Culinarily Yours: It’s a Process – Paella

Part 1 – Chicken and Sausage

Although I may not be in front of the stove for our next adventure, I am in full swing as sous chef for our dinner.

Our little band of six –  known to ourselves as “wine group” – have gathered for the evening, but I can no longer truly say we’re about the wine. We are definitely more about the food these days. The wine is just a plus.

Our entree will be a paella, with a New Orleans influence. Chef Husband turns up the heat on the paella pan and begins the process by sauteing the onions and chicken (that have been diced into large chunks) in olive oil.

Meanwhile, I will grab a head of garlic and press it with the heel of my hand to break it open and separate the cloves. We only need a little over half the cloves, of which I will trimpeel (gotta love those little silicone garlic peelers!) and thinly slice. Notice I didn’t say chop or mince. We want to keep as much of the flavor of the garlic in the actual garlic and not ground into the cutting board.

As the cooked chicken and onions, along with any pan juices, all come out of the paella pan, the next batch of ingredients are on deck. The sliced garlic makes its debut first in the pan alone, then followed by green bell peppersred bell peppersgreen onions and Andouille sausage (again, all diced into large chunks).

Once they have cooked, they will join the chicken off to the side and we will begin our next layer of ingredients.

Part 2 – Shrimp and Mushrooms

On to our next ingredients. We have some lovely shrimp, that still have their shells ON, but have been deveined (intestinal tract removed). Why are the shells still on? Flavor. Bones and shells have tons of flavor, which is why they are great for making stock. Also, the shells allow them to be better protected from over-cooking.*

Speaking of over-cooking, here is a trick I learned…
All of the shrimp started out in contact with the pan, but of course some cook a little faster than others. For those, just move them up on top of the other ones to finish. Now they are no longer directly on the hot surface, which will slow down their cooking. **

Side note, it’s very interesting how the shrimp start out an unappetizing grey and slowly develop to a beautiful shrimpy-pinky orange, when cooked throughout. Of course, I had to Google why. Answer: astaxanthin, a pigment compound in the carotene family that reacts to heat. Now we know.

After the shrimp move on to join the chicken and sausage in the done zone off to the side, some sliced crimini mushrooms (aka baby portabellas) get their time in the paella pan. Also good to note, additional oil can/will be added to the pan, as needed, as it is absorbed by the foodstuffs. ***

Meanwhile, over on prep, I have been tasked by Chef Husband to make an aioli. No recipe, just a bowl and a whisk and some ingredients, and my taste buds. To a generous scoop of already prepared mayo, I whisk in some fresh squeezed juice from a lemon, some granulated garlickosher salt and a few twists of black pepper, to taste. So the flavors can meld, the aioli will hold in the refrigerator, while the rest of the entree continues to be prepared.

Notes from Chef Husband:

The shrimp we used were 16/20 count. Shrimp, as are many proteins, are sized by the number of pieces in a pound (16 wt. oz.). Thus, having a 16/20 count would give us roughly 18 pieces, which would weigh just under an ounce per piece.

** You must not allow shrimp to overcook, because they will become a texture similar to the bottom of your tennis shoe. Stacking them on top of each other in the pan, with the nearly cooked on top, slows down their cooking process, allowing all the proteins to be finished cooking at the same time. Remove them when just-cooked to a room-temperature plate.

*** Large portabella mushrooms should not be substituted. The more mature fungus will give your dish a brown color from its open “gills”.

Part 3 – Rice

Meanwhile, after finishing the aioli, I am on to my next task as sous chef, making a quick chicken stock.

When you don’t have hours to make a stock (and who does), what do you do? You grab a bottle of Knorr® Professional Liquid Concentrated Chicken Base, and add it to hot water. I call it liquid chicken, even though that’s usually the term for eggs. *

Over on the stove, Chef Husband has rice going into the seasoned paella pan. Typically for a paella you would use a short-grain Spanish rice, such as bomba or calasparra, and it would be cooked until it’s somewhat crispy on the bottom. Nevertheless, we have arborio rice on hand and Chef Husband is going to prepare it creamy risotto style. A couple months back, we touched on how to cook arborio rice, with a method that requires continuously tending to the rice, and that same technique is going to be used here. **

Chef Husband starts with browning the rice, this time using half clarified butter and half olive oil. Once the rice is slightly amber in color, the stock is repeatedly ladled in, just enough to cover the rice, and then allowed to reduce. My first batch of stock wasn’t enough, and it was a little weak in flavor, so I made a second batch that was a bit stronger, to compensate. My takeaway, you could follow the recommended ratio on the back of the bottle, or you can go by what tastes best, but beware of over-salting with a base, especially if many of the upcoming ingredients have higher sodium content.

