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!

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Meatfest Returns To Bend

Judging from the attendees' comments, the thirteenth installment of my little summer barbeque was once again a hit.  The food always seems to range from great to amazing, and it never ceases to amaze me that the guests seem to come up with wonderfully tasty new creations every year.  I vary the meat and what I make from year to year, but I really think it's your contributions that make it such a memorable event.   
After two years in the Bay Area (our last two years there, if there's a God in heaven), we're once again back in our beautiful house off the river in Bend, Oregon.  We have two guest bedrooms, and can easily accomodate a couple more by putting inflatable beds in one of the offices or the massage room.  Risa's bedroom served as my sister's room for the first night of her stay, and she then moved into the bigger guest suite after Angela, Nicole and Rebecca headed home to the Bay Area and North Carolina, respectively.  So our guest count varied from three, to four, to one, over the course of a week.

I've written extensively about the unpredictable nature of our weather up here in the high desert of Central Oregon.  While it's mainly a moderate climate with four distinct seasons, it can and has snowed on the fourth of July.  The snowfall is generally close to the published average of thirty-two inches a season, but in the five years we've lived here we've seen it range from fifteen to over seventy inches.  Like sharks, the only thing that's predictable about our weather is that it's unpredictable.  Therefore, it wasn't a surprise that there was a little wind and chill on the day of the annual big barbeque.  It was a hundred degrees a week earlier, and just over sixty on Meatfest Sunday.  Typical, as always. 

Meatfest was always a Memorial Day event in the Bay Area, and we continued this tradition our first year in Bend.  But given the fact that it snowed the day before the BBQ, and was pretty chilly and drizzly on Memorial Day Sunday, we opted to move it to the other end of the summer in the subsequent years, where we assumed we'd have a better chance at good weather.  Sometimes we luck out, and sometimes we don't.  I'm thinking seriously of moving it to a non-holiday weekend in late July next year.  Maybe the law of averages will swing in my favor and I'll actually have some sunny summer weather!

But the weather never makes a huge difference in my guests having a good time.  And this year was no exception.  The house is big enough for people to come inside if they're cold, so we had pockets of people all around the yard searching out the elusive patches of sunshine, as well as in the living and family rooms, and of course in my kitchen.  Many of you know I'm working on a book titled "Out Of My Kitchen," and this event is a good illustration of the duality of the title.  It documents all of the meals, friendships, and experiences that have come out of my time in the kitchen, and of course emphatically requests that people generally refrain from being in my kitchen while I'm preparing their meals. 

A notable exception during this year's event was my friend Nicole, who completed pastry school last year.  It must become second nature for anyone who spends time in a kitchen with multiple chefs, to learn how to do your thing and maneuver yourself around the other chefs.  Nicole managed to prepare a tray of cheescake, which she transformed into the most delectable "chocolate cheesecake lollypops," and an amazing apple pie with a perfect homemade crust.  These went quickly, and there were no leftovers. 

Our guests brought some incredible side dishes this year.  Very inventive salads seemed to dominate ... pastas, chicken, fingerling potatoes, orzo and more.  Several people brought desserts, and these too were total hits.  Nice to see people cook, particularly the ones who don't do a lot of it.  Good for you! 

Meatfest meats are usually my contribution, but this year also featured Chris' incredible Spice Crusted Salmon.  This is a dish that she graciously let me borrow several years ago, and I make it many times a year.  She cooked two huge salmon fillets, and they were devoured.  Once again ... no leftovers. 

I cooked tri-tips, a whole pork tenderloin, chicken, and a huge pot of chili.  The tri-tips were tenderized with the Jaccard tenderizer (couldn't live without it!), marinated in my Rubbit dry rub, and cooked on the charcoal BBQ with a mop of Rubbit, apple cider, Lea & Perrins, and tomato paste.  The pork tenderloin was marinated in Penzey's BBQ 3000 dry rub, smoked in the Big Chief smoker for 2 1/2 hours with four types of wood chips, then cooked off-heat in the BBQ.  The chicken was marinated overnight in tandoori spice, and I wasn't thrilled with the outcome.  Kind of bland, probably needed some liquid marinade. 

The chili was a tad spicy, but it got rave reviews.  A combination of Anaheim, pasilla, jalapeno, serrano, and habanero chilis (only two of the latter) were sweated down, along with a couple Walla Walla onions.  Spices included several chili powders, cayenne pepper (in moderation), oregano, and of course lots of cumin.  Early in the process, it seemed like this may be too spicy for the general population, but it mellowed just enough over the course of the day, and turned out perfect.  It's sometimes difficult to gauge what "spicy" means to a large group, but I didn't see anyone running for cold water, and people were highly complimentary.  Successful batch of chili!

I do something that's arguably a tad strange, when I put on events like this.  After spending the bulk of two days doing the prep work, then testing the chili and meats as I go, by the time I have the meats cut and placed on platters, I'm commonly ready to park and enjoy a martini.  I eventually had a small bowl of chili (because it really was good), but I almost never prepare a full plate of food for myself.  I imagine everyone put on a little weight during the event ... I lost three pounds.  Interesting.

This event is always fun, and the biggest reason is the guests who grace us with their presence.  The crowd varies from year to year ... some people have been to many of these, and there's always a few newbies.  This year was no exception; we had visitors from California and North Carolina, and a good many of our local friends from the Bend area.  I believe the count was around 35 this year, which is about average.  I had 75 one year in San Jose, and all three of my current bands also played for the entire event.  Thirty five and no band was nice, as it gave me a chance to spend some quality time with each of these wonderful people. 

It's great being home in Bend.  As I mentioned at the outset, it's unlikely that we'll ever move out of this area again.  The mountains, river, relatively slower pace, four seasons (unpredictable as they surely are), and the amazing group of friends we've amassed up here, has totally won us over.  I'm so grateful that family members and friends continue to visit from California and elsewhere, and I'm always happy to provide them a place to stay, and hopefully cook some good meals for them.  It's what I do, and I enjoy playing host.  There still may be a B&B in the future ... who knows.  But for now, I'm content to be back in the big house by the river, and able to entertain friends and family in relatively nice style. 

Thanks to everyone who attended and contributed to the incredible array of food.  We'll of course see most of you with some regularity, and you can all look forward to next year's Evite for Meatfest 14 ... quite likely in July!