A person gets only one chance to choose how she (or he) will spend her (or his) 5oth birthday, and I chose well. But I didn't know how well until the day actually came.
My birthday happens to fall on December 25. My family of origin always made a wonderful splash of it sometime the week or two beforehand (thanks, Mom,) and for many years after moving away from home the tradition carried on, no complaints whatsoever from me. Hey, we're all a little busy on Christmas Day, right?
It so happened that this year would be the first in over 30 that My Baby, his three siblings and his mother would have the chance to all spend Christmas together. One of his sisters had just completed a fantastic house remodel in San Francisco and had graciously opened up her doors to the tribe, which meant we'd, food lovers all, be able to give her ne plus ultra kitchen its maiden voyage together. Marti's branch of the family would be flying in from Belgium, with Luc on holiday from his post in Afghanistan, and niece Jessica on holiday from her school in India.
And, Stewart and Michael had promised paella on Christmas Day.
Out of complete deference and adoration, my new husband wanted to be absolutely certain that I had the birthday celebration befitting of a woman of "a certain age," so our conversation about how we'd spend it (therefore Christmas) went a little like this:
November 5: "Baby, when are we going to tell your family that we'll be there for Christmas?""Not yet. I want you to really think about how you want to spend your birthday this year.""But I want to go. Let's call them.""Please, think about it some more. You know how much I want to see my family, but it's your 50th."November 15: "Sweet Baby, I think I'll email Nan and tell her we're coming for Christmas, OK?""Wait a little first, Pam. I really want you to have your special birthday wherever you want to have it.""But I want to go. Let's email them.""Not yet; think about it some more."November 30: "Dear Sweet Handsome Baby, in 26 days I'm going to go spend Christmas with your family in San Francisco and I'd really like it if you'd join me, this being our first married Christmas and everything.""Are you really, really sure?""YES! I've been saying yes!""Okay, good. I'll let them know."
So, the day was sublime, and I'm pretty certain it was the very first time in my life that my birthday was celebrated on my birthday other than the day I was born, and that I don't remember. There was a shower of special birthday presents, none of which were wrapped in Christmas paper, but rather flowery, colorful, ladylike wrappings. Birthday candles blazed on Belgian chocolate mousse prepared by Marti. Nancy had poetically described Christmas in San Francisco as being like the inside of a pearl, and she was right. Her new house (and outstanding kitchen) were full of warmth and hospitality. Besides that, I had none of the Christmas Day meal chores to attend to, and instead enjoyed the sheer theatre of Stewart and Michael working in absolute choreography to create the ethereal scents and sights that they did.
Did I mention? I chose really, really well.
And here, in yet one more generous gift to me (and to you as well, Dear Reader) are Michael and Stewart's instructions for creating the best paella you've ever had. Michael's been making this dish for over 30 years, and his refinements make it more than memorable. Do try it.
One last comment: I have not fancied up this recounting, as it is full of the exact types of things we all want when reading a recipe that we've never made before that seems daunting. This, in my opinion, is an absolute treat to get all the tried and true tips and tricks. Besides that, it is extremely entertaining and will give you insight as to one more reason the day was so terrific!
as recited to Stewart, then told to Pam, now being passed on to you
First, tell Stewart to buy fresh seafood. My preference is for "wild caught" shrimp, as opposed to the "tiger" or "grass" shrimp that are farmed and shpped from Asia. Actually, they would be fine, but all things equal, the American variety has better taste and texture. The cherrystone or small little neck clams came from the Asian markets on Clement Street. In San Francisco, we are fortunate to have Clement Street nearby with lots of fresh shell fish. Next time we might get the shrimp there and, we might even try a lobster which would work well cut into bite sized pieces.
Gorgeous Clams from Clement Street in San Francisco
Second, tell Michael to get up at 5:00 a.m. to prep the materials in advance (actually he was still on east coast time.) Most everything can be prepped in advance so that start to finish you can be social while cooking. Plan on 45 minutes start to finish.
All Prepped and Ready to Go
Michael's comments on paella pans: He uses a paella pan with lid, but a lid is not absolutely necessary. A large brazier or similar skillet would be fine as long as it is oven safe.
Pam's comment on Michael's paella pan: Michael's paella pan is large enough to serve as a bassinet for a small child. It's that big; a happy signal no one was going to go hungry.
Preheat oven to 425 degrees
2 sweet red peppers, coarsely chopped
French green beans - perhaps 25 or so- ends removed then cut in half.
2 sweet onions (Vidalia) coarsely chopped
3 cloves garlic, finely minced
12 shitake mushrooms thinly sliced in strips (decidedly not Spanish, but they have less moisture than other varieties, making it easier to control the amount of liquid as the rice cooks)
4 - 5 cups chicken broth, heated and ready to add as required (your may not use all of it)
3 generous pinches of saffron threads
24 cherrystone clams
20 16/20 count shrimp
12 small chicken thighs, skin on, trimmed (Michael is very particular about trimming all excess fat “any thing yellow doesn’t belong on it”)
2 slices of ham steak ½ thick, cut into strips about 2” long and ¾” wide (Stewart and Michael prefer Virginia ham. Some prefer smoked ham or sausage.)
salt and pepper
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 ¾ cup Arborio rice
Here, Here! to No Yellow Parts Left on the Chicken!
Season chicken thighs with salt and pepper. Add olive oil to to pan and sauté chicken thighs starting skin side down, medium high heat until browed on all sides. Set aside and reserve. Leave oil in pan.
Add onion and garlic to pan, stirring a few minutes until onions begin to caramelize. Add rice and stir until rice begins to become transparent on edges but NOT brown. (1 or 2 minutes, perhaps?) Add 1 ½ cup hot chicken broth. Stir. Add crushed saffron threads. Stir again.
Add sweet red peppers, mushrooms, green beans, and ham strips. Season lightly with salt & pepper. Stir well again.
Add back the chicken thighs and another cup of hot chicken broth. Place in preheated oven for 10 minutes. Check after 5 minutes to ensure that rice absorbing broth. The idea is to keep checking from here on out to make sure that you are adding broth as slowly as the rice can absorb it.
Add the seafood on top. If rice is dry you may need to add more broth but keep in mind that the clams will release more moisture and, herein is the trick. To monitor and balance the amount of juice and broth necessary to bring the rice to a nice texture – fully plump, without splitting, just beyond “al dente”.
Return to oven, cover with lid or foil. (Not totally necessary to cover but this might affect the time necessary to open clams and cook seafood.) Cook another 15 minutes but peek every 5 minutes to gently stir rice (without disturbing shellfish) to help distribute moisture to enable the rice to suck it up. It might be necessary to add broth in judiciously to obtain the correct texture.
Intent Paella Chefs Michael and Stewart
Many thanks to my family, old and new, who have made all of my years rich and wonderful. Love to all!