Wednesday, February 18, 2009

When in Spain, do as the Spaniards do

Mario Batali is probably a household name by now, at least among New Yorkers. The chef, together with his business partner Joe Bastianich, owns over six hot restaurants in New York City; Babbo Ristorante e Enoteca is their flagship Italian restaurant. Batali has also won many culinary accolades. In 2002, he won the James Beard foundation's "Best Chef: New York City" award. He has also written many books.

But Batali may be on your radar for another reason: This fall, his new PBS television series, Spain, on the Road Again, is bringing the flavor of Spain to kitchens near you. The show documents Batali and his three co-stars, one of whom includes Gwyneth Paltrow, on a road trip eating their way through Spain. Batali's version of Spanish Paella was recently aired on the Oprah Winfrey Show.

On President's Day, my family decided to embark on a little culinary adventure of our own.

CHALLENGE: Recreate Batali's paella. Here, I chronicle our first attempt.

Above, close-up shot of the final product.

Mario Batali's Paella
Ingredients: Makes 6 Servings

-10 small to medium chicken drumsticks

-1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil

-2 cups medium shrimp, enough for about 5 per person

-1 medium Spanish onion, cut into 1/4-inch dice

-1/2 cup pureed ripe tomatoes

-1 tsp. kosher salt, or to taste

-1 tsp. saffron threads, crushed

-2 tbsp. sweet pimenton (Spanish smoked paprika)

-1 lb. Manila clams, scrubbed

-4 quarts chicken stock

-2 cups bomba or other shortgrain rice (arborio and risotto do just as well; we used arborio)

-1 cup freshly shucked peas

-10 spears pencil asparagus, stalk cut on the diagonal into 1/4-inch thick slices

-1-inch pieces of sausage

Directions: Preheat an oven to 400 deg. Place the drumsticks on a baking sheet and season all over with salt and extra-virgin olive oil (we pan-fried them). Bake for 20 to 22 minutes and set aside.

In the meantime, heat a 14- to 18-inch paella pan over medium-high heat. Add the oil and heat until smoking. Add the shrimp and cook until golden brown on both sides, about 3 minutes per side. Transfer to a plate and set aside. Add the onion to the pan and cook until soft, about 8 minutes. Push the onions into the center of the pan and sprinkle 2 tbsp of the salt around the edges of the pan.

Add the tomato puree, stirring it into the onions, and cook for 3 minutes. Add the remaining salt, saffron, pimenton and cook, stirring, for 5 minutes. Add chicken stock, bring to a boil, and cook for 5 minutes. Add the rice and stir it well to distribute it evenly. Add clams, drumsticks, arranging them nicely throughout the pan (the sausage and shrimp can also go in at this point). Then add the peas and asparagus and bring the stock back to boil, and cook, without stirring, for 10 minutes. Taste for salt and add it if needed, then cook, again, without stirring, for 10 more minutes, or until the liquid is completely absorbed and the pan starts to make a crackling noise (don't worry, this is what you want).

Remove from the heat and let rest for 10 minutes before serving (this sets the flavor).

Slicing and priming the ingredients.
Clockwise, from left: onions, olive oil, red and orange peppers, shrimp, paprika

Pan-frying the shrimp and sausage slices.

The sauce, before the addition of chicken stock and rice.

Voila! Our family-style paella.

After an hour and a half of prepping and cooking time, we realized that the key to the Spanish way of approaching food is slow. No rush, just savor the delicate morsels and pop a flask of red wine (not pictured). The arborio rice soaked in and retained the rich hints of seafood, sausage and vegetables. Gwyneth Paltrow is known to have eaten an entire pan of the rice alone. Now I can finally see why.

RESULT: Success! Next time, we'll be sure to use that paella pan so the rice doesn't end up soupy (ordered it from Amazon and it should be arriving in 4-7 days).

And there you have it -- the taste of Spain without even having to pull out your passport!

The Secret Garden

Apologies, as I'm still behind on my entries from LA. However, I thought I would provide a glimpse into the Huntington Library in San Marino. Although it is called a library, the actual library comprises only a fraction of all the art and culture in this non-profit institution. Mr. Henry E. Huntington was a man with a love for art, books and gardens. Inside his estate, you'll find vintage books and manuscripts, an extensive art collection with paintings from the 17th to 20th century, botanical gardens and plant life. The most eye-catching gardens are the Rose Garden, the Japanese Zen garden, the Desert Garden and the newly constructed Chinese garden.

Above: Following my aunt through a mysterious tunnel to the Asian gardens. It looks almost enchanted, no?

More tunnels, and I feel like this is an edition of 'Where's Waldo?' (I'm not stalking my aunt, really -- she's the one in the red coat). I wish I knew what kind of trees these were, but the overhanging branches made to resemble tunnels are a remarkable architectural specimen, similar to ones I've seen in The Getty. It's like bringing a little bit of the indoors (flattened trees resembling ceilings) to the outdoors, with natural sunlight flickering in through window-like lattices.

Above: Japanese Zen garden. Props to the guy rockin' the turquoise turban.

Red berries, in the dead of winter. The color reminds me of smashed tomatoes. Not that I smash tomatoes.

The Chinese garden had a koi pond with pretty mallard ducks. That green head caught my attention as a ten-year-old. I remember buying a mallard beanie (back when beanie babies were all the rage) at the Audobon Center in Sharon, Conn.

Pink flowers in bloom.