May 22, 2014

PAELLA 101


                


I was a senior in High School, a John F. Kennedy Spartan in Barstow, CA.  I was in the  last graduating class of this unique school, structurally designed and built to withstand earthquakes. The cement walls were extremely thick and they leaned, yes we had leaning exterior walls.  The school also had an awesome Senior Lawn and Senior Well in the library, it was the fall of 1976, going into the graduation year of 1977.  



John F. Kennedy High School 


Our Mom died in May of 1974, Grandma and Grandpa Arosemena traveled to Barstow from the Republic of Panama and stayed with us for months and months; Grandma Chichi especially trying to lessen the grief in our lives by loving us like only a Grandmother can love.

My older sister and brother, Ana and Roger were away at college. Toby, Carlos, myself and Dad lived at 108 College Court and it was always wonderful when Grandpa Rogelio and Grandma Chichi were with us. The world was safer, the days rounder, the afternoon time with Grandpa always fun, the grocery shopping at Vons and Safeway with Grandma Chichi always adventures. During their stay Grandma Chichi had full command of the kitchen, she was amazing; anything she prepared for us from cream of wheat to roast pork and coconut rice, memorable !  

My Grandma's favorite store in Barstow, CA 


I had the pleasure of sharing one of her signature dishes with my Spanish IV class when we convinced our teacher, Mr. Obrien that we should have a potluck with foods from all Spanish speaking countries.  I signed up, well I signed up my Grandma Chichi to make Paella and indeed we did, it was a masterpiece of culinary execution. That day I had no idea I had signed up and volunteered myself for a life love lesson, that  30 + years later I would be writing about. It is a memory I will cherish all my life.


~ ~ Grandma Chichi ~ ~ 


Paella for Grandma Chichi was an invitation to consider, prepare, shop, plan and execute the creation of a “serious” and delicious dish served in the traditional Spanish ceramic casuela.  And because of all the years we lived in Panama, we had several of these types of dishes. At 108 College Court, we had a U shaped kitchen, my Mom designed the space with lots of counters so we could comfortably prepare, cook and clean up when everyone was home, Dad, Mom, Ana, Roger, Elena, Carlos, Tobias, in addition to friends and neighbors. After all we were the family blessed with the Kool Aid MOM, we were always the house on the block where all the children gathered after school or during summer, we even had a pool.  We had the traditional holiday cookie decorating weekend with all the neighborhood children, we had marshmallow roasting nights, all the activities that Cool MOM’s know how to and make happen. 

Our Mom never got to fully enjoy the 108 College Court house; she had her first surgery in June of 1972.  A week or two before we moved into that new address, the Stage IV ovarian cancer got in the way of all those plans.   Grandma Chichi was an angel in our lives. She loved our MOM very much and she always included, remembered, talked about her as much as she could to ensure that we remembered the JoAnn who was healthy, the JoAnn who lived in Panama and had a wonderful life, the JoAnn who was a wonderful Mother, wife and daughter in law.  My Grandma reminded us of these memories as much as she could, I can hear her saying…. “Tu Mama, JoAnn”….. when she began sharing a story or a memory. Grandma Chichi I will be grateful to you for this forever !

The first consideration of making the Paella for Mr. O’Brien’s Spanish class: the grocery list.  My Grandma had to be exact, she did not miss any details.  I had no idea what all was involved and soon learned. Grandma made the “real Paella” as she called it, the Paella de verdad, with chicken, shellfish and Spanish chorizo. Many people can’t imagine all those flavors competing together, Grandma Chichi wouldn’t think of making a Paella any other way. For her the flavors never competed, if cooked masterfully, they always “complemented each other.” In addition to the main ingredients listed above and of course rice, there was also peas, carrots, red peppers and asparagus, mixed in both the rice and for decorative purposes.  How I wish I had taken a photo of the paella when it was ready to be delicately covered with foil and packed in the back of the station wagon to take to school. The dish was a work of art and the taste:  imagine one of the top ten meals you’ve ever had in your life, this Paella would be on your list, competing for the # 1 spot.  If you don’t like rice, well forget it.  If you like rice, Paella is a signature dish.

