Thursday, September 23, 2010

Fear and intimidation in the kitchen

There are really two things that I believe about cooking in general. First, a recipe is a guideline, not tax law or the formula for making aspirin. (Incidentally, I made aspirin once in 10th grade chemistry class, but Ms. DeStefano made us all swear we wouldn't take it or feed it to our siblings or give it to the dog. Apparently, she feared what would happen if we just used the recipe as a jumping off point.) Second, food should always be fun and never be intimidating.

But I admit it. I have been intimidated by paella.

First, there is the fact that "real" paella requires a special pan. The kind that someone's great-grandfather made in Barcelona a hundred years ago, the pan that gets handed down through the family and revered and worshipped. I don't have a pan like that. I've got a nice T-Fal chicken frying pan I inherited from my mother-in-law, and some rusty cast iron, but nothing that seems just right for paella.

And why do you need the special pan? Because the rice is supposed to be perfectly cooked, and yet form a crispy crust on the bottom.

I have avoided making paella since I got married, which is hard because my husband loves absolutely everything that is in it. But then, my grocery store had a special on lobster tails. Small ones. Not really good by themselves. Perfect for paella. Sigh.

But then I decided to embrace the challenge in a new way. Make paella accessible. Use the rice to make a new kind of crust and build it from there.

So I drafted my rice cooker. Possible the first time a rice cooker has ever been used for paella purposes. Also, I cheated shamelessly. My good friends at Goya were called into action. I made a big pot of yellow saffroned Spanish rice, using chicken broth instead of water, and adding a chopped onion and a cup of frozen peas. (Why did I do this rather than mixing my own with the gigantic jar of rice on my counter and breaking into my spices? Because saffron is freaking expensive. And I am freaking cheap.)

Then the oven went on 400 degrees, and in went a cookie sheet that looked a little like this:

Don't be afraid. That's just half a pound of shrimp, half a pound of very small lobster tails, half a pound of smoked sausages, some celery, onion, green pepper, and garlic, all drizzled generously with olive oil and seasoned with salt, pepper, parsley, oregano and lemon. I threw it in my hot oven and let it roast until the shrimp were pink and the lobster shells were red. Built in thermometers don't just come with Butterball turkeys.

By this time, the rice was done. I left the oven on high, liberally oiled my pizza pan, and spread on the rice to make my crust.

Right up to the edges, filling your pan, keeping it nice and even all over. The oil will crisp it on the bottom but keep it tender on top, just like that handmedown heirloom pan somewhere in Madrid.

And then we come to the artistic part.

I layered on my seafood, my sausage, and the vegetables. I added some roasted reds just because they were in my refrigerator and they kept looking at me.

I will also now make a confession. I think this pizza needs something, and according to the Food Network, it's a hanging offense. Scott Conant and Alexandra Guarnaschelli keep telling me that cheese and seafood are never to mix. I think this pie is absolutely crying for a little parmesan or romano on top. But I have been cowed by the experts and didn't do it. This time.

Next time, I'm tossing the rule book and this puppy's getting a blizzard of cheesy goodness at the end.

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