A friend of mine has a small cabin on Dabob Bay, which we are lucky enough to be allowed to visit (and even luckier to be invited back to) for a few weekends during the year. These periodic cabin trips are usually packed full of fishing, setting and pulling crab pots, forgetting to re-apply sunscreen, drinking beer, and cooking up indulgent dishes that we would otherwise avoid for health reasons. It has become a recent labor-day tradition for us to have one last summertime excursion to the cabin, during which we go balls to the wall with our menu planning.
As we brainstormed potential crowd-pleasing dishes, my wife brought up a new idea: paella. While we’d both had – and enjoyed – this dish in various incarnations, neither of us had ever tried to make it. This was concerning, as we didn’t want to spend the resources required to make such a time consuming and expensive dish without really knowing the potential result. However, as we both began looking up recipes and exploring what it would take for us to concoct our own version, we became convinced that it would be worth the risk.
Side-note: It was.
The first thing we needed was a paella pan, and the correct type of rice, both of which we procured from Sur La Table with the help of gift certificate that my wife found hiding in the recesses of her purse.
The next step was to figure out which type of paella that we wanted to create. I know there are die-hard paella purists out there who think that there’s only one way to make this dish in order for it to actually be labeled “paella”, but after a bit of research all that I found was that it really only needed two things to be worthy of said title: saffron, and rice. In the end, we used a Martha Stewart recipe as a base, and then modified it based on our taste and the ingredients that we had available.
Another side-note: That crazy white-collar felon knows her way around good food.
I also realized that we needed a paella spoon, because I wasn’t about to lean over an open fire for two hours. Rather that spending 35 bucks on one, I decided to devise my own by using plumbing clamps to secure a stainless-steel restaurant quality spoon to a three dollar broom handle from Lowes. The result: the Whoa-Ma Wand. (The name – It’s a long story, don’t worry about it.)
The following is the extensive list of ingredients for our paella, which served eight people:
- 10 bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs
- 1/4 cup olive oil
- 3/4 tbsp. paprika
- salt and pepper
- 4 large tomatoes (seeded and chopped)
- 2 red bell peppers (seeded and sliced)
- 1 green bell pepper (seeded and sliced)
- 1 tbsp. saffron
- 4 cups chicken stock
- 1/3 cup cognac
- 1.5 lbs. chorizo
- 1/2 lb. green beans (I would call them haricots verts, but I’m not a pretentious ass (usually))
- 1 chopped onion
- 1/4 cup fine-chopped garlic
- 12 prawns (peeled)
- 30 fresh clams (scrubbed)
- 1 1/2 lbs. white rice
- 2 cups frozen peas
- 1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
- 1 lb. halibut, cubed
- 24 crab legs (cooked)
Whew… that’s a lot of stuff.
So our prep for this bad boy – which we were destined to cook on Saturday – began Thursday afternoon, when we cleaned and sliced the beans, onions and pepper, and bagged them for transport.
Taking a cue from the felon, my wife mashed the saffron into a teaspoon of salt with a pestle, before mixing the effervescent compound into a combination of the cognac and 2 cups of chicken stock.
We also cleaned and chopped the tomatoes, which we first peeled by coring them, dropping them in boiling water for 60 seconds, and then placing them quickly in an ice-bath. The skins peeled off easily after that.
Before we left on Friday, we marinated the chicken thighs in a mixture of the paprika, olive oil, salt and pepper, bagged them up, and put them on ice for the trip.
On Saturday evening, after a fun-filled day of crabbing, drinking, digging clams, playing kan-jam, and jumping off the sign (you had to be there), we started the cooking process by building a fire, and placing the pan atop the cooking grate to heat up with a few tablespoons of olive oil.
Once the oil began to ripple, we popped the paprika-marinated chicken thighs into the pan, skin-side down. This allowed the skin to get nice and crispy, and created a beautiful toasted-crimson base for the rest of the dish.
We continued to cook the chicken for about 10 minutes, until the skins were golden and crispy.
At this point we started thinking that those crispy-skinned bird haunches were looking a bit lonely, so we gave them a friend in the form of a pound and a half of ground chorizo, which Iwe stirred into the pan and allowed to brown for four or five minutes.
The next addition was the healthiest part of the dish; the peppers, onions, garlic, green beans and tomatoes quickly found their place amongst the mouthwatering meats.
After a few minutes of stirring, we added in the clams and peeled shrimp…
…and then topped it off with the rice, before carefully folding all of the ingredients together with the Whoa-Ma Wand.
Part of the magic of paella is making sure that the rice that’s touching the surface of the pan develops into a crispy, charred layer, so before adding the saffron-stock, and reserved stock after that, we took care to ensure that the contents of the quickly-filling pan were well-combined.
The pan was slightly lop-sided, so I had to add stock in small amounts, and make sure that we didn’t lose too much of it as the mouth-watering amalgamation of ingredients began to simmer. Once the pan was filled to the brim (on one side) with broth, and boiling away, we covered the whole thing with foil, and let it cook for about 15 minutes. We also threw two loaves of foil-wrapped Como on there to warm up for dipping.
The hardest part at this point was leaving the cover on, and waiting for the rice to become tender. The steam and juices that could be seen slowly leaking from the sides of the foil cast such a delectable scent into the air that it was all I could do not to dig right in with my hose-clamped spoon as my hungry friends watched helplessly from their lawn-chairs.
Luckily, the mound of food was only a few minutes from being complete.
The final step was to add the peas, crab legs and halibut, and put the foil back on to allow the new additions a few minutes to absorb some of the flavor.
We gave these final ingredients about four minutes before we decided that we couldn’t handle the aromatic suspense anymore: so with a sprinkle of salt, and a splash of lemon juice, our creation was complete!
We served up bowls of our masterpiece with slices of lemon, and hunks of the warmed bread that had ben toasting on the grill. The result of our extensive labor met with rave reviews. The majority of the rice was beautifully tender, and had absorbed the delectable saffron stock to perfection. The chicken was moist and juicy, as were the shrimp and chunks of halibut. The few minutes under the foil had warmed the crab legs to the level of the rest of the dish, and we cracked and greedily slurped the meat from them with gusto. The element of the dish which surprised me the most was the vegetables, which not only worked perfectly as individual elements of a delicious whole, but also each retained their individual character and flavor; the peppers were intact, and not mushy, the peas were sweet and flavorful, and the beans still had an pleasing crunch.
Despite (but most likely because of) the rich flavors, spicy chorizo, and filling ingredients, we all finished our helpings, sopped up the leftovers with toasty-warm bread, and went back for seconds. In the end, the eight of us put down an amount of food calculated (per the converted recipes that we based our upon) for a grand total of thirteen people… and you would have too!