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Monday, August 8

Gapers Block

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It's 80° outside and we need a new grill rack. So instead of marinating some chicken breast and sitting in the backyard watching charcoal burn, I've decided to fire up the oven and make a big skillet of paella. It seems like there are a limited number of Sundays I'll have until the thought of using the oven makes me crazy. So I made a trip to the grocery store and decided to make something filling but still light and suitable for the warm weather.

Seafood is great all year 'round, but I particularly find myself wanting it when the weather is warm. It inspires lighter dishes, generally with accents of citrus and fresh herbs. But this time, I'm going for a richly flavored dish.

Paella originated in Valencia in eastern Spain and the word "paella" actually refers to the vessel the dish is cooked in more than the ingredients involved. The typical paella dish 14-16" across and only 2-3 inches deep. It has a fairly thick and flat bottom and there are two handles on opposite sides of the pan which make lifting it out of the oven fairly easy. However, if you don't have a paella pan readily available, you can also use a skillet that has an oven-proof handle. You'll be cooking the first few steps on your stovetop and then transferring a very full skillet to the middle rack of your oven.

The shape of the pan is very important when making paella. The wide bottom and shallow sides permit the liquid to evaporate quickly. This prevents the steam from covering the dish and making the rice mushy. And the type of rice you use is also very important to keep the dish from becoming mushy. A medium-grain rice is best. Long grain rice is not suitable because the grains don't soak up enough of the liquid and it cooks quickly, which will result in cooked rice sitting in moisture and then the individual grains will burst and you'll get clumps of mush. Medium-grain rice, specifically paella rice called Valencia, is best because the grains soak up a lot of moisture but fluff apart quite easily. Arborio rice, or rice used for risotto, is easier to find and will produce a good paella, although they will have a tendency to be a bit sticky or mushy.

The other primary ingredient you'll need is saffron. Now before you think I'm expecting you to spend $40 on an ounce of saffron, think again. For $10 or so you can purchase a small vial or envelope of saffron threads that will permit you to make four to six batches of paella. There are also large packages of saffron you can find at Mexican grocers. These will add the correct color to the dish, but not the correct flavor. In a pinch you can use this, but Spanish saffron really is the best. Indian saffron is usually just ground turmeric, which is a completely different spice and is not really a substitute.

Like many dishes, the ingredients in a paella vary widely from chicken, sausage, a varieties of fish and seafood, and even vegetarian paella. And since it is such a fun and easy dish to put together, its great for a dinner party and you can even have your guests help prepare it.

A few notes about how to cook the ingredients so you can substitute in the recipe I'm providing. Seafood and vegetables will cook easily in the oven. Chicken breast, if cut into bite-sized pieces, will cook in the oven. Whole pieces of chicken, especially bone-in chicken, will need to be cooked slightly before being placed in the oven. Any raw sausage will need to be sliced in thin slices, or it can be left in large chunks or links if they're cooked part-way on the stovetop. It's best to sauté onions, garlic and bell pepper in a little oil to release their flavors. Beans or peas should be cooked through before adding them to the skillet. Any vegetable that ought to have a little crunch to it (asparagus, carrots, celery) doesn't have to be cooked before going into the oven.

Begin by cooking any meats part-way through in the skillet. Remove the meat, drain off all but one tablespoon of oil, and cook the bell peppers, onions and garlic. Cook the rice until it starts to get milky white. Add any spices, vegetables, broth or herbs and then place the skillet in the oven for 20-25 minutes. Remove it from the oven, cover it with a hot towel, and let it rest for 5-10 minutes before serving. It's as simple as it sounds, and as versatile.

To get a vegan dish you can substitute vegetable broth for chicken broth in the recipe below and make sure that you have at least 2-3 cups of roughly to finely chopped vegetables. You'll also want to add 2-3 teaspoons of a variety of herbs or spices to add flavor to the dish. Olives (black or green) will also add flavor while keeping it veggie, and a small can of chiles will provide a spicy kick great for veggie and non-veggie versions alike.

