Monday, August 20, 2007

The Real Deal

My sister's home for a visit! I'm thrilled to see her and spend time with her, and in our family, spending time together almost always entails eating. For Laura and I, it's Mom's tomato sauce, Dad's grilled sausage and a guilty pleasure or two. Last night's dinner brought a new dimension to our familiar feasts: Laura's friend Laura--let's call her Spanish Laura for clarity's sake--made my family seafood paella. It was delicious. We were all so excited to be eating paella made by a real Spaniard! And it reminded us all that though we may not be able to converse with Spanish Laura, who doesn't speak much English, it doesn't really matter when we all sit down to the table before a massive bowl of steaming rice and shellfish and raise our glasses of wine to the chef, smiling and oohing over the feast.

As Spanish Laura explained, paella should be either exclusively meat or exclusively seafood. None of this mix-and-match you see in many Spanish restaurants. She says this is because the rice absorbs the flavor of the other ingredients, and you want your rice to be one or the other flavor--not some melange of both. The Lauras made a seafood stock by boiling shrimp, calamari and mussels. In a separate pot, the clams steamed open in their shells, and the chefs reserved that juice, too. Into a big paella pan borrowed from my mom's cooking school went onions and green and red bell peppers that they had sauteed. Little by little, Spanish Laura added the stock, until the vegetables were simmering, then slowly--"like feeding chickens," Spanish Laura said--my sister Laura tossed in the rice. Unfortunately, the Spanish rice they'd packed in their luggage is somewhere between Madrid and New Jersey, wherever their suitcases are currently hanging out. So long-grain white rice from Whole Foods stood in, and I think it did a fine job. A little saffron went a long way, and the rice was a delightfully deep yellow color. Finally, they added the cooked seafood.

We were all salivating when the beautiful platter hit the table. Spanish Laura served, suggesting a squirt of lemon to bring out the flavors. Wow. This was some seriously tasty paella. The rice was perfect, neither mushy nor hard, and the seafood was tender. The peppers flecked the rice with color and slight crunch, and each mouthful was just a little different, depending on whether your fork had found a sweet little ring of calamari or a plump mussel. No translation was necessary to understand we were all quite happy. They promise the recipe's coming...--S

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