Paella pan cooks up vacation
By JOHN CARAFOLI 
CONTRIBUTING WRITER

For six months, I had been staring at a paella pan hanging alongside the cast-iron pans I wrote about in my last article. I acquired this unique pan on a long-ago photo shoot involving a recipe for paella, but had never used it since. Now was the time, I decided, to either do something with the pan or get rid of it.

 


Seafood is nestled in this paella served at a Barcelona restaurant. 
(Photo courtesy of John Carafoli)

In looking over my many cookbooks, I came across ''The Catalan Country Kitchen: Food and Wine From the Pyrenees to the Mediterranean Seacoast of Barcelona” by Marimar Torres, president of the Torres Vineyard and Winery. in California. Among the many paella recipes I found there, I chose the seafood version, which I made and served to a small group of friends one wintry evening. Intrigued by the delicious and unusual but straightforward recipe, I returned to the book the next day, becoming absorbed by the ingredients and the cuisine of Barcelona and the surrounding area, realizing there was a whole new culinary world out there I knew little about.

 

Later that same day, I was embroiled in making travel reservations to Mexico, where for the past nine years my partner and I have escaped to enjoy the warm sun and food as a winter respite. This year things weren't falling into place. Frustrated, I finally picked up the phone and called an airline agent.

''What is the fare to Rome? Budapest? Even Barcelona?”

''Well, we do have availability to Barcelona,” she told me.

''What about a frequent flyer seat?” I asked.

''Yes, we can accommodate you.”

Bingo! Two seats booked for March 4.

Excited by the confluence of events, I wrote to Ms. Torres in California telling her how much I liked her book, and mentioning that I was headed to Barcelona and would appreciate a few restaurant recommendations. An answer followed almost immediately. ''I will put you in contact with someone who can help you,” Torres wrote.

A day later, I received an e-mail from a representative of her family's vineyard, The Torres Winery, located just outside of Barcelona. In addition to a list of suggested restaurants, the note included an invitation for an escorted tour of the winery, followed by dinner. Gratefully I accepted.

Bags packed, passports in hand, we were off. Landing in a strange country with only a few hours of fitful sleep is jarring to the system. At 8:30 a.m. Barcelona time we dropped our bags at the hotel and, anxious to adjust quickly to local time, headed to the nearest coffee bar for a quick café con leche (espresso with steamed milk). Revived, we set off in search of one of the recommended restaurants, L'Olive, not far from our hotel. When we arrived, a staff member greeted us warmly and handed us a menu. The delicious-sounding entrees, along with the inviting and stylish dining room and the aromas coming from the open kitchen, assured us of an excellent meal. We made a reservation for lunch, realizing that we wouldn't be seated for several hours. Lunch doesn't start in Barcelona until 2:30 or 3 p.m. Over the next several days we sampled many of the other recommended restaurants My friend Claudia Roden, author of ''Arabesque: Tastes of Morocco, Turkey and Lebanon,” also had recommended one of her favorites, La Clara, which we were looking forward to trying, particularly since Ms. Roden's forthcoming book focuses on the cuisine of Spain. We went twice.

Finally the day of our Torres Winery tour arrived. At 10 a.m. a sleek gray Mercedes arrived at the hotel to take us an hour outside Barcelona to the winery. We were greeted warmly by Miguel Torres Jr., nephew of Marimar Torres and Marc Perello Colomer, our gracious host.

The tour was fascinating not only because of the family's long history in wine-making (the winery has been in the same family since the 1800s) - demonstrated vividly in the excellent museum - but because of the winery's emphasis on ecologically sound production processes and techniques, such as minimizing use of pesticides and weed killers.

The tour finale was a superb lunch at Mas Rabell, their restaurant in a 14th-century farmhouse. Three wine glasses had been set before us for the first course along with a printed menu. Our host Marc poured white wines in each glass, describing each, as we sampled them along with delicate angel hair pasta in a red fish stock made of saffron and sweet red pepper, tossed with pieces of squid.

No sooner had we finished the outstanding first course and wines than four more glasses appeared before us, these containing the best of the Torres full-bodied reds, which accompanied a delicate second course of monkfish with white beans in a Romesco sauce (see recipe.)

The meal ended with the typical Catalan dessert, Crema Catalana, a rich version of the classic French crème brûlée, served with Torres' wonderful muscat dessert wine, Aqa D'Or. Dessert was followed by espresso and a choice of several after-dinner drinks including Torres Orange Liqueur and (my favorite) Torres Brandy.

After this sumptuous meal, I met Sergio Millet Corbera, the chef behind the magic. At 4 p.m., after a three-hour lunch, we were whisked back to our hotel in the Mercedes, where we took a brief siesta - the perfect ending to a perfect day in the country.

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Here is the delicious traditional sauce - a perfect match with seafood - that I was introduced to in Spain. The authentic peppers in this dish are Noras or Spanish whole dried peppers. I found them in a specialty store in New York; they may be difficult to find on the Cape. You may use any dried mild pepper. Here I am suggesting ancho chilies.

Monkfish With White Beans and Romesco Sauce

2 dried ancho chili peppers

1 head of garlic

3 to 4 Roma tomatoes

1/4 cup chopped onions

1/3 cup total toasted almonds and hazelnuts

2 (1-inch) slices of baguette, cut into cubes

1 teaspoon paprika

1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil

1 to 2 teaspoons red wine vinegar

Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

For the Romesco sauce: Place the chilies in a small saucepan, cover with water and bring to a boil. Cook for 10 minutes over medium heat, turn off heat, cover and steep for about 20 to 30 minutes. When cool, remove stems and seeds, reserve liquid. Set aside.

