted in the Chicago Tribune). The recipe calls for clam juice to cook the rice. Instead of clam juice, I made von Bremzen’s shrimp shell stock and used that instead. I also made her aioli which she recommends as a condiment to the seafood paella, adding an extra garlicky flavor to the dish. What surprised me about von Bremzen’s variation of seafood paella is the lack of mussels. Von Bremzen has another paella recipe in her book, “Black Paella with Squid Mussels and Peas”, that uses the ink of the squid to color the rice black. Her seafood paella consisted of shrimp, clams, monkfish and squid.
Carolyn’ parents, who are planning a trip to Spain in May graciously allowed me to cook in their beautiful kitchen which features a Viking gas range top and the same Fisher Paykel double oven that was in my dream kitchen (sniffle, sniffle). I am not sure that I would have been so eager to cook paella for them had I known they were going to Spain—there’s no way my version could possibly measure up to the paella they will be served in their travels. But I was immediately put at ease by everyone and made them promise to share what they learn from the paella cooking class that they are attending while on their trip.
Even though I offered to cook in gratitude for their collective support during these last few months, I did put Carolyn to work scrubbing the clams and cutting the roasted red peppers, which I added as an accent to the finished product. For me cooking has always been a social activity. It was nice to share that with good friends over bottles of Tempranillo and Rioja wine.
And no matter how old you are, you will always be a “kid” to your parents and to your friend’s parents. I say that with all the affection in the world recalling how Nina took pictures of me and Carolyn with the fully cooked paella. It was great fun to see her share in the enthusiasm for a well-executed paella. And for a second, I felt like a teenager being feted for a job well-done.