We had invited guests for dinner and, having just been to Madrid, Ann suggested making paella. We’d brought back saffron from Madrid; I had the proper bomba rice, and the pan, thanks to research for my last cookbook, From Scratch, which uses the Spanish dish to open a chapter on rice dishes generally.
There’s a lot of hot air blown over what a true paella is, as there always is over national dishes. Paella is from the Valencia region of eastern Spain. Some people insist that combining land animals (chicken) with seafood for a paella mixta is an abomination, maintaining that mixing the two muddies the flavor. But I used to always throw in some chorizo for color and, well, you can’t beat it for flavor. British chef Jamie Oliver recommended it. Apparently a proper Spanish paella never includes chorizo. Ever. Oliver got actual death threats after he posted his chorizo recipe. “They went medieval on me,” he told the Independent. (He didn’t seem to be overly bothered by it. Indeed, his reasoning seems solid enough to me: “It tastes better.”)
So what is authentic paella?
The most sensible response to the “authentic” question comes from the Sarah Jay, a writer, editor, and cook who fell in love with paella two decades ago and started a company to promote the dish. She told me, “An authentic paella is more about technique and equipment than what you put in it.” She would say it must include medium-grain rice, saffron, and a sofrito, one of the key techniques in a paella, and it must be cooked in a shallow paella pan. (There’s an excellent video on her site of her making paella, walking you through all the steps.) She would also note, and I would underscore, that while other ingredients should be plentiful, rice should be the dominant ingredient. I’ve seen paella recipes that have so many add-ins beyond the rice that the rice is lost. Rice should be central, flavored and supported by the additional meat or seafood or vegetables.
There are really just two versions of paella. One made with seafood, one made with land food. The dish was born in the rice fields of Valencia, so meat likely came first. Early recipes call for rabbit and snails. Valencia has a coastal region which would allow for an “authentic” paella using shellfish. I would stick to one or the other, for reasons I’ll get to in a moment.
The sofrito is a great technique for any rice dish, be it a risotto or a pilaf. It is the result of cooking sweet ingredients—grated onion, garlic, tomato—so slowly and for so long that their flavors transform into something far deeper and richer than what they were to begin with—arguably the most important part of a paella.
Why I will never mix land food and seafood (and cocktails) when making paella…
Ann requested chorizo for our paella, unaware we might get death threats. We had som Portuguese chorizo from Rhode Island, so I said sure. Tasty, though nothing like the great Spanish chorizo which is a dry-cured sausage. She also wanted chicken. I wanted shellfish. I figured what the hell. I just won’t call it paella.
Folks, it was not a success. I’m blaming the chorizo of course. I’m blaming the tragic mixture of proteins. But most of all, I’m blaming the Distrito Federal, a tequila-based cocktail based on the Manhattan (our IG Friday Cocktail Hour from that night is here). One of our dear friends hung out in the kitchen with me while I finished the “paella.” I cooked the paella maintaining steady conversation with Harry. I mixed another cocktail.
But I failed to pay sufficient attention to my “paella.” It felt my neglect and burnt itself to piss me off. We would not have a tasty soccarat, the crispy crust of rice on the bottom. As a culinary instructor once said to me, “You can fix most things in the kitchen—you can’t fix burnt. Happily, the dish is so festive and the ingredients so tasty, nobody seemed to notice. (Except Ann, who shook her head and whispered, “This is not right.”)
Bottom line and lesson: don’t fuck with paella.
Mushrooms and Chorizo
Now this was the triumph of that same night, in my opinion, and Ann’s. I attempted to create a tapa we’d had two weeks earlier at Mesón des Chapiñións (see previous newsletter).
Here’s how I did it.
Begin with 20 to 25 white button mushrooms, stems removed.
In a bowl combine a third of a cup of olive oil, a tablespoon of garlic and parsley each. Toss the mushrooms in this until they’ve soaked up the oil (their like sponges).
Put them in a skillet, top side down. Drop a medium-diced piece of Spanish chorizo in the center of each. Put two toothpicks in each mushroom for easy lifting. Squeeze some lemon over them. Season with salt and pepper.
Put the pan over medium-high heat for five minutes or so to sear the bottom. Pop them in a 425˚F oven for 15 to 20 minutes.
These are the perfect hors d’oeuvres. My God they are so good and are already on the Thanksgiving day menu.
Remember that fall is the best time to eat oysters!
It is the time of year that they fatten themselves up in preparation for winter, according to Skip Bennett, our favorite oysterman, of Island Creek Oysters.
The New Cookbook!
