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Birthday Party Paella

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         We were having a group to dinner over the President’s Day weekend.  I saw it as a great opportunity to cook something substantial.  I hit upon making a paella for a couple of reasons. I’d read an article in Saveur written by David Rosengarten.  In it, Chef Rosengarten had gone to the source: the cradle of Spanish paella making, Valencia.  What inspired me the most was that the original recipe, dating from the early 1800s, called saffron-scented rice cooked with Rabbit, chicken, Snails and three kinds of beans. Rosengarten pointed out that you can still find that version all over Valencia. But the list of paellas does not stop there.  There are seafood paellas, vegetable paellas and paellas using all kinds of meats. The recipe is wildly adaptable because as Rosengarten pointed out: “Tinkering, it seems, is inherent to the culture of paella.”  And it’s to be remembered that “Paella” refers the wide, shallow steel pan in which such dishes were cooked.  In my case, all I really needed was a good basic recipe from which to build my paella.  And as to its ingredients, well I just went shopping in my freezer.  There I found the chicken thighs, hot Italian sausage and shrimp that would form the backbone of what turned out to be a delicious and terrifically well-received dish.  Although no thanks to the recipe I found for Birthday Party Paella. 

Valencia, on Spain’s Mediterranean coast
         Bon Appetit, or more properly www.epicurious.com, was the source of Birthday Party Paella.  Never explained was whose birthday was being celebrated.  In our case I suppose we could have called it Washington’s Birthday Party Paella.  It was, after all, President’s Day weekend.  The recipe was first published over 10 years ago.  Due to its longevity, it came with comments from no less that 128 ‘reviewers’. The vast majority of these were rants on how little flavor there was to the original recipe.  How vegetables had be substituted or omitted altogether, how fish had replaced shrimp and beef, chicken.  There was very little left of the original Birthday Party Paella by the second or third page of reviews.  And quite honestly, that was a good thing.  Reading the recipe, I had to marvel at the almost complete lack of seasoning of any kind.  ¼ of a teaspoon of saffron threads?  2 bay leaves?  1 ½ teaspoons of salt in a dish with 12 chicken thighs?  I started out with their ingredient list and took off from there.
Traditionally, Paella is cooked over
a wood fire 
         David Rosengarten’s walk down Paella’s Memory lane was a huge help.  Traditionally, Paella was the province of the male members of Valencian families who put it together while the women of the family went to mass on Sunday mornings.  The dish was made over open fires so that the rice crisped on the bottom, and the meat took on smoky flavors.  But once the dish became a restaurant standard, the old wood-fire method was largely replaced with stovetop cooking. To compensate for the lack of smoke, smoked paprika came into the mix.  And what of saffron, that wildly expensive (and, to my way of thinking, largely tasteless) backbone of traditional paellas?   According to Rosengarten’s article: “One out of a hundred restaurants in Valencia uses saffron these days,” José Fernandez, the chef of La Pepica, one of Valencia’s most venerated paella restaurants,” told him. “It’s much too expensive. Instead, many cooks color their paellas with paprika”.  So there were apparently few rules in the making of a paella.  However there were a couple of basics that I had to abide by.
With its own spice mix,
Arroz Amarillo adds a layer
of flavor to the dish. 
         The starting point of a good paella start is a sofrito, or flavor base, of chopped vegetables cooked in the same pan as the meats in the recipe have browned in—in this case, lots of chopped onions, garlic and fire-roasted tomatoes.  Red Peppers are a mainstay. The longer the sofrito cooks, the darker and more intensely flavored the paella will be. And then there’s the question of the rice.  Bon Appetit’s recipe called for Arborio Rice.  Reviewers on Epicurious were almost universally miffed at this suggestion.  I wanted a saffron-colored rice without the saffron so I opted for Goya “Yellow Rice Spanish Style” supplemented with some long grain rice to get the volume up above what came in the Goya package.  And as much as I wanted the rice to crisp and form what’s called socarrat on the bottom of the pan, it didn’t.  What I did end up with was a delicious dish made, not in a paella but in a large roasting pan:  Shrimp and Chicken and sausage, glorious big pieces of red pepper and zucchini, wonderfully aromatic rice, and a group of dinner guests who went back for seconds. 
         The next time you’re entertaining, consider serving this dish. It’s one of those amazing meals that keeps you out of the kitchen because it’s made in advance and requires little or no tending.  Then you pull your beautiful one dish dinner out of the oven and serve with a green salad.  Here’s the recipe:

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