Got any items on your to-do list that you’d like to check-off before the first snow flies? Fly a hot air balloon ride over Pinkney; paddle a canoe down the Huron River at sunset? For me, having friends over for a cookout featuring grilled paella tops the list.
Paella is to Spain what risotto is to Italy: a traditional rice-based dish important to the culinary heritage of each country, the varietal of rice used and method of cooking the rice critical to the authenticity of the resulting dish. A properly cooked paella should have a caramelized and slightly crisp crust, in Spain know as the soccarat, and a risotto should be creamy with a chewy texture. Unlike a risotto, which must be continuously stirred, when making paella, the bottom of the pan must not be disturbed after all the ingredients are added to develop the crackly layer.
I have an oven-stove-top method for paella, which I’ve made in the past with delicious results, but I wanted this paella to be different, to be as authentic to Spain as available ingredients allowed, so I got to googling. If I want to be truly authentic, I should cook my paella over an open fire. Not an issue with my charcoal grill. Rabbit and snails would also be a part of this dish. Nah – I’d prefer chicken and shellfish in mine.
I special-ordered a paella pan from Downtown Home and Garden that was suited for outdoor grilling, particularly for my large Big Green Egg smoker, but I’m sure the pan would work for any grill. Bill Moran, one of the many go-to employees at Home & Garden sold me the pan, and regaled me with paella stories from past customers, including his own.
“The first time I made paella was many moons ago,” Bill said. “Back in the old days of Kerrytown. I went to Bob (still owner of Sparrow Meats) and asked him to set me up with paella ingredients for two; he sold me chicken thighs and chorizo. Next, I visited Mike (still owner of Monahan’s Seafood) and asked him to set me up with paella ingredients for two; he sold me shrimp and clams.” Bill said he didn’t have a recipe, only relied on the advise of the various merchants.
Last week, I, too, went to Sparrow Meats and Monahan’s Seafood, asking them to fix me up with ingredients for paella for four. My ingredient list matched Bills’; two decades later, the circle is completed.
I had no problems securing the remaining ingredients in the Kerrytown/downtown arena; Zingerman’s and Sparrow Meats stocks the bomba rice, and Babo stocked the peppers.
Richard and I had our friends, Doug and Brenda, over for dinner. Brenda’s an excellent cook and a woman I feel comfortable testing new recipes; if something’s messed up, we laugh and pour another glass.
I set us up with good Spanish cheeses, Rioja, and Serrano ham for grazing, then placed all of the ingredients beside the grill giving Brenda a stopwatch to bark orders.
Hands down, the Big Green Egg helped me to achieve a paella worthy of a fine Spanish kitchen, lending hardwood smoky elements to the flavor profile, and allowing me to fine tune the heat of the flame insuring the fire was hot enough to achieve the crusty chewy crust. I understand that traditional paella is cooked over an open flame (uncovered), but I enjoy the added smokiness that resulted when I placed the top over my egg, particularly in the initial stages of cooking the rice. Covering the grill is negotiable.
Having this mise-en-place assembled in advance is non-negotiable, and this is not a good candidate for a make-ahead supper. Your guests can wait for the rice, but the rice can’t wait for the guests.