I’m very excited to announce Chef Gabriel Kreuther’s first book, The Spirit of Alsace, which I co-wrote with him. Kreuther is a native of that uncommon territory in eastern France that is mixture of German, French, and Swiss cultures. Kreuther came to the United States in the early 1990s, worked for Jean-Georges, then opened The Modern at MOMA where he earned a best chef NYC Beard Award.
In 2015, he opened Restaurant Gabriel Kreuther in Manhattan, on 42nd Street across from Bryant Park, which has thus far earned two Michelin stars.
What I love most about this book is that it combines Alsatian farmhouse cooking (in the first section of the book) with fine dining cooking. How to make proper spätzle (cutting them off a board straight into the water); how to create a perfect choucroute garnis. That’s the kind of cooking that I love.
But I also love dishes such as the one below, squab and foie gras—oh, man, so good.
What we’re watching…
The most interesting film I watched recently was an Icelandic story called “Lamb.” It is indeed, as the NYTimes put it, “Slow-moving and inarguably nutty.” But it’s also incredibly beautiful and atmospheric, with some of the best photography of lambs I’ve seen. I won’t spoil it, even though the review and the trailer do. Watch the trailer—words aren’t quite enough, as you’ll see. Co-authored by Icelandic poet and novelist, Sjon, I’m guessing the entirety of the dialogue could fit on two pages. I recommend seeing this modern folk tale on a big screen.
Ann chanced on The Beast Must Die, “an absolutely gripping six part series on Acorn” Ann says, about a woman, played by Cush Jumbo, looking to avenge the death of her child. When the villain appeared, Ann called out to me, “Oh my god, Jared Harris is in it!” We have really come to admire and love the work of this actor (I’m biased, having tried out for a movie he was making when we were students at Duke). If you haven’t watched Chernobyl on HBO, it’s a must. Read a terrific recent profile of him in The NYTimes.
And Ann and I together are late to the game with this one but I’m glad, because Peaky Blinders, about a violent racketeering gang in 1919 Birmingham, England, is utterly binge worthy. Or would be for me were it not so viscerally intense and extremely violent. Cillian Murphy is fantastic as head of the Peaky Blinders (they were known for putting razor blades in their caps). Equally impressive is Helen McCrory, who sadly died this year of breast cancer, age 52. Especially sad given how talented she was. RIP.
What we’re drinking…
In addition to the Distrito Federal (2 parts aged tequila or mezcal, 1 part sweet vermouth, bitters), I was served a “First Impression,” by our friend Rand Cooper. He said it was created by a Connecticut bartender, in response to the cocktail The Last Word.
If you like a Last Word (gin, green Chartreuse, lime juice, Luxardo), this is a splended variant:
1 ounce gin
1 ounce yellow Chartreuse
1 ounce lemon juice
1 ounce Luxardo
lemon twist garnish
Standard mixing method, serve up in a chilled coupe or over ice.
What we’re reading…
I’ve just finished my third John Green book, Green being the phenomenal best-selling writer of YA novels (Turtles All the Way Down, The Fault In Our Stars). I continue to be impressed by his control of the story and characters; he never talks down to an adult reader, and never talks above his teen audience. Looking For Alaska was his first book, begun when Green was a 24-year-old editorial assistant at Booklist.
Ann writes of her reading (surprise, more Irish books!):
The debut Irish novel Snowflake by Louise Nealon is so captivating as we follow a young woman from a dairy farm starting at Trinity College in Dublin.
A Ghost In the Throat by Doireann Ní Ghríofa is an indescribable book—part memoir, part history, part sleuthing, part poetry analysis, and also a feminine text. I read it in one afternoon, in awe and admiration.
Links we’re liking…
Covid has created a new kind of deli, what The NYTimes calls the designer deli.
Having been obsessed with savory pies for some time now, I’m eager to try this unusual reverse samosa, from Bon Appetit.
Eva Cassidy, who died in 1996 at age 33 of melanoma, had one of the most beautiful voices of her generation. She did not live long enough to see how successful her music would become. Here’s an appreciation of her work, 25 years after her death from The Guardian.
This is a really thoughtful essay in Harper’s by the writer Molly Fisk about a story her uncle, John Updike, wrote, which focuses on a man based on her father. It is not a kind portrait. Given all the recent discussion created by “Cat Person” and “Bad Artist Friend.” regarding what is our story, what are writers allowed to write, Fisk’s essay is a meaningful addition.
And this excellent portrait of the inimitable, unlikely Christopher Walken.
In support of my belief that Eva Cassidy had one of the most beautiful voices of her generation, I leave you with her rendition of one of the most beautiful love songs ever, “Kathy’s Song.” See you in a couple weeks!