A long-ago tale of rice and seafood …
Thanks to pal Judy Shepard for the photo!
I worried about the waiter. He risked life and limb to deliver my first taste of paella, Spain’s revered rice-based one-dish delicacy.
In a tiny outdoor cafe on the Spanish island of Majorca, perched on a bluff overlooking the sea, I relished every kernel of saffron-scented rice, cherished every morsel of oh-so-fresh, salty-sweet seafood.
Even if the taste had been less than divine — and trust me, it was luscious — the visual splendor alone should have been enough to tune out distractions. Bright red lobster, jet-black mussels, yellow-orange rice and bright-green peas paint quite a picture in the pan. But peril laid in its path from chef to customer.
The dining area was on the opposite side of the street from the kitchen. A busy road, teaming with traffic, separated customer and cocina.
Even the casual observer could tell at a glance that the trays were heavy. They were loaded with steaming paella pans, the shallow, two-handled cooking vessels in which paella is prepared.
The bantam-weight waiter held the unwieldy platter of pans over his head with one hand, boldly waving his free arm to stop cars, trucks and motor scooters.
When he made it to the table, in my best Spanish, I asked him if the treacherous nature of his job made him nervous. Calmly, he explained that his two brothers were bullfighters, and that danger was in his blood. He considered his job to be on the safe side.
Besides, he had all the paella he could eat.
And that didn’t limit him to just seafood paellas but an almost inexhaustible number of variations to the classic dish. Paella originated in Valencia, a region on Spain’s eastern coast. Early versions of Valencian paella included rice, chicken, rabbit, green beans, fresh butter beans, tomato, olive oil, paprika, saffron, water and salt.
“The only indispensable ingredients are rice, water and olive oil,” writes Penelope Casas, author of “Paella! ” (Henry Holt, $27.50). “Everything else is the subject of endless debates and discussions by Spaniards, who love a lively conversation and consider their own recipe the one and only. Paellas are as free-spirited as the cooks who prepare them; once the technique is mastered, the sky is the limit.”
1 teaspoon saffron threads
1/3 cup warm water
2 boneless chicken breasts, each cut into 3 pieces
10 chicken drumettes
About 1 1/2 teaspoons Cajun spice blend, such as chef Paul Prudhomme’s Seafood Magic or Poultry Magic
1/4 cup olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 1/2 cups white short-grain or medium-grain rice, arborio preferred
1/4 teaspoon turmeric
3 cups chicken broth, homemade or canned reduced-sodium broth
1 cup green beans, trimmed and cut into 1/2-inch lengths (if large, cut in half lengthwise)
2 Roma tomatoes, seeded and diced
12 medium or large shrimp, peeled and deveined
18 small clams, such as littleneck clams, scrubbed
Optional: 18 mussels, scrubbed 1 red bell pepper, cored, seeded, cut into thin strips
1/2 yellow bell pepper, cored, seeded, cut into thin strips
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
1 cup frozen peas
Juice of 1 lemon, plus 2 lemons cut in fourths for garnish
Garnish: 2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
Cook’s notes: If clams fail to open during the completion of the paella, remove them from paella and place in a saucepan with 1 cup dry white wine. Cover and bring to boil; check after 3-4 minutes; most of them should be open. Discard any unopened clams.
1. Place saffron in warm water; set aside. Season chicken with Cajun spice blend. Heat oil over medium-high heat in large skillet or paella pan. Brown chicken, about 5 minutes on each side. Remove chicken from pan with slotted spoon.
2. Add onion, garlic and rice. Stir to coat rice. Add saffron mixture, turmeric and broth. Add chicken and cook on medium heat, covered, 15 minutes.
3. Add green beans, pushing into rice mixture. Add tomato, shrimp, clams, mussels (if using), bell peppers, salt and pepper. Cover and cook 5 minutes. Add peas; cover and cook 5 minutes.
4. Remove lid and cook until all broth is absorbed. Drizzle lemon juice over top. Place lemon wedges around edges and sprinkle with chopped parsley.
Yield: 6-8 servings