Make Mama Look Good
When I got a recipe for lobster paella from Washington, D.C. chef Jos Andres, co-author, with Richard Wolffe, of Tapas: A Taste of Spain in America, I have to say, I was pretty excited. I mean, lobster paella from an internationally-lauded Spanish chef? Does it get any better than that? I couldn't help but think back to the days when my college pal K and I spent two months traveling through southern Europe with packs on our backs and a gleam in our eyes, not to mention a budget of 15 bucks a day. For food and lodging.
I miss those days. Well, actually, not the part where we couldn't afford dinner most nights. Or, come to think of it, the part where both the men and the mosquitoes got unbearable at dusk. But the rest of it, I miss. The adventure of it all.
Because while my life is many things these days, "adventurous" isn't one of them. But paella - that's adventurous, if only because it's kind of an involved dish. In fact, would I even have the time to make Chef Andres's paella? When I looked over the recipe, I knew right away: absolutely not. If I did it right, I'd be making fish stock from scratch, cutting up a whole lobster, buying a paella pan, and taking an hour to stew up a Catalan sofrito (the chef's version of the classic tomato and onion sauce) before I even cracked open the rice. Then there were all things Spanish to find: olive oil, onions, saffron, paprika.
But then I remembered: This is for Make Mama Look Good, so I don't have to do it right, as long as the end result is tasty. Problem solved. I accepted that the olive oil would not be Spanish, but instead Greek and Italian (two bottles meeting their end in this one meal); the paprika would have to be Hungarian; the saffron's origin was undetermined; the onions, from Boston-area soil. Though the food writer in me shudders at some of the compromises I make in the kitchen, the mom in me knows that unless I want to eat pasta every night, compromise is the only way to go. And so, while I bow down to Chef Andres from afar, if we were going to eat paella it would have to be my version of his stellar recipe; i.e., well-intentioned, but highly imperfect.
I got to work this past Saturday, the day before friends were coming for dinner. When another mom came into the house to drop off her daughter for a play date and asked, "What smells so good?" I casually responded, "Oh, it's just sofrito for a paella I'm making." That was a good moment for me.
What wasn't quite as good was thinking about the chef's instructions for carving up a live lobster. My husband BD and I talked - could either of us slice open a living creature? And in the end, the answer was a resounding and unsophisticated: No. (See Good News for more on lobster murder.) I bought precooked. I'm sure it would be better shell-on, but such is life. (And death, if you're a lobster.)
I'd like to say that this paella took me right back to Spain, but of course, thanks to limited funds, my friend K and I had barely eaten in Spain. But I can say that as it cooked, it looked and smelled incredible. There was even the "nice shine" to the top as the chef had said there would be. When it was done, I called 10-year-old E over to try a spoonful. He got an "I smell cat food" face, took a small bite, then said that rice was under-cooked, it tasted too strongly of saffron and - "What else is there to eat?"
But BD and I begged to differ. It was indeed al dente, as it should be, and elegant, and aromatic, and simply delicious. BD even had seconds, which is highly unusual. As I did the dishes, my friend stood by the stove, scraping the last bits of paella from the bottom of the pan. In fact, now that I have all that sofrito left over, I think I'll be making Jos Andres's Chicken and Mushroom Paella next ...
(Note: Once you have the sofrito made, paella is seriously easy to whip up. And if you follow the recipe below, you'll have leftover sofrito. Freeze it in an ice cube tray then store the cubes in a freezer bag so they won't take on any bad flavors. When you're ready for your next taste of Spain, the chef says to thaw it slowly in the fridge (so it doesn't get watery) and use about two cubes' worth per paella recipe.)
Lobster Paella by Jos Andres of Washington, D.C.'s Jaleo
1 small Maine lobster (1 to 1 pounds)
2 tablespoons Spanish extra-virgin olive oil
6 ounces fresh squid, cut into small pieces
cup sofrito (recipe below)
1 garlic clove, finely chopped (about 1 teaspoon)
3 cups fish stock (I'm not giving the recipe because enough is enough - I really recommend buying some)
1 pinch Spanish saffron threads
1 tablespoon salt
1 cups Spanish Bomba or Calasparra rice or, if you can't find either, or Arborio if you can't. *See below for a Note about the rice.
If you're using live lobster:
Using a very sharp knife, separate the lobster head from the tail. Cut the lobster head in half, putting the blade between the eyes. Slice through the head cleanly, then cut it into quarters, and cut the claws in half. Cut the tail into 6 medallions.
In a paella pan over high heat, sear the lobster medallions in the olive oil for 1 minute. (Compromise Grrl just used a large shallow frying pan with curved sides. The point here is to maximize the amount of rice touching the bottom of the pan.) Remove them from the pan and set them aside.
If you're using cooked lobster, start here:
Reserve the cooked lobster for later.
Add the squid to the pan and sear for 15 seconds. Add the sofrito, stir, and cook for 1 minute. Add the garlic, reduce the heat to low, and cook for 3 minutes.
Pour in the fish stock, raise the heat, and bring to a boil. Crush the saffron and add it to the pan. Season with salt. (Make sure it's just a little bit salty; the rice will balance out the saltiness.)
Add the rice, taking care not to dump it in a pile - spread it evenly around the pan. Cook for 5 minutes over high heat, stirring frequently with a wooden spoon. You'll see the rice floating around the pan at this stage. If it's not, the mixture is too dry and you should add another cup of stock or water.
If you're using the just-killed version, place the lobster head, claws and medallions on top (if you're using precooked, though, still keep it on the side) and reduce the heat to low. After this point, never put your finger or anything else in the rice. (Of course all I want to do now is put my finger in the rice, but I won't, because "If I do, I will break the natural film that forms on top of the paella and the rice will cook unevenly.") Maintaining a slow boil, cook for 10 minutes, or until all the liquid is absorbed.
At this point, while the rice was bubbling away, I sauted the cooked lobster in a separate pan with some unsalted butter and a touch of saffron just until it was warmed through.
Set the paella aside for 3 minutes, add in the cooked lobster if necessary, then serve right away.
*About the rice: Although I really wanted to try the Bomba or Calasparra, guess which one I ended up using? If you, too, use Arborio, the chef says to make sure to check the box for the right amount of stock as each rice is slightly different. The Arborio I used didn't say, but 3 cups of stock was just right.
Makes 3 cups
10 ripe plum tomatoes (or one 28-ounce can of peeled whole plum tomatoes)
1 cups Spanish extra-virgin olive oil
4 small Spanish onions, peeled and finely chopped (about 4 cups)
1 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon pimentn (Spanish sweet paprika, although I only had - gasp - Hungarian)
1 bay leaf
Cut the tomatoes in half. Place a grater over a large mixing bowl. Rub the open face of the tomatoes over the grater until all the flesh is grated. Discard the skin. (The tomatoes I found looked so saggy that I went with canned. I drained and finely chopped the amount I found in one 28-ounce can.)
Heat the oil in a medium saucepan over a medium-low flame. Add the onions, the sugar and the salt. Cook, stirring occasionally with a wooden spoon, until the onions become soft and tender and turn a light brown color, about 45 minutes. You want the onions to caramelize. If they get too dark (as mine almost did), add tablespoon of water to keep them from burning while they cook.
Add the reserved tomato puree, the pimentn, and the bay leaf. Cook for another 20 minutes over medium heat. You'll know your sofrito is ready when the tomato has broken down and deepened in color, and the oil has separated from the sauce.