Shrimp and Chicken Paella
4 1/2 cups of chicken broth (vegetable broth, seafood broth, or duck broth)
1 pinch of saffron
1 pound of chicken thighs with the skin still on (1 pound of sausage or duck legs)
1 tablespoon of olive oil
1 medium white, or yellow, onion
1 small to medium red, yellow, or orange bell pepper
2 cloves of garlic, chopped fine
1 medium tomato, chopped
2 cups of medium-grained Spanish rice or Arborio rice
1/2 pound of medium (31-40 count) shrimp with their shells on or off (1/2 to 1 pound of clams or mussels, 1/2 pound of scallops, 1/2 pound cleaned calamari, 1 pound of crab leg sections, etc.)
1 cup of peas or chopped carrots
1 lemon with the ends cut off and then cut across into 6 wedges (1 per person)

Preheat the oven to 400&dge; F. Place a skillet over medium-high heat. Place the chicken broth in a saucepan over low heat and add the pinch of saffron (6-8 threads should be plenty). Rinse off the chicken thighs and pat them dry with paper towels. Sprinkle them on both sides with salt and pepper and place them in the skillet so they don't touch each other. Wait until you start to hear sizzling sounds, then reduce the heat to medium and let the chicken cook for about 7-10 minutes, depending on their size. The skin should be golden brown and the chicken near the bottom of the pan should be slightly cooked. Remove it to a plate and drain off all or most of the chicken fat. You'll need one tablespoon of oil for cooking the aromatics so feel free to substitute olive oil if you're trying to reduce cholesterol in your diet.

Add the onion to the skillet and sauté it while stirring frequently, until the onion just starts to turn translucent, about 3 minutes. Add the bell pepper and let it cook until it's soft, about 2-3 minutes. Add the tomato and garlic and stir constantly until all of the liquid has evaporated, about 2-3 minutes. Add the rice and stir until it is combined with the vegetables. Let it cook and stir it frequently until the rice takes on a milky color. Turn off the heat. Gently pour or ladle the chicken broth into the skillet and stir to distribute the ingredients evenly in the bottom of the skillet. (If you're using fresh peas, add them now. If you're using frozen or canned peas add them at the end.) Now that the rice is combined you won't be stirring it again. Place the chicken thighs on top of the rice mixture. Try to keep them from touching each other or the edges of the skillet. If you like, you can remove the skin from them before doing this. Nestle the shrimp or seafood between the chicken breasts and in the center of the skillet. If you're using frozen or canned peas, sprinkle them on top of the rice now. Carefully remove the pan from the stovetop and place it in the center of the oven. Let it cook for 20-25 minutes until it is moist, but no pools of liquid are visible. Test the largest chicken thigh to ensure that it's not bloody. If it is slightly pink, that's OK because it will finish cooking while the dish rests. Cover it with a clean towel for 5-10 minutes to permit any lingering excess liquid to evaporate from the rice. Serve the paella directly from the pan alongside a green salad tossed with a simple oil and vinegar dressing. Pass the lemon wedges to be squeezed over the dish.
Serves 4-6.

Since this dish is so easy to prepare, feel free to invite friends over to help prepare it, even on a weeknight. One person can peel the shrimp while another person can chop the onions. There are about 30 minutes of prep time (less if more than one person is doing it) and 25 minutes of cooking time, which means even if they don't help you, you'll have plenty of time to prepare the dish while your friends mingle and drink wine. May I suggest a Sauvignon Blanc or Semillon if you like white and a Rioja or Pino Noir if you like red. Of course a light to amber beer will also taste great. For dessert, keep it simple and light. Cookies and sorbet or chopped fruit are nice to end the meal, but still keep it light and carefree. No matter how you end it, hopefully you enjoy making this frequently for yourself or others.

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Amanda / April 26, 2007 9:18 AM

I recently read you can also cook paella on the grill, which is how it was traditionally prepared. I'm planning on trying it this way this summer.


About the Author(s)

Cinnamon Cooper is an untrained cook. Most of what she's learned has been by accident. The rest has been gained by reading cookbooks, watching The Food Network and by scouring the Internet. Oh, and she also hates following recipes but loves the irony of writing them down for others to follow.

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