Culinarily speaking, January is the month of blah. I can’t get inspired to make another hearty soup, earthy stew, or roasted slab of meat. Mashed potatoes, both the delight and guilty pleasure of my October and November, seem like nothing more than bland white clumps on the plate. In short, I’m tired of food that sticks to my ribs. I want a little zing in my palate.
What’s a girl to do but lie back and dream of Mexico?
It is a matter of survival that anyone who lives in the mountains plans a mid-winter getaway to warmer climes. What seems cozy in fall is, as one friend recently reflected, depressing by mid-winter. Alas, my budget makes me more of a traveler of the mind, so I decide to pull a couple of cookbooks off the shelf and root around for something exotic, but within reach. I want the idea that in making the dish, I could actually get to my destination: say the sunny beaches of Yelapa, which are a hop, skip and a relatively short plane ride away. Inspired by a Rick Bayless and his anthropological Mexico, I settle on chorizo and seafood paella with a Spanish saffron twist.
Tomato and Onion Sofrito
I begin by massaging chicken thighs with a dry rub of spices (I used sweet paprika, oregano and salt and pepper, but chiles would add nice heat). Into the paella pan (a 10-12 inch stainless skillet will do), I pour ¼ cup olive oil and brown the thighs, before adding sliced chorizo. When all the meat is deeply golden (about 10 minutes total), I drain it and reserve it in a warm oven. Into the same pan goes 4-6 cloves of crushed garlic, a medium chopped Spanish, and some kosher salt. I let the onion lightly brown, then add a 16 oz can of whole tomatoes, crushed and carefully drained, along with some cracked black pepper. (You could roast tomatoes, and seed and peel them for an even smokier effect, if you’re feeling particularly heroic and/or bored). This mixture becomes the sofritto, the flavor base for the paella, so you want to concentrate flavors by letting the tomato and onions caramelize over medium-high heat. I taste the mixture periodically and add salt and pepper, even a little more paprika, to taste.
Just before adding the rice, I throw in half (or more) a chopped poblano that has been seared over flamed and peeled. The scent of the roasting chile, alone, transports me to a different season and climate. Then I add 1 ¼ cup of Carnaroli rice, a medium-grained Italian rice, I found at Lucky’s Market, the local grocer. (Tradition calls for short grains such as Bomba or Valencia, if you can find it. Do not use Basmati or sushi rice). Let the sofrito coat the rice, then add 3 ½ cups of liquid (I use 1/3 white wine to 2/3 chicken stock), then 1 ¼ tsp saffron threads. Stir to blend the rice, seasoning, and sofrito and let cook, uncovered, for about 15 minutes, until the rice is softened. It’s important not to over stir as you want the rice to stick to the bottom and create a socarrat, that crunchy and yummy under bottom of paella.
About 5 minutes from being done, when the rice is nearing al dente and the liquid has evaporated, I nestle the chicken thighs and chorizo back into the pan and dot the paella with about a dozen small mussels before adding the about eight large peeled shrimp (tail on) around the rim. A lid goes onto the pan until the mussels open and the shrimp turns pink. NOTE: This last part is tricky. You may need to add the mussels first and then the shrimp to keep the shrimp from over-cooking. As always, trust yourself and see what works best according to the size of the shell fish.
Karen’s Chorizo, Seafood Paella with Poblano & Saffron
When I remove the lid, I am so excited, I leave off the traditional peas and chopped parsley garnish, but the paella is pleasingly smoky and has an earthy heat that tastes like a distant land. Greg and I sit down for dinner while a winter wind rattles the cabin window, and dream of far off sun and surf, and beaches we’ll walk someday.