A taste of Spain
|A deliciosa dinner for a group of gourmands|
The crowd closed in tightly, oohing and aahing in hushed tones as if they were watching a piece of performance art. Instead, it was the preparation of the Spanish rice dish paella—complete with flourishes of the wrist, a symphonic clanging of spoons, rising steam plumes and rapidly evolving layers of colors and aromas—that was holding this group spellbound.
Gathering on an early autumn afternoon in the country, members of the local branch of the international gastronomic society known as the Chaîne des Rôtisseurs found themselves in the middle of an elaborate ritual that has taken place around the world for hundreds of years.
Today, paella is a perfect American party food, but it began as a peasant meal served in orchards in 18th-century Spain. What better dish, then, to serve at an al fresco gathering of a food- and wine-oriented group with roots in early European traditions?
So thought Travis and Bertha Taylor as they began to schedule this dinner party for the Chaîne, an organization “devoted to preserving the camaraderie and pleasures of the table.” Travis serves as bailli, or chief officer, of the group's Baton Rouge branch, and his wife Bertha was born in Cuba and has a strong Spanish heritage of her own, including grandparents who hailed from various parts of Spain. The Taylors knew exactly who should host the party and prepare the authentic paella: surgeon Jorge Isaza, who along with his wife Ana is a native of Colombia and has a passion for preparing this passed-down dish. The Isazas had recently built a country home in the picturesque Lake Rosemound community north of St. Francisville and were equally enthusiastic about sharing Jorge's beloved paella and their new getaway with this group of friends.
Travis says he and Bertha joined the Chaîne several years ago, intrigued by its offerings of “exceptional culinary experiences paired with fine wines.”
“It piqued our interest because we both love good food, good wines and great company, and those are Chaîne trademarks,” he says.
Those pleasures are integral to life in south Louisiana, but the Chaîne itself is based on practices of the old French royal guild of meat roasters from as long ago as 1248. The modern-day society was founded in Paris in 1950 and was introduced in America a decade later, providing an avenue for gourmands and oenophiles to get together for regular fine-dining events and parties. It also provides scholarships to culinary arts schools and related educational programs.
For this Spanish-themed dinner party for 31 members and guests, Travis and Bertha worked with catering firm Heirloom Cuisine to formulate a menu that would be highlighted by the much-anticipated paella. “I sent recipes from my Spanish cookbooks that I wanted served, and Chef Jason Roland and his team executed them perfectly,” says Bertha.
After guests arrived and began mingling in the bucolic setting, Jorge donned his chef's coat and made his way to a special corner of his outdoor kitchen designed especially for cooking paella. The dedicated space provides plenty of room for the massive pan, sitting atop a ringed gas burner, used to cook this dish for a crowd. What guests didn't know is that he and Ana had begun prepping for this dish days in advance by cooking a complex broth that would serve as its base. “The broth is the key to the flavor,” Jorge explains. “It's Ana's specialty.”
With help from close friend and frequent paella partner Enrique Hurtado, Jorge began adding ingredient after sizzling ingredient to the pan, stirring and shaking until the elements were in place. Alas, it was not yet time to dive into this seafood feast; the paella had to simmer and its flavors meld together for a final few minutes before being deemed ready to eat.
That didn't mean guests would go hungry in the meantime, of course. The array of culinary indulgences began with passed hors d'oeuvres, including Spanish ham and cheese croquettes, Argentine beef empanadas, fig and goat cheese tapas and gambas al alcaparra, or honey-caper shrimp, complemented by a refreshing white sangria and two specially selected Spanish wines.
Once seated at tables on the front porch, guests enjoyed a salad of baby greens with fruit and feta cheese drizzled with Champagne vinaigrette. The paella followed, paired with a rich white wine from northwestern Spain. After a third course, of pork tenderloin with caramelized apples and a grilled vegetable medley called escalibada, the evening's decadence concluded with a coconut flan served alongside the Spanish dessert wine Alvear Pedro Ximénez Solera 1927.
Even amid so many delectables, the paella, as planned, was the showstopper. “Oh my goodness!” Bertha declares. “It was wonderful. Even guests who have enjoyed paella in Spain said that this one was fabulous. It was the perfect dish, especially because the preparation was a work of art and a delight to the senses.”
