I love my Weber grill and am passionate about my smoker. Cooking on the deck, at the park or in a school parking lot usually finds me in front of a fire with licking flames or belching sweet, aromatic smoke.
My head has been turned to a new love, however, and the stable of cooking apparatus has just increased by one. Sounds a little weird coming from me, but, just hear me out on this one...
BBQ has a little competition.
We took a trip up to Seattle over spring break and landed in Pike's Market one afternoon. After the requisite viewing of salmon throwing, sitting on the bronze pig and eating mounds of Dunginess Crab Cocktails out of 3 oz. plastic portion cups, we headed to The Final Stop. Mom wanted to go the Spanish Table, some mediterranean version of Sur La Table with olive oil and smoked paprika.
"Big deal," I said, "we can get that crap in Portland. It's not that hard to find anymore. Come on, let's beat the traffic down I-5..." Lisa would have none of it.
"No, we're ALL going to walk down and you boys can stand outside and smoke your cigars. Siobhan and I will do some shopping, " she informed us with the pleasant smile of a veteran tour guide. This wasn't her first rodeo; she knew how to handle a disinterested group.
"Aren't there any cute girls over there at that "Free Egypt" rally?" Pat and Liam made note and began to scour the crowd, comparing and contrasting Seattle protesters with the Portland variety.
Mission Accomplished Mom.
We stepped into the store and sure enough, there was the wall of olive oil, Barefoot Contessa books, Giada de Laurentis books (that girl should be selling a tooth whitener or something!), and ceramic jars with wooden spoons made by some kinda Earth-friendly, sustainable, third world co-op. It was even staffed by an anemic looking guy with glasses that could be pleading for donations every three months on PBS. You know the type, probably drives a Prius with bike and kayak rack. Anyway...
Lisa was off to a corner in the front of the building and called me over to look at Paella pans.
"Neat, what are we going to do with that?" I said, looking at my imaginary wrist watch. "They're too thin and we would need to build a fire for that thing. It'd be Hell to control..."
"No, honey, they have burners right over there, " she pointed out.
Then, what to my wandering eyes should appear...? A double ring, concentric burner; it was enameled with a tri-pod stand and air adjustment system that ran on Propane! A huge pan could rest and cook comfortably on this stunning piece of simple engineering (insert angelic heralding here). It was like a wok burner, only flat. And it was brilliant!
The demure owner crept up and asked if we needed assistance. Questions were asked and answered; Lisa and I smiled and nodded our heads as he spoke. Our minds were already preparing summer dishes and we fancied ourselves entertaining guests with our newest piece of outdoor gadgetry.
"Um, the guys want to know when we're leaving," Brendan interjected, "Hey are you gonna buy that pan?" "Way-way-wait a minute," he said, waving his hands like we were making a bad approach for a carrier landing, "That's $200 for a pan and burner! Do you want that or do we really need that?"
The heretofore tepid salesman turned his head to our 7th grade lifestyle coach and said,
"Take a walk, kid!"
We bought it and spent most of the drive home creating dishes and scenarios for using it for any meal or occasion. I even passed up the suggested stop at Cabela's to look at guns. Yeah, that's an impact piece.
The following weekend, we called some willing culinary Guinea pigs to join us for the inaugural cookout.
After turning three or four screws on the stand for assembly and hooking up the propane, the burner was ready for primary ignition.
As the pan began to heat up, oil was added to lightly coat the bottom. An array of pre-seasoned meat and fish lay before me like a palette before a canvas. There was a perfect sequence to obtain, as with any dish, to achieve optimal flavor and texture. This would be determined and followed, allowing for careful observation and minor tweaking.
First the chicken was browned in the oil; the skin crisping nicely. Then the sausage was added; we used a Portugese style linguisa. Once sufficiently browned, we dumped in the chopped onions, celery and sweet pepps. Now, it was beginning to take shape! When the onions were cooked to a transparent color, we added one quart of arborio rice. Any decent rice could be substituted; just steer clear of any generic, par-boiled product. It would be a crime in most countries to use an inferior (see Uncle Ben's) rice. I'm just sayin'...
The whole shootin' match was stirred with a metal spatula to evenly distribute the ingredients. Two quarts of liquid were poured into the pan and stirred once again. Water is fine, but, a chicken stock is better...like a Chevy vs. a Cadillac. Go Caddy on this baby. Smoked paprika and the defining herb, saffron, were added last as the pan was brought to a boil. Heat was reduced at this time to a slow simmer.
I know arborio rice is done when I dig just under the surface and taste a grain or two. Each kernal will double in size and go from flat white in color to an opaque hue of yellow with the bleeding of the saffron. Just before the rice is done, arrange your seafood on top, it will cook gently and not get hard like some fish flavored cracker.
And the aroma? Aye Dios mio!
Throughout the cooking process, family and guests came by to check on the proceedings.
"Now, what's that?"
"How do you know when it's done?"
"What's that amazing smell?!"
"Dude, I mean, Dad, this smells flippin' awesome!" (Liam).
And finally the flavor.
As we scooped up each persons portion, we finished with a little garnish of fresh herb; in this case chopped basil and thyme from our garden.
It was a spiritual experience.
The yellow, saffron-scented rice, browns and reds of chicken and sausage, pink and juicy shrimp, green peppers and a chiffonade of basil combined to produce a masterpiece.
Lisa and I just sat there and looked at it.
Could a dish taste as good as it looks, we wondered?
One bite told us:
Our thanks to the Iberians for sharing this brilliant, outdoor, communal dish.
We will use our new Paella pan and burner throughout the summer.
Now, the Gypsy Kings?
You can have them back...
Take care, God bless and remember:
"Food, Faith, Family and Friends,
the Best Things in Life Aren't Things!"