Paella (and Boiling Springs, PA)

It's a good feeling to have somebody specially request that you cook a favorite dish. It means that you did it right the last time. It also means you have a chance to outdo the last time.

A few weeks ago my sister requested that I make a paella for her 29th birthday. So the weekend of April 3, I and the soon-to-be "Mrs. Kitchen Monkey" piled into the car with my other sister, her husband, and my year-old nephew (whose name--Jacques-C├ęsar--practically mandates a future as an internationally renowned Casanova). We zipped up from Washington, D.C. to Boiling Springs, Pennsylvania for a proper hootenanny and feast.

Joe Baker, who I mentioned in my last post, brought an excellently cooked salmon, and I slapped together the paella you see above. An indecent amount of wine was tipped back and much food was eaten. We pushed ourselves away from the table, and got out the instruments. My sister's friend (and co-worker at the Appalachian Trail Conservancy) brought his accordion. My sister played mandolin, I had my guitar, Joe had his harmonicas, and Laura (another friend of lil' sis) had her bodhran (a circular celtic drum, for those not in the know). We played well into the night, and everyone left full and happy.

My paella never turns out the same way twice, since I tend to make it on the fly with a rotating variety of ingredients. But here's the closest approximation. Keep in mind, the following points:

  • I offer no pretenses that this is "authentic" paella. I think it probably started from a recipe in a Spanish cookbook years ago, but over time I've either consciously altered or just forgotten parts of the original.
  • quantities of nearly everything here are very negotiable and should be toyed with according to your personal preferences.
  • I did not have a true paella pan with me, but instead used various pans. If you don't have a paella pan, the important thing is that it go on the range and in the oven.
  • Though I was cooking for 12, I've cut the recipe in half here, so it should make paella for about 5 or 6.
A generous amount of extra virgin olive oil
2/3 cup onion chopped
1 red bell pepper (or 1/2 red and 1/2 orange), chopped
1/3 bunch fresh parsley, chopped
1 medium carrot, chopped
5 cloves of garlic, minced

1 link of Spanish Chorizo, sliced into rounds about 1/2 inch thick
1 lb. chicken thigh or breast meat, cut into chunks
1 1/2 cups arborio rice

1 Tablespoon smoked paprika
1 tablespoon sweet paprika (if you only have one kind of paprika, just use 2 Tbsp of that)
Salt & pepper
1 1/2 cups crushed tomatoes (san marzano if you're serious)
32 oz. chicken stock (I used a veal/chicken stock I made earlier this year and froze--delicious!)
16 oz. fish stock (you could instead make a stock by boiling the shells of your shrimp)

15 to 18 clams
1/3 to 1/2 lb. of squid, cleaned and sliced (use tubes and tentacles)
1/3 lb. shrimp, peeled
15 to 18 mussels

Combine the first 5 ingredients in a large saute pan over medium high heat to make a nice soffrito. After about 7 to 10 minutes, add the garlic and cook for a few minutes more. Pull off the heat and set aside for the moment.

In your paella pan (it must be range and oven safe, remember) or cast iron, or whatever you're using, add the chorizo over medium high heat. Cook a few minutes. Spanish chorizo is already cooked, so you don't want to cook them too long, just enough to release some of that delicious grease. Once there is a nice bit of grease, remove the chorizo with a slotted spoon. Add the chicken to the chorizo grease and cook over high heat until the chicken is browned on both sides. Then remove the chicken.

Add a little olive oil to the remaining grease, and then add the rice. Cook for about five minutes over high heat, stirring here and there, until the rice begins to brown.

Add the vegetable mix to the rice, then the chorizo and the chicken. Then add salt and pepper and the paprika. Stir for a couple minutes over medium high heat. Then add the crushed tomatoes and both types of stock. Stir everything well. Place in the oven at 350 degrees for about 30 to 40 minutes.

Check to see if there is still a bit of liquid left in the pan. You don't want too much left, but you don't want your rice burning either.

Once the rice is about 15 minutes from being done (test it!), add the clams and the shrimp and return to the oven for another 10 minutes. Check it. If the clams are just starting to open, that's the time to add the squid and the mussels, both of which will take less cooking time than the clams.

Season with salt and pepper if necessary, and serve with a delicious crusty bread and plenty of good Spanish wine.


Joe Baker's Damn Good Salsa (and Huevos Rancheros Redux)

Finding this salsa recipe was a bit like finding religion, but better! I got both the euphoria and the feeling that I'd been wandering aimlessly for too many years before the discovery--but without feeling judged or having to listen to hymns that sound, perhaps unintentionally, like plodding, joyless dirges.

Now that I've trivialized something that billions hold dear and invited angry comments (there I go again, assuming actual readership exceeding five persons), allow me to apologize and talk about the salsa.

I have made my own salsa since I was a wastrel of a teenager in Albuquerque, New Mexico who couldn't cook a lick. Even as my kitchen skills have improved over the years, my salsas have only occasionally risen above shrug-producing.

A few weeks ago, however, while visiting one of my sisters in the tiny town of Boiling Springs, Pennsylvania, I was introduced to a real true connoisseure of good food, a scholar of history, and a mean blues harp player: Joe Baker. (You can check out his entertaining blog here, where he posits on a wide variety of subjects).

Joe treated us to some seriously good venison quesadillas. The salsa was addictive, and lucky for me (and now you), he relayed the recipe. I print it below in full in its original form. I've made it three times since, each time with different tomatoes and different combinations of peppers, and all of them have been great, if not as great as the original.

A couple weeks ago, a Sunday brunch gave me the chance to share the salsa with friends, topping as it did a near-perfect batch of heuvos rancheros. I'll freely admit I'm getting further and further away from the old-school standby of simply beans, eggs, and a tortilla. These days I'm crock-potting the beans overnight in a combination of san marzano crushed tomatoes, beer, ancho pepper, cumin, garlic, and parsley. The potatoes are half-boiled, then fried in a bit of olive oil and a good dose of cumin and smoked paprika. Then I serve it all with poached eggs, slab bacon, fresh cilantro, guacamole, flour tortillas, chopped jalapeno, and a good sharp cheddar. I was already entering the upper reaches of Paradiso with my huevos rancheros. Now that I've added this salsa, I can hear Beatrice singing and the Holy Ghost settin' the breakfast table.

Try it yourself, and see the light. And five million thanks to Joe Baker. I'll be making this salsa for years and years to come.

Joe’s Salsa


· 1 whole chipotle or about a tablespoon of chipotle powder (KM's note: I used chipotle in adobo sauce, since it was all I had, but you're better off with a straight chipotle or the powder)

· 1 whole ancho or about two tablespoons of ancho chili powder

· ½ teaspoon ground cumin or cumin seed

· About a cup of fresh or frozen fresh cilantro

· 1 whole fresh jalapeno (or whatever number you like to make the salsa spicy, cayenne’s work OK too) (KM's note: I'm a sucker for habanero, and it tastes good with this too, if you don't overdo it).

· A teaspoon of sea salt

· A heaping tablespoon (more or less) of brown sugar or honey

· 2 cloves of garlic

· ½ medium onion, diced

· 3 or 4 medium sized fresh, ripe home grown tomatoes or a large can of crushed tomatoes

Add everything but the tomatoes to a food processor and blend them thoroughly, then add the tomatoes and blend again. You can also make this by hand. Soak the dried chilies in warm water, then chop them and everything else together in a large bowl. Store in the fridge. Makes about a quart. This salsa has no oil and is not cooked. The garlic will go rancid in about a week. If you freeze it, it will get watery (although it’s still good). I guess that means you should enjoy it within a week! JB