To roast the garlic and tomatoes, place under a broiler or in the oven until charred on all sides, turning frequently. Remove skin from the tomatoes, peel the garlic cloves and squeeze out the pulp. Set aside. Toast the bread cubes in the oven or put a little oil in a pan and sauté until lightly browned.

Heat a little olive oil in a sauté pan and cook the onions until lightly brown.

In a blender or food processor, puree the chili peppers, garlic, tomatoes, almonds and hazelnuts, bread and paprika. Add about 2 to 3 tablespoons of the liquid from the peppers if sauce becomes too thick. While the blender or food processor is running, add the olive oil, vinegar and salt and pepper. Turn off machine and adjust for seasoning.

Makes about 1 1/2 cups.

For the beans and fish:

1 (15-ounce) can white beans, drained and rinsed

1 cup fresh clam juice or fish stock

1 pound monkfish or halibut

Heat the beans and fish stock in a large skillet and simmer 10 to 15 minutes.

Dredge the fish with flour and pan fry the fish quickly on both sides just until light brown (do not cook completely).

Stir the Romesco sauce into the beans. Add the fish and finish cooking the fish in the mixture.

Serves 4.

Wine suggestion: Fransola, Torres Winery, Spain

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This recipe came from Marimar Torres' book. The special flavors come from taking the time to make the flavor base, sofregit and the picada. The rest will fall together easily and you will have a true taste of the Spanish paella.

When I tested this recipe, I added more shellfish; instead of scallops I added lobster meat. I also used Bomba rice from Spain.

Shellfish Paella

For the sofregit (the flavored base used in most Catalan cooking)

1/4 cup olive oil

1 pound red onions, minced (about 2 cups)

1/1/2 pounds ripe tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped

For the picada (a paste of various ingredients)

2 large garlic cloves, coarsely chopped

2 tablespoons fresh parsley leaves, minced

1/2 teaspoon powdered saffron OR 2 grams saffron threads

3/4 teaspoon salt, or to taste

3/4 teaspoon freshly ground white pepper, or to taste

For the rice and shellfish:

8 to 10 cherrystone clams, scrubbed

8 to 10 small mussels, scrubbed

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 pound squid, cleaned, bodies cut into rings and tentacles left whole

3/4 cups short-grain rice (see note)

2 cups fish stock or clam juice (homemade)

8 large prawns in their shells

1/4 pound large scallops

Note: You can use any short-grain rice but the best rice is Bomba. It swells up four times its size and absorbs more of the flavors.

To prepare the sofregit:

Heat the oil in a 12-inch paella pan or large skillet. Add onions and sauté slowly over low heat, stirring from time to time, until onions are brown and almost caramelized; it will take 45 minutes to 1 hour (add small amounts of water if necessary, so onions don't burn). Add tomatoes and increase heat to medium; cook until dry.

To prepare the picada:

In a food processor, finely grind all ingredients. Set aside.

Prepare the clams and mussels:

In a large pot, bring about 1 cup of water to a boil. Steam clams and mussels on a rack over boiling water until they open, 4 to 5 minutes for the mussels and 5 to 10 minutes for clams. Set them aside, discard any that do not open. Strain broth through a fine-mesh strainer and reserve.

To cook the rice and shellfish:

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a medium skillet, heat oil; add squid rings and tentacles. Sauté for 2 to 3 minutes, stirring. Add sautéed squid and their juices to the paella pan or skillet with sofriget. Stir in rice and picada.

Measure reserved broth and add enough fish or clam juice to equal 2 cups. Bring to a boil in a medium saucepan. Add to the paella pan or skillet and cook over medium heat for 10 minutes; gently move rice around so it cooks evenly throughout. Add prawns and scallops, pushing them down into rice so they are covered with broth.

Transfer paella pan or skillet (with heatproof handle) to 350-degree oven and cook another 10 minutes, or until rice is slightly underdone. Remover pan or skillet from oven, and arrange mussels and clams on top. Cover pan or skillet with a cloth and let it sit for 10 minutes.

Serve immediately, garnish with lemon wedges. Serves 4

Wine suggestion: A Marimar Estate Chardonnay Crema

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This is the traditional Spanish dessert proudly served all over Spain. It is a very rich dessert. I reduced the portions to make two instead of four servings.

Catalana

2 cups milk

1 cinnamon stick

6 strips of lemon zest

3/4 tablespoon cornstarch

2 tablespoons milk

6 egg yolks

3/4 cup sugar

Combine the milk, cinnamon stick and lemon zest in a medium-size saucepan and bring almost to a simmer over low heat. Cook the mixture 10 minutes. Do not allow to boil. Remove from heat and cool at room temperature.

In a small bowl dissolve the cornstarch with milk and set aside.

With an electric beater or whisk, beat the egg yolks with the sugar and dissolved cornstarch in a medium bowl until well combined.

Remove the lemon zest and cinnamon stick from the cooled milk and gently pour it into the beaten egg yolk and sugar mixture; whisk until well combined.

Pour custard through a fine-mesh sieve or cheesecloth into the saucepan and gently bring to a simmer over low heat, stirring steadily just until mixture thickens, about 8 to 10 minutes. Note: Do not boil or the custard will curdle.

Immediately divide the mixture into 4½-cup individual ramekins; let cool at room temperature, then cover loosely with plastic wrap and refrigerate 6 hours.

To serve remove plastic wrap and sprinkle each custard with a teaspoon of sugar in a thin layer and place under a preheated broiler to brown the sugar.

Makes 4 servings.

Dessert wine recommended: Aqa D'Or

(Published: April 18, 2007)