Back to the grocery list, my Grandma loved to write on lined paper.  I have 78 letters that she wrote me over the years, all of them are on lined school paper. I remember the list being documented in order of how the food would be prepared, or as I learned, “how the Paella would be constructed”.  Her handwriting was always beautiful. Her letters, both the small and capitals filled the line space perfect. The round letters were consistent in shape and size, any letter that was tall, was proud tall, the pen stroke for letters like l, t, h, f, always robust and confident.  And of course she wrote the list in Spanish, all the words capitalized:

Arroz, Cebolla, Ajo, Pollo, Langostinos, Chorizo, Azafran….etc.


Sample of her handwriting 


With the list complete and reviewed once or twice, off to Vons we went. I loved going to the grocery store with Grandma Chichi. It  was like visiting a museum, she appreciated every isle, she looked at all the items carefully, anything she pulled from the shelves to consider, she reviewed the label, the ingredients, always as if handling a work of art.  I watched her carefully, she loved the grocery store outings. The placement of items in the shopping cart always strategic, cold items together, vegetables and fruits had extra space to prevent bruising, eggs always in the top section of the cart, it was an art.  There was never going to the store with Grandma Chichi and being in a hurry.  And she always allowed and welcomed the “grandchildren” additions to the cart: Twinkies, popsicles, sodas, Butterfingers, you know the drill.  

The Paella took two days to make. The potluck was on Friday, we started the Paella Thursday afternoon when I got home from school.  I remember we cooked the chicken thighs first.  And it wasn’t any chicken, it was carefully selected thigh pieces that she trimmed to perfection. They looked like little chicken thigh soldiers ready for battle. She cooked them in GOYA aceite de oliva with just the right amount of chopped white onions and fresh pressed garlic and of course salt and pepper.  The thighs were perfectly seared. The chicken was set aside. She did the same with the chorizo, reserving the liquid in the pan from both ingredients.  The rest of the afternoon was spent getting the vegetables cleaned, cut and ready to use the following morning, red bell peppers, carrots, asparagus and peas and always more onions and garlic.

The next morning we cooked the shrimp, again all of the pieces cleaned, gutted, shells removed. She cooked the shrimp in a large pot of boiling water for what seemed only a few seconds, she knew the exact color the shrimp had to be to signal they were ready to be removed.  The shrimp water was reserved to cook the rice, she said this was one of the secrets to a Paella tasting like Paella and not Arroz con Pollo which is another famous dish eaten in many Latin countries.  

Now I was getting nervous, the rice had to be cooked and with the delicate assembly to follow.  My Grandma was extremely careful to ensure that the rice did not get mushy, the timing of how long to cook the rice before assembling the beautiful causela and finishing all the cooking and warming in the oven, she knew exactly what to do and when.  The rice was cooked in a separate dish with the shrimp water. When it was time, she transferred the rice in the large casuela with peas and carrots mixed in. She gently folded in the chorizo chunks, then layered the shrimp and chicken and decorated the top of the dish with asparagus and rings of red pepper.  It was beautiful, like an edible tropical merry-go-round. The pieces were assembled with exact spacing, with enough of the rice uncovered so it could cook appropriately when heating up in the over.  She was like a surgeon, precise, exact, not one pea or small piece of carrot was out of place, not one piece larger than another.

My Grandmother must of known, as I am sure all wise Grandmothers know, this was a special time between us. She took her time, explained all the steps, allowed me to peel and cut right along wit her.  She let me taste when she tasted, she explained in detail what she was looking for and she always told me that her secret ingredient in any dish she prepared: LOVE ! ! ! I know she also was very partial to three other staple ingredients in her cooking, onions, garlic and as she called it, salsa soya or soy sauce.

Needless to say the PAELLA was a hit. Many of my fellow classmates had never seen or tasted a dish like this, they were thrilled. Mr. O’Brien was very pleased with the outcome of the potluck, we had amazing dishes from all of our classmates.

This experience with my Grandma Chichi allowed me many years later to have the courage to make a Paella on the spot. It is a long funny story, I will blog about it one day, I have reliable witnesses of what happened.  And since that successful Paella event in Easter of 2009, I’ve been brave enough to make 2 more and they were quiet tasty.

This is the last one I made a few years ago 


I recommend the Saveur Mixed Paella recipe.  
I’ve used this each time and if you follow as written, it works.   

BUEN PROVECHO ! ! ! and ENJOY ! ! !