Some of my best memories growing up are placed around the dinner table. Beyond that, I will say that the wonderful ritual of food expanded my world in many directions. There was no reason, in Pennsylvania in about 1980, that I should have been eating things like Moussaka or Paella, but I did. We had close friends from the Netherlands and every time they visited it was a food and culture lesson; it was exposure to the European appreciation for cooking with great ingredients and lingering and laughing around the dining room table with a good bottle of wine.
Beyond that, my uncle is Professor Emeritus of Chinese Ethnomusicology and his extensive travels to China, Taiwan, and Japan (and his love of cooking) added in Asian cuisine at a time when our town didn’t have one Chinese restaurant. I still remember being about 6 or 7 years old and having tempura for the first time — sitting in his dark dining room before a huge spread with perfect little bowls of dipping sauce. And I remember having a tempura party at my grandparents’ house when the big joke was to tempura batter something random (like a clothespin) and serve it to someone.
This is a lesson to me in my own parenting. I don’t remember much about the times when my Mom was shuttling my sisters and me to Brownies or Girl Scouts. I don’t remember much about what I did in school in second grade when my teacher was probably working pretty hard to ensure that I was learning something. I don’t remember much of the piano I used to know (OK, so there’s that one song.). But I do remember the food. And the laughter. And the big family gatherings of cousins and aunts and uncles and grandparents. This is the good stuff in life and it shapes who we are.
And if we spend all of our time as parents “shaping” our kids with more instruction, more lessons, more playdates, and more soccer games (all the while saying we don’t have time to cook dinner because of our oftentimes self-imposed crazy schedules), aren’t we abandoning some of the most important real moments that we can give to our kids?
But I digress. Let’s talk about Paella — the wonderful Spanish rice dish that is entirely flexible, great for entertaining a big crowd, and a wonderful dish for kids because they can pick out their favorite things. It takes a bit of work, but you can do it mostly ahead of time. And feel free to improvise with different shellfish, fish, sausages, or anything you like. My version is mostly baked in the oven and I cooked it in a big Le Creuset cast iron wok, because I don’t have a paella pan. You can use a wok or a large saute pan that is oven safe. This makes it slightly untraditional (it doesn’t develop the soccarat, which is the carmelized crust on the bottom), but it’s delicious anyway.
Serve it right in the pan with a big salad and you will be on your way to making new food memories with your family and friends.
1 red pepper, sliced
1 yellow pepper, sliced
1 large onion, chopped
7 or 8 cloves of garlic, chopped
12 oz. chorizo sausage, sliced
4-6 pieces of dark meat chicken (legs or thighs)
1 lb. shrimp, shelled
2 dozen clams, mussels, or both, scrubbed clean
2 1/2 cups of arborio rice
1 can of chopped tomatoes (15 oz.)
1 t saffron
4 cups of chicken broth, preferably homemade (just buy two extra pieces of chicken, put it in a large pot, add some chopped garlic/onion, etc., cover with a plenty of cold water and simmer while you get everything else ready)
3/4 cup of white wine
1 cup of peas
Chopped flat leaf parsley
Salt and Freshly Ground Pepper
1. In a large wok, saute pan, or paella pan over medium high heat, add a bit of olive oil and saute the red and yellow pepper slices. Allow them to brown a bit (turn up heat if necessary). When browned and softened, remove to a plate and set aside.
2. Reduce heat to medium, add a little more olive oil, and brown chorizo sausage slices for 5 minutes or so. Remove to plate and set aside. Preheat oven to 350 F.
3. Add a little more olive oil and brown chicken pieces for about 3 minutes on each side (they won’t be completely cooked). Season with salt and pepper. Remove to plate and set aside.
4. Add a little more olive oil and saute chopped onion and garlic for 2-3 minutes until just softened. Add in arborio rice and saute for 2-3 minutes to coat the rice. Stir in the tomatoes, saffron, 1 t salt, pepper and let cook (while stirring) for 3-4 minutes more.
5. Stir in 3 1/2 cups of chicken broth and 3/4 cup of white wine. Add in browned chorizo and chicken pieces and make sure they are submerged in rice/broth. Cover tightly with foil or a lid and cook in a preheated oven for about 20-25 minutes until liquid is mostly absorbed.
6. Carefully remove from oven and taste for salt/pepper, adding more if necessary. Add in about 1/2 cup of additional chicken broth. Stir in peas and cooked pepper slices. Place clams/mussels in rice with hinged side down. Place shrimp on top of rice. Cover tightly again and place back in oven for about 15-20 minutes more, until shrimp are cooked and clams/mussels have opened. (Discard any clams/mussels that don’t open.)
7. Remove from oven, put 2-3 tablespoons of chopped flat leaf parsley on top and put lemon wedges around the perimeter. Allow guest to serve themselves.