More summer memories of long ago..

Filed in Gather Food Essential by on August 6, 2006 0 Comments



Come Join the Feast!

By Sonia R. Martinez
(June 24, 2003 – The Hawaii Tribune-Herald newspaper of Hilo, HI)


The dish known worldwide as Paella is said to have originated in the region of Valencia in Spain. There are as many variations of this dish as there are regions and cooks in that country as well as in the many Latin American countries where it is also very popular.

The dish is named after the vessel in which it is traditionally cooked; a shallow, very large round pan, with a flat bottom that has slightly rounded outer edges. They are usually made of carbon steel or clay. The actual name of this dish is “Arroz a la Paella”, or rice made in a paella pan.

The ingredients depend on the variety available in each region, or the taste and discretion of the cook, but a common theme is the combination of meats and or seafood, some vegetables and rice seasoned with saffron. If you can’t find an ingredient mentioned here, be creative and substitute with what is available to you.

The secret to my paella is that I use beer instead of water to cook the rice. It gives it a nice tangy taste. Sometimes I will use a combination of beer and stock. Since I prefer to use a mixture of chicken and seafood, I prefer chicken stock or broth rather than fish stock for the cooking liquid.

In last week’s article, I mentioned that when we were young and still living in my native Cuba, a group of us, all friends of many years who had grown up together, would often get together and spend a day at a beach called Rancho Luna (Moon Ranch). This beach was located on the shores facing the Caribbean outside the bay that encircled our town and accessible by driving a long narrow road or taking a little launch trip through the bay and then out through the entrance of the bay and on to the deep blue sea.

Today, that beach has been spruced and `gussied’ up with amenities to attract tourism, but in those days it was just a beautiful deserted stretch of powder-white sandy beach facing the Caribbean Ocean with lots of wild tropical foliage as a backdrop.

The women in our group of friends would get everything ready to cook while our husbands or boyfriends would go scuba diving and spear fishing to harvest the lobsters and fish for our paella.

It was also a lot of fun to use a small, lead-weighted seine net and gather several handfuls of shrimp or go wading nearby, while the tide was low and dig for clams.

We would set up our little camp under the dappled shadow of uvas caletas (seagrape) and marañon (cashew) trees. Some of us had babies by this time and we would set up a couple of foldable playpens where they could play or nap in the shade!

We would then dig a hole in the sand and line it with rocks, where a fire was built using branches and driftwood gathered in the area. By placing several larger rocks, all approximately the same size, ringing the fire, we could rest the bottom of the paella pan on them for even cooking.

While the paella cooked, some of us would gather palm fronds and banana leaves which we would scatter and layer on the sand to make our “table”.

Considering that our paella usually contained chicken and seafood, you would think that a very dry, white wine would be the beverage of choice, but actually a good red wine or very cold beer was appropriate.

Since paella is such a hearty dish, a simple salad of an assortment of greens, watercress and sliced ripe tomatoes, lightly dressed with vinegar and oil and big slices of fresh baked Cuban bread are more than adequate. A light dessert (like flan) would be suitable, if you still have room!

Buen Provecho!

This recipe will yield enough for 10 to 12 people. Some people use chicken with the bone in, but I prefer using deboned and skinless chicken pieces.

Sofrito (see recipe below)
5 – 6 pounds chicken pieces
5 – 6 large lobsters, steamed or enough steamed crayfish or prawns to serve at
least one per person
2 pounds of shrimp, heads off, but with shells on

2 pounds large scallops (*)
1 – 2 pounds any white and firm fleshed fish
2 small cans tomato sauce
3 teaspoons sweet paprika
A touch of ground cumin
A touch of ground oregano
Freshly grated black pepper, to taste
1 – 2  beer bottles
4 cups chicken stock or broth
2 pounds short grained white rice (Spanish Valencia if possible, if not Italian Arborio, which is similar)
A pinch of saffron threads
Juice of one lemon
2 cups frozen green peas or canned English peas
1 jar red pimientos, sliced in strips (save the liquid)

Cook the sofrito following the recipe and instructions below. Add the chicken pieces, the lobster, crayfish or prawns, clean shrimp and scallops. Sauté for a few minutes and add the pieces of fish. Continue sautéing, occasionally turning gently, until chicken and fish are opaque and start browning slightly. Scoop out the shellfish and reserve for later.

Add the tomato sauce, the red pimiento liquid and the beer. Cook gently until it starts to boil. Add the broth or stock. Meantime, put the saffron threads and lemon juice in a small ceramic mortar and crush with a pestle or in glass or ceramic bowl. The acid of the lemons seems to bring out the color and taste of the saffron. Let it steep for a little bit.

When the chicken is halfway done, add the crushed saffron and lemon juice and then the rice, mix in well. Cook at medium high heat or place in a 300oF oven, until the rice is done, approximately 20 – 30 minutes.   Add the green peas and mix in slightly at the last 5 minutes of cooking.

Serve the paella in its cooking vessel; decorate the top with the steamed lobsters, crayfish or prawns, cooked shrimp, scallops and the pimiento strips.

(*) If you can find scallops in their shells, shuck them and save the shells. Take the saved, cooked scallops and put them in the washed shells, placing them around the top of the completed paella dish.

Sofrito is a base used for most dishes in Cuban cooking. Like making a roux in Cajun cooking, Cubans start most dishes with sofrito.

4-5 Tablespoons olive oil
10 ripe cherry tomatoes, chopped
1 green bell pepper, seeded, cored and chopped
2 medium onions, chopped
4 – 6 garlic cloves, minced
1 or 2 bay leaves
1/4 teaspoon ground cumin
1/4 teaspoon ground dried oregano
1/2 cup of a good dry Sherry (*)
Salt to taste (optional)

Sauté the chopped tomatoes, pepper, onions, garlic, bay leaves, cumin and oregano in the oil slowly until all vegetables are limp. Add Sherry and let simmer. If you add salt, taste beforehand as you might not need it at all.

(*) All of the cooking professionals under whom I studied always stressed the fact that if you cooked with wine, it had to be wine you could drink out of the bottle and not the so-called ‘cooking wines’.

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