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Tuesday, July 29, 2014

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Well Intended: Sangria at the ready, a quest to make the perfect paella

Published 6:57 am, Friday, July 4, 2014
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My quest to make delicious paella began a couple of years ago, when a friend gave me a paella pan that her father had given her for Christmas. Certain she was never going to use it, she dropped it off at my house and wished me luck.

Delighted, I set out to find the perfect seafood paella recipe and gathered ingredients. I cooked down a sofrito of tomato, onions and peppers over low heat until the kitchen smelled like what I imagine a Spanish cook's might. I browned the Bomba rice and mixed in saffron and homemade chicken stock. The only paprika that I had on that first attempt was Hungarian and figured that it would do. The resulting dish was so heavily seasoned, it was almost pasty. I was thankful that we had made sangria that night as well and enjoyed the boozy fruit in the bottom of my glass much more than the brick red rice dish that was stuck to the bottom of the paella pan and stained my dish towels.

I am not one to easily give up. There are many people who make paella beautifully, and I could see no reason I couldn't be one of them. Plus, this paella pan was now occupying valuable cupboard space. It needed to earn its spot.

I tried a different recipe. I watched Internet cooking demonstrations. I bought two types of smoked Spanish paprika. I tried again and then again. On the second attempt, the rice never really cooked at the edges. I made the mistake of stirring, so that in every bite one had an unsatisfying sensory experience of uncooked and over-cooked rice. On the third try, the middle rice was soggy while the edges remained crunchy and the bottom, the shrimp and mussels were desperately over-cooked. No one asked for seconds and again, there was the solace of sangria.

Last weekend, I was invited to a friend's house for the weekend. I remembered the photographs I had seen of parties of people enjoying paella cooked on an open fire. We could be those lovely carefree summery people! I proposed the idea to the friends and they agreed to be part of the quest for paella. Perhaps the fire would distribute heat more evenly than my electric range, I hoped. I bought a new paella pan, in case that was the problem. Though, admittedly, it looked very similar to the first. I gathered most of the ingredients again and brought two recipes to their Berkshires home on Friday night. On Saturday morning we sourced the remaining ingredients from the farmer's market.

Saturday evening, I happily chopped and together we went through the two recipes I had brought up, neither of which I had used before. My friend Karen and I made a strawberry pie and invited a couple other local friends to join our dinner party. She shook up a cocktail shaker of sidecars and constructed delicious little appetizers while I browned the ingredients on the stove. We decided it was best to get everything ready indoors before moving the final preparations outside. It was a lovely summery evening. The sun was setting. The chorizo was browning. I walked outside to the patio table to sit with the other guests just for a few minutes when we heard a raucous crash. We all knew instantly what had happened. Sophie, her dog, had grabbed the hot pan off of the stove and scarfed down as much as she could within the few seconds it took us to get back to the kitchen. There was nothing to do but laugh and sweep up the rice, vegetables and few remaining bits of sausage. This same dog had devoured an entire Thanksgiving dinner a few years ago, so it was as much my own carelessness as her rebellious gluttony to blame.

We salvaged what we could and fortunately had more rice still in the bag and were able to recreate most of the dish. We cooked it for twenty minutes longer than the recipe suggested, still struggling with uncooked rice at the edges and over-cooked shrimp. The other guests were polite and each consumed a serving. But we were all thankful for the sidecars and strawberry pie.

I left one of the paella pans with the weekend hosts, and I am even now wondering what I need to do differently. It would seem like it should be time to give up. For much less money and aggravation, I can order a pitcher of sangria and a plate of paella at a lovely Spanish restaurant. But I have a feeling this story is not over. As long as there is a paella pan in my kitchen, I'll continue to waste ingredients and enjoy the sangria.

Krista Richards Mann is a Westport writer, and her "Well Intended" column appears every other Friday. She can be reached at: kristarichardsmann@gmail.com.