When I travel to a new place, my mission is always to try to fully understand the culture. I want to know how people think, where they work, how they relax a the end of the day, what they like to do on the weekends, how they dress, what they read, and, most importantly, what they eat!
I feel like I am really connecting to place or a people when I can sit down and say, "This is a typical breakfast" or "This is how people eat dinner". The food can communicate to me in a way that transcends language. It tells me about their habits, their relationship to the land or the sea and to each other.
As a 21 year old exchange student in Paris, I had an epic dinner my first night in Paris that lasted 4 hours. It wasn't at a fancy restaurant and it was only 3 courses, but it was distinctly Parisian. The waiters only refilled our water when we asked for it and there was ample time between courses so that we never felt rushed. I was shocked when it was over and the clock was striking midnight! Had we sat there that long? I was having so much fun that I hadn't noticed. It was then that I understood that the meal was as much about the company ans it was about the food.
In 2009, when I traveled to Tuscany, I was blown away by the simplicity of every meal that I ate. There were no foams, or complicated reductions, but every bite was a revelation - a plate of pasta dressed with nothing other than a slip of butter and a shaving of truffles, an artichoke heart nestled in a cloud of perfectly cooked eggs, a plate of wild strawberries. With each forkful, I understood the directness of the people through the food they cooked. "Here, eat, " they were telling me. "Isn't this the best artichoke? You must have more!!" It's no surprise that, on the way home, my suitcase was stuffed with (contraband) food that I hoped would prolong the vacation. By recreating the meals at home, I could relive each memory.
My trip to Spain was no different. My souvenirs were saffron, pimenton, chorizo. I wanted only to be able to extend the vacation by a few weeks, to have a coffee and a bocadillo and pretend that I was back in Madrid.
Last weekend I attempted to recreated a particular paella - one that was full of flavor and brimming with seafood. I had the saffron, but I was missing the recipe. Every one that I found contradicted the last one. Each one called for different ingredients in different quantities. I finally printed out about 5 of them, cross-referenced them and compiled what I feel to be a really good interpretation. But perhaps that is the bigger lesson here - each recipe is different, because a different person is making it. Mine will be different because it is mine. There is no perfect recipe, just the one that you like the best or the one that your mother or grandmother used to make.
Here's mine. Enjoy!
Feeds about 6 people with a big portion of rice. If you want to make it for 8, increase the amount of seafood so that everyone gets enough!
6 c. chicken stock
1 tsp. saffron
2 links (about 1/2 lb.) Spanish chorizo, cut into 1/4 inch rounds
12 large shrimp, with the heads on
1/4 c. olive oil
1 medium onion
6 cloves garlic
1 small bunch of parsley
2 medium tomatoes, chopped (or one 15oz. can diced tomatoes, drained)
1 Tbs. pimenton (Spanish sweet paprika)
1 tsp. salt
3 c. arborio rice
2 dozen mussels
1 c. frozen peas
1 medium lemon
Heat chicken stock with saffron in a stock pot on low heat and keep it warm while you assemble the rest of the ingredients.
In a large shallow pan (I have a paella pan that is 18") over medium heat, brown the chorizo, rendering the fat. If not a lot of fat comes out, then add a little bit of olive oil.
Remove the chorizo from the pan and put it aside. Add the shrimp, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and cook until they just turn pink, turning them over once. Remove them and set aside with the chorizo.
Add the 1/4 c. of olive oil and allow it to heat up a bit. Then, add the onion, garlic and parsley and turn the heat to medium-low. Cook the mixture slowly, for about 10 minutes, until it becomes very soft and translucent.
Add the tomatoes, 1 Tbs. pimenton, and 1 tsp. of salt. Cook mixture for another 10 minutes, or until it is all a big red mess, almost like a paste.
Add the 3 c. rice and cook for about a minute, stirring well to cover every grain with the onion tomato mixture.
Return the chorizo to the pan and add the 6 cups of warm stock infused with saffron.
Turn the heat up to medium-high and bring the whole pan up to a boil. Then, reduce the heat to a steady simmer.
Simmer for about 15 minutes, making sure that it's cooking evenly and not absorbing the stock too quickly.
After 15 minutes, taste your rice. If you taste it and think, "Almost, but it could use a few more minutes." then it's ready for the next step! It should be just a little too firm to eat. This is also where you can adjust your seasoning to your taste by adding more salt or pepper.
Turn the heat up to high and cover your pan. If you don't have a lid big enough, then cover it with a few sheets of tin foil.
Cook for about 5 minutes, keeping an eye on your mussels and paying attention to the smell, you don't want it to burn, but you do want the bottom to get brown and crunchy - this is very important. If you start to smell it getting toasty, then reduce the heat.
After 5 minutes, or once the mussels have opened (discard the ones that don't open), turn off the heat and let the whole thing sit, covered, for another 5 minutes.
Serve family-style, with wedges of lemon!
(Photo by, Paul Maklary; food and prop styling by, me!)