Ever since I was young I have helped my mom cook in the kitchen, whether it is something as simple as scrambled eggs or pancakes, ranging all the way up to Chicken Cordon Bleu and above. I absolutely love cooking; cooking shows, making food, cooking books, and eating out. If it weren’t for the few exceptions of mussels, calamari, and a few more eclectic tastes, I’d dare say I am quite the food aficionado.
Whereas I’ve gotten much older than the days of my youth, I have become significantly more affluent in the delectable art that is cooking. I always tell my friends, ask me to make anything and if I don’t know how to make it, I’ll learn how very quickly. There’s not much in this world that intrigues me like designing a dish or preparing a new meal, and it’s something that I am extremely fond of doing.
I’ve watched my mother for years, preparing all of our families and other friends’ favorite meals. Whether it was Chicken Cacciatore, Beef Wellington (I’ve always loved pâté), or Peking duck, there’s just been so many dishes I can barely remember and name them all. One, however, has held the position as my favorite, all-time meal since the first time I tasted it. Previously that position had been held by the likes of spaghetti with marinara and even my mom’s homemade chicken noodle soup; but nothing compares to the first time I tried Paella.
It was love at first bite. Succulent shrimp, tender chicken breast, delicious gandules, and soft jasmine rice among a myriad of other ingredients all baked slowly for about an hour. Top it off with a little splash of Goya hot sauce and I’m in heaven. I never thought I’d ever be able to recreate that magic in a casserole dish like my mom had done as though it was second nature, until recently.
In the past, if I were to be craving that wonderful amalgam of my ultimate delight, all I would have to do is simply ask: “Mom, can you make some paella for dinner tonight?” and within a few hours, it would be seated in the middle of the kitchen table. But just like every other simpler dish I had watched her prepared that I enjoyed, I had a deeper desire now; I needed to learn how to make it. I remember the first time I made such an attempt, it was nerve racking, but now I can prepare it at nearly that magically level I fell in love with. I dare say I am able to make it with my eyes closed – even though I might incur a few minor and possibly major cuts by doing so.
Garlic, Onions, Scallions: Check. Green and Red pepper, Olives, Cilantro: Check. The night prior I always go out and purchase everything I need to make it. I break out the same casserole dish that my mom uses and once all of the necessary ingredients are in front of me, I take a deep breath before delving any further.
I’ve got my knives sharpened and the cutting board ready. First things first, the garlic and olives need to be minced, the onions and scallions diced, same with the green and red pepper. Once that is all chopped nicely and pushed as neatly as possible to the edges of my giant cutting board, I push forward. Next item on the agenda, I peel the shrimp and cut the chicken breast into square chunks and place them into their perspective separate bowls, easy peasy.
Now it’s onto the microwave defrosting of my mom’s homemade chicken stock. Yes I cheat a little, but not only is it nice to make a combination of old and new favorites, it makes the rice considerably more succulent than just using straight water to slow boil it in the oven. Once that is done, it’s time to sauté the chicken breast pieces with a little canola and hot garlic oil making doubly sure to only brown the chicken, otherwise it’s tough after the slow bake. A few grinds of black pepper; a generous pinch of sea salt. My array of diced, minced and chopped onions, garlic, peppers, and other veggies go in after. Next comes the most important ingredient, saffron.
I’ve heard that it’s an acquired taste and I have gladly acquired it. My mind races as I try to keep the pace with what I’ve seen my mom do.
Right as the chicken is about ready, I throw the rice in to brown that a little as well, along with the gandules, shrimp and cilantro. As all of the seasonings and flavors marry in my oven, the delicious aroma starts to fill the kitchen and I know that I am roughly half way there. The familiar smells delight my nostrils and tantalize my olfactory senses. My mouth begins to water.
As soon as the browning is nearly finished, in goes my mom’s homemade chicken stock, some chives and a few other dry herbs to complement the other already strong and delicious flavors. I let it simmer for about five minutes longer and toss it gingerly into the oven at 325-350°. Almost there, and it’s at that point that the anxiousness starts to creep up on me, so much so that I can nearly taste the anticipation!
After tidying up all the dishes and utensils I’ve used to prepare everything, I meander around the kitchen impatiently awaiting the completion of this delectable dish. I check the clock sporadically and peek into the oven every now and again to check on the progress. Despite my eagerness I must keep from altering the cook time with my eager observation or else the texture of the dish would suffer. Thirty minutes transpire and I almost always try to pull the dish out early just because of my taste buds sheer anticipation, but I resist because I know it’ll only be that much better if I stay patient and let it run its course. Just a little bit longer now.
Finally, the timer on the stove goes off and it’s time to take the Paella out and let it sit for a second and think about what it’s done. It’s always better to let a dish’s flavors to further marry once it is complete, the anticipation makes it all the better. I call upstairs and into the living room alerting the family to the meal. As I hear the first clamoring of movement I quickly sneak a bite out of the covered dish, so as not to alarm the others. Everyone piles in and gathers around the table. Everyone may be excited to eat, but none more excited than I. The cover comes off for the first time to the populous and the hyenas converge.
You know you’ve done well when the entire table is silent while eating, save for the occasional panting break due to an overzealous hot sauce dosage. I love Paella an incredible amount, as I said it quickly became one of my favorite dishes to eat and make. As pleasing as it is to my pallet and as happy as I am to partake in the amazing multitudes of tastes, there’s nothing more pleasant to a cook than seeing that everyone else is enjoying it as much as myself. Love at first bite? Bon Appetit!