June 11, 2009
It is not every day that I get to throw a backyard party for my man's birthday (a milestone one this year, but I'm not saying how old --or young!) I thought the occasion merited an all-out grand celebration in the tradition of the Spanish who, in my opinion, are some first-rate party people.
My man also loves paella. He loves anything that combines shellfish, chicken and pork. And this was no ordinary paella. I took my inspiration from the parties I'd seen on the beach in Spain where men cooked paella in pans 5-feet wide on an open fire and served it up right on the beach. I decided I would make the most authentic paella that has probably ever been seen in Nashville, or at least in my backyard.
We have one of those old BBQ pits made of bricks, now crumbling with the weight of time and neglect. Who knows how long it's been there. You don't see them too often anymore. When we moved in, we cleaned out all the vegetation that had grown around it, cleared out the snakes and slugs from inside, and I vowed one day to turn it into a pizza oven. But this seemed like the perfect reason to fire it up and see what it could do.
Originally from Valencia, though now cooked all over Spain, paella is traditionally cooked on an open fire in a wide, shallow pan that is the namesake of the dish ('paella' means skillet in Spanish). That time I saw it being made on the beach in Andalucia was almost 15 years ago. I got a recipe then, bought a paella pan, and made my boyfriend at the time cart it all over Spain with us, tied to his backpack. It made it all the way home and through several moves, but alas, I had to give it up a few years ago when rust and lack of use made it impossible to clean.
Enter the age of Internet shopping. Three days before the party I had a 22-inch traditional paella pan on my doorstep. So big it could only be used on a fire outdoors, it promised a night of exciting food preparation and just a little bit of intimidation, since I'd only ever cooked paella inside on the stove. But I'm always up for a culinary challenge.
We filled the bathtub (the one waiting in our backyard to go into our newly renovated bathroom) with ice and beer, a great use for a bathtub. I also made a huge jar of sangria with my dad's secret recipe from his restaurant days when he tried to bring tapas to Las Vegas about 20 years too soon. For apps I made little chile corn custard cakes topped with sour cream and salsa (they went too fast for a photo), and a refreshing gazpacho served in little painted espresso cups (again, this is an after photo. It really is hard to take pictures and host at the same time, but thanks to Robin for getting the job done!)
Then the show began. Lucky for me, a good friend was invited who also happens to be a great cook and a take-charge kind of guy. He and some other guys got the fire started with wood and then built it to a roaring flame. With everything in place, including 2 lbs of arborio rice, 12 cups of chicken stock I had made the day before, 24 pieces of chicken I had baked earlier in the day, and the seafood: 2 lbs each of prawns from the Gulf, newly arrived little neck clams and mussels, plus 2 lbs of hot Italian sausage, sliced red peppers, onions and garlic, and the essential saffron threads, we were ready to start cooking.
(Note: when undertaking something like making paella for 25 people, the key is early preparation. Had I not done all of the prep earlier that day and the day before, there is no way I would have been able to pull it off.)
First, we browned the sausage in the hot pan with olive oil, then added the peppers to soften, before removing them both to a plate and adding the aromatics, onion and garlic.
Then a few chopped tomatoes were added, before the rice went in dry at first to lightly toast it. Then the broth that had been boiling on the stove inside was brought out and added little by little to the rice along with the saffron and seasonings, and allowed to simmer at a slow boil. It took a little while and some major heat to cook that much rice but it's essential to let it cook and not stir it much. Rotating the pan from time to time makes it cook evenly.
When it was almost done, that's when everything started to happen: we threw in the shrimp, then the clams and mussels, the chicken and sausage spread out on top, and the peppers sprinkled throughout. It really was beautiful and exciting to make.
People lined up at the paella with plates in hand and I dished it up with lemons on the side and french bread to soak it up. It had just the right combination of flavors and the saffron was not too strong. The fire definitely gave it a smoky flavor that you just don't get doing it on the stove.
Everyone raved about it and went back for seconds and thirds. It really was an authentic paella. I think he was happy.
Of course, there was a homemade birthday cake to top it off. A carrot cake with orange-flecked cream cheese frosting that could feed an army- and did! It was just the thing to end a perfect backyard paella party.