Once the rice is al dente, the unique seasonings for this dish are added, gumbo filé and saffron threads, bringing a lot of color and fragrance. And finally an adequate amount of heavy cream is poured in, enough to coat the rice completely, followed by a few handfuls of grated fresh Parmesan cheese. After a little more time on the stove, we’re looking at cheesy creamy goodness. ***

So now our paella, already heading in a Cajun direction with the Andouille sausage, has a creamy risotto base. Chef Husband may be on to something new here. Shall we call it a Cajun Pae-Sotto?

Notes from Chef Husband

* Basically, there are many types of chicken base/flavorings, ranging from a simple chicken boullion to the Knorr® product recommended above. Like anything else, you  get what you pay for, the more chicken, the more flavor. I would simply recommend a product that has salt listed in the ingredients no higher in volume than third.

** Slowly adding the stock, as it both absorbs into the rice and evaporates, allows the starch to become a creamy consistency.

*** Many different cheeses would work good in the adaption of this recipe, such as Feta, Oaxaca and Mizithra. Just be careful of the final salt content of the dish.

Part 4 – Garnish

In our long journey of paella, we are now rounding the bend, to reach our final destination!

With the risotto done, everything we have been working on previously, the chicken, the onions, the peppers, the sausage, the mushrooms and all the seasonings, now go back into the pan, on top of the risotto. *

A new addition to the ingredients were stems of cilantro. While the risotto was risotto-ing, I was over on prep, separating leaves of cilantro from the stems (for garnish at the end). Nevertheless, the soft yet crisp cilantro stems, also work well for adding flavor. They will also go atop the paella during the final presentation. **

And finally, one last mollusk is going to join the group, some steamed clams. These clams were already steamed and flash frozen, so Chef Husband popped them into the microwave for a couple minutes, to bring them up to temp. Then with their little clammy smiles face-up, even more cheese rains down upon them. ***

Into a 350° oven, the entire paella pan goes, for about 10-12 minutes, until hot throughout.

One last step in the process…garnish. The aioli has been done since way back (by yours truly), and now it’s time to drizzle it across the top of all this yummy deliciousness, and sprinkle it with the cilantro leaves and stems. Our over-sized bowls are hot-hot, straight from the oven, and finally our Gumboesque Paella/Risotto is ready to serve.

Onto the center of the dinner table the paella pan takes its place, where we can all then dig in and finally enjoy, with a nice glass of wine ****. Oh yeah, remember we got together as wine group to try various wines, but really, the food has taken center stage. *****

As SIRI would say, “You have arrived. Your destination is above.”

Notes from Chef Husband

* Here you have an opportunity to “Show me the MONEY” and place your ingredients in an exciting arrangement that will best showcase the ingredients used.

** Always be thinking…”Flavor”. Never throw anything away that might contribute to flavoring your foods, either the one you’re working on, or another.

*** Remember not to cover your hard work and presentation by completely covering it with cheese. It should be looked upon as an additional flavoring element.

**** There are certainly a lot of bold and subtle flavors within this presentation, so when considering wines I would go toward a wine fairly high in acidity. This will cut through some of the richness, as well as serve as a palate cleanser, especially with a complicated dish with such and expansive flavor profile. Consider a slightly chilled (55 degrees) Sauvignon Blanc or perhaps a nice herbaceous, yet crisp and clean, Viognier.

***** That was my plan from the beginning, hee hee. Please, don’t tell Chef Wife 😉

Until next time…

Culinarily Yours,
Mrs. Chef (Christa)

Christa DeMercurio

Instead of a New Year’s resolution, Christa DeMercurio asked her chef husband to be her tutor/mentor/sage (not the herb) for the 2018 year, teaching her his tips, tricks and wisdom in the culinary department. She figured that after over a decade together, their bakers dozen year should be a fun journey of cooking. Her husband, Cal DeMercurio, has been in the food service business since, well, forever (40-ish years). When it comes to the restaurant life, she's been more comfortable in the Back Office and sometimes Front of the House, but never really ventured into the professional kitchen. She's obtained a few skills by observing her husband over the years and then experimenting here and there at home. Now she's ready to take her apprenticeship to the next level. You can read her blog, Culinarily Yours, here.

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