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Wednesday, September 19, 2012

*my pan overfloweth.

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I am many things when I am in the kitchen: I am busy, I am focused, I am thrilled and open and curious and excited. The one thing I am not is calm. 

Or very good at estimating volume.

The too-small-pan phenomenon is not a foreign one to me; I often operate with a sort of "welp, we'll see!" approach to fitting food into the correct size cookery.

I also, however, become furiously flustered when that tack fails me (often), which tends to render me sort of paralyzed and foot-stompy.

Luckily I had my kitchen conscience in the house to keep me sane (ish), and I managed to pull this off with only Category 3 whining.

It started, I thought, as a brilliant idea—it was the mother's birthday, and she'd made only two requests: "spicy" and "fish." Fish, as it turned out, was a serendipitous choice, because the pescatarian was joining us. Being that the table would be a party of seven, I needed something that could feed a crowd but still qualify as a weeknight meal and please the palates and dietary restrictions in the room. Paella seemed like the natural choice.

I strolled through the Internet looking for just the right notion, and there are lots of great varieties out there. But TFin and I had made a tremendously tasty Bolognese sauce recently that surprised me as being an Emeril recipe. That early success made him a frontrunner for my trust (disregarding that handy rule about not making for company any recipe you haven't tried before).

This is not a traditional Spanish paella; the flavors are definitely born out of Emeril's bayou roots. It did have just the right amount of familiar heat and spice (and $10 worth of saffron ohmywordsoworthit). This was my first foray into bivalves, but my helpful local fish market (open the plastic bag before you put them in the refrigerator at home so they can breathe), a little Internet research (don't let mussels sit in melted ice or they'll drown), and some helpful advice from my food editor (try the water + flour trick for optimal cleanness) and my mom (let your mussels and clams sit for a minute after they come off the heat and they'll open further) made it a success.

My amazing Whole Foods butcher guy cut a whole chicken for me just the way I wanted it, and I omitted the lobsters completely. They seemed unnecessary and hugely expensive (also—selfishness alert!—I don't like lobster), but if you're going for impressive I think they'd make this dish really look incredible.

So HEREIN lies my quibble: What's pictured here is my sister's paella pan, specifically named thusly and part of a wedding set of cookware that included all sorts of sizes and shapes one might not normally buy for oneself, e.g. a paella pan. I don't know the exact dimensions, but trust me when I tell you that this thing is huge. And yet all I had to do was get the chicken browning to know that this mess was not even going to come close to fitting. I'd read the recipe ratings (lotsa stars, good sign) and comments, one of which said, "I ... used bomba rice (requiring me to use 50% more stock, of course." Now, I found this famous, paella-specific bomba rice at Whole Foods, but I was only halfway through the amount of stock actually called for in the recipe when everything started to overflow. And if you've ever tried to work with an overfull pot/pan, you KNOW how difficult it is to stir. And what a continuous mess you're going to make. (This might have been when things started to get very agitated on my part.)

Ergo, fair warning: Unless you can somehow transfer your bathtub to your stovetop, this is going to be something of a messy business. Ultimately it turned out I didn't actually need that extra stock after all, but one word on that, as well—I thought I'd aim for authenticity and decided to buy Emeril's branded stock, but I wouldn't do that next time. I'd choose a low-sodium option; with the Cajun seasoning already doing the heavy lifting flavor-wise, overall this felt a bit too salty to me.

It occurs to me that I have undersold this recipe on the whole—I promise that it was delicious, impressive enough for entertaining, fun to eat (after the first few servings people just kind of dove in with their hands), and satisfying (I managed to produce that elusive socarrat, a personal first!).

Just bear in mind that you're going to wind up with a big mess and try not to stress out too much, and you will have one amazing dinner.

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Louisiana Paella

1 (3-pound) chicken, cut into small pieces (about 8 to 12)
2 teaspoons salt
Freshly ground black pepper
½ cup olive oil
1½ cups chopped yellow onions
¾ cup chopped green bell pepper
¾ cup chopped celery
6 tablespoons minced garlic
1½ cups chopped andouille sausage
3 cups uncooked paella rice
1½ cups chopped tomatoes
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
1 tablespoon hot sauce
9 bay leaves
3 tablespoons Creole seasoning
½ teaspoon saffron threads
6 cups low sodium, fat-free chicken stock
36 scrubbed littleneck clams
36 mussels, scrubbed and debearded
18 medium shrimp in their shells
Garnish: fresh parsley leaves
Tomato Bread (recipe below)

1. Sprinkle chicken pieces evenly with salt and pepper; pat in seasoning with your hands. Heat oil in a large deep saucepan over high heat. Add chicken, and sear until brown on all sides, about 4 minutes. Add onions, bell pepper, celery, garlic, sausage, and rice; cook, stirring 2 minutes. Stir in tomatoes, Worcestershire, hot sauce, bay leaves, Creole seasoning, and saffron, and simmer 1 minute. 

2. Add 3 cups stock, stir well, and bring to a boil. Cover and cook 4 minutes. Uncover, and add 3 more cups stuck, stirring well. Cover and cook 4 more minutes.

3. Add clams; cover and cook 4 minutes. Add mussels and shrimp; cover and cook until rice is tender and mussels and clams open. (Discard any that do not.) Remove bay leaves; garnish, if desired. Serve with Tomato Bread. Makes 8 to 10 servings.

Tomato Bread

1 large baguette, halved lengthwise
Olive oil
Kosher salt
2 garlic cloves, halved crosswise
1 tomato, halved

1. Preheat broiler. Brush baguette with olive oil; sprinkle with kosher salt. Broil baguette 3 to 5 minutes or just until center is golden and edges lightly brown.

2. Rub hot toasted bread with cut sides of garlic cloves. Rub with cut sides of tomato, squeezing tomato slightly to release juices. Makes 8 servings.

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I am a work in progress. I perpetually need a hair cut. I'm totally devoted to my remarkable nieces and nephew. I am an elementary home cook and a magazine worker bee. (Please criticize my syntax and spelling in the comments.) I think my dog is hilarious. I like chicken and spicy things. I have difficulty being a grown-up. Left to my own devices, I will eat enormous amounts of cheese snacks of all kinds.

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