"The only real stumbling block is the fear of failure. In cooking, you have got to have a what-the-hell attitude." ~ Julia Child

Ole! How to cook Paella on your first try

by Julie Tilsner on August 5, 2007

in Minor Miracles, Dinner

MediumdiceI donned the tatty blue apron. I tied back my hair. I washed my hands. I left the wine in the refrigerator and hit the flamenco playlist on the kitchen iPod.

I printed out this recipe for California Paella.

I read it through three times. I made notations in black pen.

Then I prepped my ingredients.

I had made special note of sizes and proportions. I bought precisely 1 1/2 lb of organic chicken thigh meat, and I cut it into exact 1 1/2-inch chunks (I measured it with a ruler pulled out of my kids’ art box). I had a whole branch of rosemary from the farmer’s market, and sweet paprika, and the correct kind of saffron. I made sure to buy enough organic chicken broth. I used the timer to roast the pepper, and I cut it into medium dice as carefully as I could, using my newly-sharpened chef knife.

Mr. Squid left a comment that paella wasn’t all that hard to make, but that foul-ups were “spectacular.” Great for blog fodder, sure, but bad for self-esteem. And I wasn’t even going near any seafood.

Also at stake: I’ve been botching everything lately. The other night I made chicken and Masala sauce over rice…a regular weeknight dish featuring frozen chicken and sauce in a jar from Trader Joe’s, slopped over rice, which I usually make with aplomb. But I forgot to brown the chicken first. And I used too much onion. And then there was the Jasmine rice, which is of a different consistency than my usual Basmati and turned out too gummy, and anyway, it was largely inedible. A waste of time and money. I was furious with myself. And more than a little discouraged.

And now I was trying a paella? For the first time? It was going to be a face-plant.

But even as I pondered my ruinous results, a little whisper inside of me down deep goaded me forward. Pay attention this time, it growled. Have everything ready. Stay focused and think, you stupid cow. And maybe you might actually be able to pull this off.

The result? I did it. I made a California-style paella with organic chicken, artichoke hearts, Blue Lake green beans, roasted red pepper, a lovely sofrito and arborio rice. The picture here doesn’t do it justice (why is it fuzzy? Clearly I was shaking with excitement when I took it.)

It was flavorful. Hearty. The chicken was tender and juicy. The rice was perfect. Tony, who arrived later that evening, stared in awe at the thing. Then he took one bite and closed his eyes. “This is the best thing you’ve ever made. Punto.”

Two key details helped me in my mission. The kids were playing at the neighbor’s house and so weren’t underfoot. And I purposely did not pour a glass of wine. There was no room for fuzzy thinking tonight. The iPod, meanwhile, seemed to sense the task at hand, and played only the best flamenco cuts on my playlist. Very puro, driving bulerias and tangos, intercut at perfect moments with soulful soleas or siguriyas. It set the perfect mood, and kept me focused.

When the kids did come in, midway through the process, and started agitating for dinner, I did not offer to make them anything. I pointed to a cupboard.

“Your favorite cereals are in there,” I told them. “Go eat it in front of the TV and stay out of my kitchen.”

They acted like it was Christmas, and left me alone for the rest of the night. What’s a Bad Mommy moment in the face of the paella challenge?  Besides, they got bonus points for asking what smelled so good.

I followed the recipe to the letter, with only a few strongly thought-through detours. I did not have fava beans, nor do I like them. I was going to substitute edamame beans (the recipe said I could sub frozen peas or Lima beans, for example), but at the last minute thought better of it, since their flavor is distinctive enough to possible detract. Also, I used marinated artichoke hearts from Trader Joe’s. It’s a product from Spain, after all, and after a light rinse and pat dry, I felt the marinade would suit the rest of the ingredients.

I also used my garlic press for the first time, and grated tomatoes. I even made a sofrito!

Lessons learned: A lot of duh here: Think through these things first. Have everything on hand. Prep. Don’t allow distractions. Leave the alcoholic beverages until after the dish has successfully turned out.

As I write this, flush with unexpected success, another little voice inside of me is whispering: This would make a great party dish, yes?


{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

elfini August 6, 2007 at 9:39 am

So, you’ll be cooking us paella in Catalina next summer?!
Can’t wait! Really. I can’t wait. Get your sweet tushie up here!


AT August 6, 2007 at 9:02 am

¿¿¿Good home cooking??? La Paella estaba rico- que alegria- que Flamenca-! uh, getting back to the U.S.of A.- you mentioned upstairs my favorite word PARTY; could this extraordinary result possibly be repeated?? 🙂


Kat August 7, 2007 at 12:42 pm

See??? You’re gonna hafta change your blog title now! I’m so proud of you. *sniffle*


Aunt Vere's niece August 9, 2007 at 4:44 pm

Successful paella on the first try??? That’s like aceing the calculus test, even though you can’t pass pre-algebra.


Pilar Del Sal November 6, 2008 at 9:39 pm

You made a sofrito? I just made the most vile mess in my kitchen trying to make sofrito … guessing at Safeway which peppers could substitute for Daisy Martinez’s ingredients. I actually poured some of this ugly brown mess (green cilantro + red tomato paste) on fish and baked it. I had to scrape the so-called sofrito off the fish to serve it. Yet I still taste garlic and onion hours later. And not in a good way.
ANy suggestions?


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