On Mardi Gras I wasn’t eating pancakes but I was at Pimentón learning how to make paella. Don’t worry; I ate enough to keep things in the spirit of day. Gathered for the class were writers and bloggers who all share a passion for food. Our teacher was Chef José Arato who actually became a chef by way of accounting. Sizzling Communications, an inspiring duo, put the event together. Being in a room with such talent and spirit made me feel sheepish about not, I mean, inspired to be writing on this blog more often.
We started the class with a demo of how to make our dessert: Ice Cream Turrón. The base of the ice cream is a simple vanilla custard and José, who has worked as a pastry chef, did something so obvious that it made me palm my forehead at the brilliance of it. When he was scraping the vanilla pods he did what you normally do and then, this is the brilliant part, to ensure all the little seeds were used he scoured the pod with the sugar that vanilla was going into. I’m usually trying so desperately to scrape every last seed out that I practically shred the pod in my in my effort to be frugal. Eventually, at the end of the night, the ice cream was served with a drizzle of Tuccioliva olive oil and Sal de Ibiza. Yum! But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Next we did some of the prep work for the paella a la valenciana. About eight of us were stationed at cutting boards with knives ready (my knife could have been sharper, just sayin'). Some diced the red peppers while others chopped the onions. I did the latter and let me tell you, that onion was one strong beast; I was teary and sniffly for an hour. I dashed to the hand washing station to make sure my mascara wasn’t running. When it came time to clean the squid I noticed a few were not eager to take on the task. It was my first time cleaning one and when you turn it inside out it is vaguely sexual somehow. I’m on a roll: lately I’ve tried crickets and cleaned squid. What’s something else that others are squeamish about that I can try next?
Good cooking usually is sensual – and I don’t mean over-the-top Nigella style. I mean you feel, taste, and listen to your ingredients. Since most of us don’t grow up at the knee of some aged Spanish relation learning to feel our way through the dish learning from one who knows is a real treat. When we moved into the kitchen and hovered around the range it became clear paella isn’t exact; you eyeball it. We all watched, I should say photographed, while José showed us when to put liquid in the pan, how to agitate – not stir - it, how to finish the dish with a slight burn on the bottom. I have to say I was amazed at his patience with the photo taking. The paella was bubbling away when it was ready for the rice and everyone had to get a great shot of the rice bag!
Throughout the evening we had tapas to nibble on. One really should just nibble because the there’s so much more to come. An escalivada – eggplant and pepper salad – was served along with the paella to round off the meal. I’d never had this style of paella before but I can see why the dish is so famous. The complex layers of flavour from the chicken stock to the mussel cooking water, from the parsley to the saffron, this is the kind of dish that inspires debate about who has the best one because there is so much room, even if you doggedly stick to the classic ingredients, to really express yourself in the kitchen. Looks like I need to get myself one of those space-eating single use kitchen gadgets – a paella pan.
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