I'm lucky. I come from a very close-knit family. I'm the youngest of 6 kids with a 17 year spread between my oldest brother and myself. We all enjoy each other's company and though we are not all geographically close to each other, we get together as much as we can. Yesterday was my brother Larry's birthday. He is my second oldest brother and the one closest to me geographically. In many ways he has been a mentor to me and my own sons over the years as well as many others. Yesterday was his birthday. I welcomed the chance to make him a birthday dinner. When asked what he would like, he responded "paella" – favorite of his for many years. I obliged.
Paella, of course, like "pasta" represents a wide variety of dishes. "Pasta", of course, represents the actual grain product, whereas the term "paella" is representative of the pan used to cook the dish, which happens to be rice based. Almost anything can go into a paella. Some combinations, such as rabbit and snails or a variety of seafood are classic. The best paella I have ever had was at a restaurant not far outside of the city of Valencia in the town of Benisanó. The restaurant, Levante, operated by the Vidal family makes their version of "paella valenciana" with chicken, rabbit, garrofó beans (similar to Lima beans), green "ferraura" beans, tomato, water and rosemary. It is truly outstanding, as is the rest of their food. While paella can certainly be delicious without it, an authentic paella is generally cooked over a wood-fired with either orange-wood, grape-vine cuttings or pine cuttings.
If I were in Valencia, I might have made a paella different than what I did. Being in upstate N.Y. I used what I had and what I could get. Fortunately we still had two unopened bags of rice that we had brought back from Valencia.When I opened the first bag, my heart sank, as it was filled with little crawly things that had hatched and probably proceeded through several generations. It went directly outside. I approached the second bag with trepidation. It was with great relief that this bag of bomba rice (two other popular paella rice varieties are calisparra and senia) proved insect free. Using a recipe from Jose Andres' Tapas book, I decided on a seafood paella. Jose's recipe was for lobster and squid, but I decided to pump it up with some clams, Gulf shrimp, Louisiana andouille and some fresh piquillo peppers from Sheldon Farms. We still had some lobster stock in the freezer, which I used in lieu of Jose's classic fish stock. I made a version of Jose's sofrito, but given the season, i used canned "Fire-roasted" tomatoes that I turned into a puree rather than fresh plum tomatoes. To make the paella I killed and cut up a small, live lobster and par-cooked it in Spanish olive oil, followed by par-cooking the squid (previously frozen), then the diced andouille and julienned pepper strips. With all of that reserved, I fried sofrito and garlic before I moved out into the night to finish the paella over the grill. Having neither vine-cuttings nor orange wood, I used real lump hardwood charcoal. Over a nice hot fire, I added the lobster stock and once boiling, crushed saffron and the rice, stirring for a few minutes. With one last stirring, I added the andouille/pepper mixture and then without stirring, placed the lobster, squid, clams and shrimp on top, leaving the rice to absorb the broth. Once the seafood was cooked and the broth absorbed, I removed the paella to a trivet on the dining table, where I let it rest for a few minutes before we dug in. I paired the paella with a 2002 Godello from Viña Godeval in Galicia. While the wine was perhaps not as crisp as it had been in its youth, it was still a marvelous pairing with the crustacean rich paella. While the Vidals have nothing to fear from me, I was nevertheless quite pleased with the results. More importantly, my brother appeared to be as well.
I didn't stop there though. I served another course. Continuing the Spanish theme, I grilled a pimentón and garlic rubbed fresh ham steak from Long View Farm and served it with roasted cauliflower and sofrito. We finished the meal with a spectacular chocolate and raspberry birthday cake from The Chocolate Mill.
They say one can't choose one's family. I guess I am very lucky, because I wound up with an outstanding one. I enjoyed making the birthday of someone fortuitously close to me just a bit more special.