Tuesday, September 28, 2010

One not-so-perfect meal

Paella pan on the stove ... ready for action!
As some of you know, I'm working on a book.  One of the early chapters includes a story of "One Perfect Meal," which details the preparation and serving of a party I threw to celebrate the fifth anniversary of a group of us meeting at Body Therapy School.  It was on April 4, 2004 that a half dozen of us bonded immediately, and have remained the very best of friends ever since.  I thought I'd let them know how much their friendship made by doing what I like to think I do best ... cooking for them.  And the multi-course meal came out great. 

And while that chapter was actually written almost a year ago, a little meal I prepared a couple nights ago seemed like a perfect follow up to the perfect meal, since it was a very imperfect meal, and it made sense to illustrate that any cook has the capability of screwing up a meal every once in a while.  I throw out about two meals a year, meaning most of what I prepare comes out somewhere between good and very good, with an occasional excellent, along the way.  But the process below is a clear illustration of what can go wrong in anyone's kitchen. 

This is an actual (although un-edited) cut from the book ... "Out Of My Kitchen!"

One, Not So Perfect ...
So, lest you think that all of my meals turn out perfect every time, let me tell you a little story about my first attempt at paella. My sister and brother in law gave me a beautiful sixteen-inch round, non-stick paella pan about five or six years ago. I’ve moved it several times, stored it in both upright and flat positions in the different cabinets it’s lived in, but alas … I’ve never used it. That is, until a few nights ago. There are several reasons for this, although none of them are particularly good reasons, other than I sort of had a phobia about making paella for some unknown reason. I have two excellent, authentic books on the subject, which I’ve read cover-to-cover. Penelope Casas’ “Paella!” and “Paella Paella” by Maria and Natalia Solis Ballinger are both definitive works, but they weren’t inspiring to the point that I had to actually make the stuff.

But it was a recent issue of Fine Cooking Magazine that changed that. They featured a step by step guide to Authentic Paella, which seemed to remove a lot of the mystery around this traditional Spanish dish. So I made the decision to give it a try … to finally break in the six-year-old new paella pan that’s been taking up cupboard space for so long. And the one final step in the process would be to consult my brother in law John, who makes some absolutely awesome paella, and is a master at the process. I told him that I was planning to use chorizo, chicken and shrimp for the proteins, and would draw from a number of different recipes for the vegetables. He totally concurred, and told me how he puts his paella together, paying particular attention to the creation of the “sofrito,” which is the tomato, onion and garlic base for most paellas. John’s technique called for making the sofrito first, then the meat and chicken, but a couple of the other recipes and the Fine Cooking article said to brown the meats first, then tackle the sofrito. So I opted for John’s sofrito technique, but decided to brown the chorizo and chicken first.

Maybe it was their fault?
 First step was the chorizo, which I’ve never cooked before. I tried cutting it into thin slices, but quickly discovered that this meat wants out of the casing, as it was literally falling out during the cutting process. So fine … out of the casing it came, and into the paella pan for a “quick browning.” And thus begat my first clue that this was not going to be an easy process. The chorizo began popping and spattering fat and grease everywhere. I’d just cleaned the big six-burner stainless steel stove that morning, so I wasn’t pleased with this at all. But I persevered, wiped up the splattered grease as the meat cooked, and cooked, and cooked, but never browned. It had in fact remained with the same greasy consistency throughout the cooking process, and just looked awful. Ok, no chorizo … tossed it into the garbage disposal and wiped the pan out.

The cut up boneless, skinless chicken breasts had been marinating in a combination of Spanish (smoky) paprika, cumin, dried rosemary and thyme, salt and pepper for about an hour. The browning process went fine, and the chicken was put aside to rest while I prepared the sofrito.

The sofrito begins with sweating some finely chopped onions (or shredded on the largest holes of a box grater), garlic, and a couple chopped tomatoes. To this, I added some additional paprika and a little salt. At this point I was flying blind, as I had no idea a sofrito is supposed to look or taste like. My brother in law said it should take about an hour to get it to the right consistency, the magazine article said thirty to forty minutes, and the book recipes made it sound like a quick “sweating” process that wasn’t any different from the base of a pasta sauce … something I’ve done several million times. So in an attempt to strike a happy medium, I opted for about thirty minutes of low heat simmering and occasional stirring for the sofrito.

