Title - Natalie Knezic
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Cooking Evolution: from Alphagetti to Paella
Follow Me on TwitterNatalie Knezic
Cooking Evolution: from Alphagetti to Paella
Although the paella does not follow the tenets of what textbooks say is regionally authentic (i.e. made with rabbit and snails), I call it so because many generations of the women in my friend's family made it just this way.

London - Apr. 8, 2011 - Unlike my love of wine, my zeal for cooking was not inspired by my family. Sadly, there are no nostalgic memories of standing on a step stool watching as my mother whipped up homemade pies or specialty dishes. In fact, I was too busy adventuring in neighbours' gardens or biking down nearby dirt hills to care. Don't get me wrong - my mother is an excellent cook, and her cabbage rolls are by far the best in the northwest hemisphere. Even two of my stalwart vegetarian friends eat them just once a year as a form of rebellion to their purist dietary ways (yes, smoked pork ribs and all). The ability to replicate mom's soups still eludes me, and her European pastry work at Christmas puts domestic bakeries to shame. So why, then, was I not born with a wooden spoon in my hand?

Being raised in a decade where instant food was a novelty - and for some God-forsaken reason a desired trend - I was subjected to the era of the instant. How can one be moved by a lunch of Alphagetti? At best, this may have somehow subconsciously inspired my ability to string sentences together, but that would be a stretch.

There are two significant memories that I attribute to my love of cooking and nurturing people with food. The first is of my daily trips to the market as a child with my grandmother. Both of my parents worked, and my grandparents were my daycare providers. They lived downtown a few short blocks from our local market, and this could not have been a better environment for me to be raised in. The market building was full of textures and colours to stimulate the imagination, and then there were the smiling faces of the food vendors and the occasional free slice of Halva from the brothers who ran the Greek deli. Much like Europeans today, my grandmother shopped for fresh food every day – there were no bulk purchases for the week at the local grocery store.

Second inspiration? I had a Spanish friend from Madrid who seemed to weave magic with even the simplest of salads. I tried my first rabbit at her home, my first pisto and - most importantly - my first paella. My evolution in the kitchen was wrought with trial and error in my twenties, motivated by the goal that I would one day cook as well as my Spanish friend. Little did I know just how much I would grow to love cooking and spending time in the kitchen, and I am so thankful for my exposure to the dishes of Spain.

I will never forget when I first learned to make an authentic Valencian paella, the recipe for which is presented below. My friend Sandra and I crowded around the stove and watched the Spaniard's movements as layer upon layer of flavour was built into the shallow paella pan. Thankfully Sandra had the sense to write it all down, or I may not be sharing this recipe today. Although it does not follow the tenets of what textbooks say is regionally authentic (i.e. made with rabbit and snails), I call it so because many generations of the women in my friend's family made it just this way. How can one live in a region of Spain with a lengthy shoreline along the Mediterranean coast and not put seafood in paella? The rabbit and snail version may have been inspired by those living further west in the interior.

Sandra was visiting from Ohio last weekend, so we decided to make paella for the first time in ages. Half the fun was running to different markets to collect the extensive list of ingredients. The end result was such a nostalgic pleasure to eat, and although the recipe requires a paella pan and a healthy dose of improvisation with timing, I hope at least one of you will be adventurous enough to give it a go.

Note: the recipe below is suited to a paella pan with a lip-to-lip diameter of approximately 14 inches.

Paella (serves 6)
12 whole, fresh shrimp with heads
12-15 small clams, rinsed and drained
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 large tomato, finely chopped
1 medium green pepper, finely chopped
1 medium Spanish onion, finely chopped
1 large red pepper – roasted, peeled and sliced into long strips
3 large cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 can chunk tuna packed in oil, strained
1 large chicken breast, chopped
6 three-inch pieces of pork rib tips, or riblets
1 1/2 cups medium-grain white rice (preferably Spanish)
1 can broad beans (reserve their liquid in a bowl)
1 can artichoke hearts (reserve their liquid in a bowl)
1/3 cup green manzanilla stuffed olives, drained
Handful of flat-leaf parsley, chopped
1 bay leaf
1 gram saffron
3 lemons cut into wedges or cheeks
Sea salt to taste

Preheat oven to 400F.

Place the clams into a bowl of cold water and discard any that are not fully closed when gently tapped. Remove and discard the legs from all of the shrimp. Add six shrimp to the bowl of clams and set aside.

Remove the heads and shells from the remaining six shrimp – do not discard. Clean the digestive tracts along the back of the shrimp, wash them, and refrigerate until needed later in the process.

Heat the olive oil in a paella pan on medium heat. Add the shrimp heads and shells, stirring for approximately five minutes to extract their flavour. Remove with a slotted spoon and discard, leaving the aromatic oil in the pan.

Add the onion to the oil and fry on medium until translucent; about three minutes. Add green pepper and fry until softened; about three minutes.

Add the chopped tomato and garlic, stirring to combine, and simmer on medium until the vegetables break down and form a slightly thickened sauce.

Add the tuna, chicken, and pork ribs, stirring to combine.

Add the broad beans and artichoke hearts, together with their juices.

Add the olives, rice, saffron, bay leaf and parsley to the pan, stirring to combine all of the ingredients. Taste and season with salt if required.

Press the paella gently with the back of a wooden spoon to create a smooth, even surface. If the existing liquid does not slightly cover all the ingredients, slowly add water until it does.

Bring the paella to a simmer and monitor for approximately 15 minutes. If the liquid evaporates before the rice is fully cooked, continue to add a little bit of water as required to keep it simmering. Do not stir the paella – it needs to form a lovely crust (called socarrat) on the bottom of the pan.

When the rice is almost fully cooked, remove the cleaned shrimp from the refrigerator and press them into the paella, allowing them to sit below the surface. Take the six whole shrimp and arrange them on the surface of the paella in a radial pattern. Lay the strips of roasted red pepper between the whole shrimp in the same pattern.

Press the clams into the paella along the perimeter, allowing the shells to open facing up. Place the entire pan into the preheated oven for a few minutes until all the clams have opened and the shrimp is cooked.

Serve the paella from the pan at the table, and make sure everyone has lemon wedges or cheeks to squeeze over the top of their serving – the citrus hit is amazing.


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