2 750-ml bottles Spanish white wine, such as Albarino, Viura, Verdejo or Sauvignon Blanc
¼ cup Spanish orange liqueur
½ cup orange juice
½ cup lemonade
½ cup superfine sugar
½ cup sliced pear
2 apricots, pits removed and cut into thin wedges
2 peaches, pits removed and cut into thin wedges
½ pound seedless white grapes
1 750-ml bottle Prosecco, chilled
Combine wine, orange liqueur, orange juice, lemonade and sugar in a large pitcher, and stir until sugar has dissolved. Add fruit, and stir well to combine. Cover and refrigerate until well chilled, about 2 hours. Just before serving, stir in Prosecco.
Spanish Ham and Cheese Croquettes
2 Tbsp. butter
2 Tbsp. olive oil
¼ cup chopped onion
5 to 6 Tbsp. flour
1/3 cup milk
6 Tbsp. chopped ham (Serrano, if possible)
½ cup grated Manchego cheese, divided
Salt and pepper to taste
1½ cups seasoned breadcrumbs
Oil for frying
Heat butter and olive oil in saucepan over medium heat until butter has melted. Add onion; cook for 3 to 5 minutes. Add flour; stir constantly for 2 minutes until mixture is thick. Stir in milk. Whisk in ham and ¼ cup cheese. Season with salt and pepper. Allow to cool.
In a small bowl, beat eggs together. In a separate bowl, combine breadcrumbs and remaining ¼ cup cheese. Using a spoon or scoop, measure about 1 tablespoon cooled ham and cheese mixture, and form into sphere or oval. Roll in egg wash, then in breadcrumb mixture, and set aside. Repeat with remaining mixture.
Deep fry croquettes in oil in small batches. Serve warm.
This is an ever-changing recipe, but here are the basics:
3 lbs. chicken breasts, cut into small pieces
1 pork tenderloin, cut into small pieces
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 Spanish onion, diced
1 red pepper, cut into small pieces
4 garlic cloves, crushed
1 bunch flat-leaf parsley leaves, chopped, reserving some for garnish
2 Spanish chorizo sausages, thickly sliced (optional)
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
5 Roma tomatoes, peeled and petite diced
4 cups short-grain Spanish rice
6 cups homemade chicken broth (see Cook's note below)
1 dozen littleneck clams, scrubbed
1 lb. jumbo shrimp, peeled and deveined
8-oz. dry white wine
2 lobster tails
1/2 cup sweet peas, frozen and thawed
1 small jar Spanish large green stuffed olives
1 red pepper, cut julienne style, for garnish
Generous pinch saffron threads
Lemon wedges for garnish
Marinate chicken and pork (using your favorite marinade) for at least 1 hour in the refrigerator.
Heat oil in a large paella pan or wide shallow skillet over medium-high heat. In the same pan, make a sofrito by sautéing onion, pepper, garlic and parsley. Add chorizo and sauté until browned. Add chicken and brown on all sides, turning pieces with tongs. Add salt and freshly ground pepper. Add pork and brown on all sides. Cook for 2 to 3 minutes over medium heat. Add tomatoes and cook until mixture caramelizes a bit and flavors meld. Fold in rice and stir-fry to coat grains. Pour in homemade broth and simmer. Add clams and shrimp, tucking them into rice. Shrimp will take about 8 minutes to cook. Add wine. Give paella a good shake and let it simmer, without stirring, until rice is al dente, about 15 minutes. During last 5 minutes of cooking, when rice is filling pan, add lobster tails. At this time, add peas and green olives, and garnish with julienne peppers. Add saffron threads. When paella is cooked and rice looks fluffy and moist, turn heat up for 40 seconds until you can smell rice toast at the bottom; then it's perfect. (The ideal paella has a toasted rice bottom called socarrat.)
Cover, remove from heat, and let stand for at least 15 minutes before serving. Garnish with parsley and lemon wedges.
Cook's note: Two days before the paella, make a hearty homemade broth. We don't really have a recipe for it; we just put in all the vegetables we can think of along with chicken. This broth will be the full flavor of the paella. You also need to put saffron in the broth so that the rice simmers in this. The broth is cooked for at least 6 hours. Once it is hearty and ready, take out the big chunks of veggies and meat, but don't fully strain it. Then put it in the refrigerator until paella time!
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