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myMEGusta

Named for things that please me (“me gusta” in Spanish) and rhymes with balabusta (Yiddish for “good homemaker”).

Archive for the month “May, 2017”

Paella, The Heavenly Rice Dish of Spain

Paella!

When trips to Spain are coming up, myMEGusta’s thoughts turn to paella.

Paella at Madrid’s Mercado de San Miguel

Paella on the beach! Paella in the moonlight (the locals do dine late)!

Pronounced pah-eh-yah, not pah-LAY-lee-yah, this mélange of rice and meats and/or seafood and/or vegetables transcends the idea of chicken and rice. It’s usually made with special paella rice, akin to the Arborio rice used in risotto. It is always cooked uncovered, and the quality of the ingredients (e.g. really good stock, the proper rice, fresh seafoods and such) and the sequence in which they are added make a huge difference. The “socarrat,” crisped rice at the edges and on the bottom of the pan, is an important part of the delicacy, and servers make sure everyone gets some.

Costa Brava Paella at Etapes in Barcelona

Like the great pasta dishes of Italy, paellas reflect local ingredients.

The best known type, from Valencia, is traditionally made with chicken and snails, although you won’t find the latter is most modern renditions outside of the city. Paella originated here, a major rice growing area, and was named for the unusual pan in which it is cooked, the “paellera.”

The owner of Etapes, a favorite Barcelona restaurant (http://www.etapes.cat/en/) , warns customers that theirs is the “local” paella, Costa Brava style, not the Valencian. I was delighted with this shellfish rendition – hefty shrimps, razor and cherrystone clams and mussels – from the seaside region northwest of Barcelona.

Black Paella at Madrid’s Mercado San Miguel

Then there is black paella, made with squid ink and shellfish. It sounds odd, looks odder, and is an exquisite creation that sings of the sea. Lovers of risotto nero, an Italian relation, will also adore this dish.

Paella, made correctly, is such a production that most of what is consumed in Spain is purchased ready-made at the market, like in this photo from Madrid’s Mercado de San Miguel (two versions!) or from paella specialist caterers. Outside of Spain, you’ll find superb examples at places like Borough Market in London.

Paella at London’s Borough Market

One restaurant in Barcelona’s Las Ramblas market specializes in paella, which you watch cooking through a window, and it is on this year’s must-try list.

Paella Simmering in the Restaurant Window

Ambitious home cooks do make it, and my MEGusta has enjoyed a superb example, which took hours to create, in the home of Minnesotan friends.

And, there are festivals, large groups of people gathering late into the night to indulge in paella made in super giant paella pans on wheels. (You cannot make this up: The pan’s diameter was as wide as the man was tall.) The fixin’s for this “fideua,” a pasta based variation on paella, were in view from the sidewalk, mountains of dried egg noodles and other ingredients that were just being organized for a VERY late night feast. Maybe this is where the idea for Rice-A-Roni came from?

Giant Paella Pan

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Fresh Minty Bevvies

Saturday, May 6, is Kentucky Derby Day, a time for celebration among horse lovers and an excuse to pull out the fresh mint!

Actually, it’s always a good time to enjoy fresh mint. The best will come from farm markets when they open in a few weeks here in New England, but good produce departments and ethnic, especially Indian, markets have it year round.

Mint Julep

The Mint Julep used to be the most famous drink utilizing fresh mint. It also incorporates sugar and bourbon, traditionally served in a silver or pewter cup with lots of crushed ice. Some people muddle the mint and sugar together (releasing the mint aromas), others make a syrup, and lots of folks serve it in a regular rocks or cocktail glass. Thousands of these will be served in Louisville, KY, on Saturday, and race viewers will join them in hoisting this treat as they watch the race televised around the world.

The most popular mint drink today is the Mojito, a Havana, Cuba, native, and very similar to the Mint Julep. It’s a little time consuming to make it right (and why bother if not?). First you take perfect mint leaves, washed, then put into a glass with sugar. Muddle them together, not long enough to destroy the leaves, add rum and fresh lime juice, add club soda, add ice and garnish with a sprig. One fine day, when lime prices go back down, it will make sense again to garnish with lime slices as well, but this is cosmetic, not adding flavor, so can be skipped.

Mojito

It is said that this was a favorite libation of Ernest Hemingway, but this may be apocryphal, made up by a restaurant he frequented or by other promoter in history.

Recipes for both cocktails are plentiful on the internet. Just beware of sponsored sites supported by brands other than good bourbons and rums, as they’ll tell you to use the wrong spirit, which might (or might not) be tasty, but will definitely not be authentic.

Muddled Mint Leaves

Don’t be daunted by the term “muddling”! This simply means that you smash the leaves around a bit, the sugar providing the texture to bruise the leaves a little. And, you don’t need to buy a muddling tool, which does make it easier, and also sets you up to make a traditional Old Fashioned, a bourbon drink with crushed fruit. You can use a spoon with nearly as good results.

A wonderful, non-alcoholic use of fresh mint is simply to infuse in hot water, and have mint tea, which is a step above what is made with ubiquitous tea bags.

If you have bought a bunch of mint leaves, and it’s just too much for the amount of Juleps or Mojitos (or Indian recipes) you are making, you may be able to root the sprigs. Simply put the stems into water, set on a window sill, and wait. If you are lucky, they will root, and you can pot or transplant to the garden. If not, have some more Mojitos next week, or the week after, as the mint will stay in great shape.

One safety note on these mint drinks: It’s a raw vegetable, and treat it as such if you are tempted to order one in any location where the water quality would cause you to avoid eating salads.

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