From here, I added three peppers, one red, one green, one yellow, which were cut into fine slices. Then came two cups of Arborio rice, which was folded into the mixture along with a little olive oil, similar to how I’d prepare a risotto. Next came a few saffron threads (thank you Lisa!) five and a half cups of chicken stock, which you’re instructed to minimally incorporate (don’t stir it up), and pretty much let it rest and cook as it absorbs the liquid. All the recipes had a common theme at this point, which is to not disturb the rice. And this is also the point where all the fun begins.

The recipes in the books and magazine are pretty evenly divided as to whether you should bake it in the oven at this point, or cook it on the stovetop. I opted for the latter, and I’m thinking that the oven might have been a better way to go. The problem is simple … although I have a “big” big burner on the stove, the paella pan is sixteen inches round, meaning regardless of how you vary the flame, it’s going to cook faster in the middle than around the edges. The liquid on the outside was in fact cold, while the stuff in the middle was at a vigorous boil. And you’ll recall that any kind of stirring is akin to heresy to stir the mixture, so your only option is to move the pan around and position the various edges directly over the flame, enabling the whole mess to cook. Tedious and time-consuming, but hopefully the final product would justify the effort.

After twenty minutes or so, I added the pre-cooked chicken and uncooked shrimp to the mixture … of course being careful not to disturb it … God forbid I disturb the rice! I wanted the shrimp to cook evenly, but not overcook, so I opted to place the pieces around the sides, and turn them a couple of times. The chicken was left on its own to “stew” as the outside sections of the paella pan were rotated over the heat. And while this was truly a tedious process and produced splatters on the stove and floor throughout, it seemed as though it was in fact cooking.

I buy plastic tasting spoons in the economical 500-pack size from Costco for just this type of dish. I made sure to taste small amounts from the middle and edges throughout the process, as this was something I’d never made before and I really had no idea how long it would take to cook correctly. But after about thirty minutes of cook time with all the ingredients seemingly in a state of perfection, I pronounced it “done.” As I scooped it into a couple of large soup bowls garnished with the traditional wedges of lemon, I noticed that I had a thin layer of light crispy “socarrat” on the bottom. This is what you want to see on the bottom of your paella pan, and is considered both a delicacy and the sign of a perfectly cooked paella, it its native Spain.

But sitting down and actually eating this stuff was quite an unexpected experience. I already knew that I didn’t like the cooking process or the mess, but it was the dish itself that caught me totally off guard. I didn’t like it, and after three or four spoonful’s, I’d had enough. My wife said she liked it, and in fact finished the whole bowl she’d dished out. I did not, and tossed about three quarters of my bowl out. She said she’d eat leftovers for lunch the next day, so I put some in a plastic container in the fridge … and then dumped out the rest. Into the garbage it went, directly from the paella pan to the trash. I knew there wasn’t a snowball’s chance in hell that I’d eat any more, so after my couple hours of prep work, cooking, and constant mopping up of splatters, it was all over. And the leftovers I saved for her lunch? Sat there for three days and subsequently got dumped down the disposal.

So I’m not quite sure why this was such a cataclysmic failure on so many levels, but it definitely was. Prep work doesn’t bother me, lots of ingredients are always fun, and I definitely like making new things from every part of the world. But this one just didn’t work, and on so many levels. The chorizo looked awful and had the consistency of mud. The mess and splatter from all the ingredients as they were being added to the mixture, was ridiculous. The tedious cooking process where you have to spin the sixteen inch pan over the burner to cook everything, is not something I’ll do again. If I ever make this again, it’s going in the oven. And it’s unlikely I’ll ever make it again. The end didn’t justify the means, as I didn’t like the taste, and it ended up in the garbage. Does paella mean garbage in Spanish? Maybe I actually did do it right, and I just don’t know it!

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