Paella is a regional dish my husband, Don, learned to make in Spain years ago when he was in the business of buying and selling horses that took him all over the world. He made the acquaintance of the beautiful, enchanting “Sangria Lady” and the wizened paella chef touting their wares on the coast of Valencia. Whether the enticement was the food, the wine, or the lady is anybody’s guess (I’m going with the lady) but the result is the same: magic!
He has adopted this as his signature dish which he makes for the lucky diners who happen to be in his circle when the urge to make one strikes. The key ingredient, aside from saffron, is chorizo. Here in Costa Rica we have yet to find the right chorizo. We have chased down every lead given by friends, acquaintances, and strangers. We’ve been to fancy markets in Escazu, tiny mom ‘n pop places, tiendas and carnicerias as far away as Parrita in search of the spicy sausage that when simmered in the paella pan emits a burnt orange oil that gives the dish the right color, flavor and consistency.
At one point, we bought pig intestines and made our own. We got a Mexican chorizo recipe from the internet, followed the directions exactly and still, it wasn’t right.
I would think, being a dish from Spain, the Spanish style chorizo would be authentic. Nope. Too dry.
Last year we went to California for a quick visit in the Sacramento area. We hunted down a Mexican market and bought ten pounds of chorizo. We split it into two separate triple zip-locked baggies, and we each shoved a package into our suitcase. If one got busted, maybe the other would make it. We did the happy dance when we got home with both bundles of chorizo present and accounted for. We made the guest list for the dinner party the following evening. It would take most of the next day to gather the rest of the ingredients.
We had purchased a magnificent paella pan at a restaurant supply house in San Jose named “Tips”. Here you can find quality gourmet accoutrement. It will cost almost double compared to U.S. prices, but at least you can find most things.
It’s a challenge to find the right food stuff. Coming from the northern coast of California, I took for granted going into Phil’s Fish Market in Moss Landing, where everything is available in one spot; lobster, scallops, shrimp, fresh fish and squid. In Costa Rica, if you’re lucky, PriceSmart will have clams and mussels in the frozen section. Automercado might have saffron although the last time we bought it, the price was too cheap, so I thought it must not be real. Saffron is made from the stems of flowers which makes it labor intensive and pricey.
Chicken thighs are easy to find, but getting the right cut is another story. The first time we bought them from the butcher in Atenas we didn’t pay attention expecting the “muslo”(thigh) to be the meaty chunk above the leg. Instead, we got a bony cut inappropriate for paella. I made soup and went shopping for more thighs. The recipe calls for six. I bought three whole chickens and cut it up myself. At a surprising $8.00 per chicken, this dish was getting expensive. I had enough extra chicken parts to start a soup business. Hmmmmm….Carole Jean’s Jewish Penicillin; with matzoh balls, of course.
Chef Don put together a scrumptious paella, charming the dinner guests as he manned the special gas burner we bought for the occasion. Turns out we had an abundance of ingredients – too many to fit in the pan. The solution? A larger pan! And more dinner guests.
Play your cards right and get on the invitation list. When it comes to Don’s paella, you don’t want to be on Seinfeld’s “Soup Nazi” bad side: “No paella for you!”
One way to get on the list: smuggle in some Mexican chorizo. Another way: sneak in some lobsters, my favorite ingredient! Do either, and I’ll make the sangria!
By the way, the paella recipe will be in my cookbook, “It’s the Parsley” which is coming soon.