Fidella? Paedeuà? Maybe We Should Just Call It Fideuà Inauténtico.

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A little bit of Valencia, a little bit of Catalunya, a little bit of Inglewood.

If you’ve ever been to Spain — and even if you haven’t — there’s a fair likelihood that you have at some point encountered paella, that rice-based Valencian marvel redolent of saffron and pimentón de la Vera. Believe it or not, the paella you treasure in your taste buds’ memory is likely, in a word, inauténtico. Paella, like pizza and pretzels, rallies a passionate coterie of prescriptivists to its bosom, each claiming that a single path alone leads to the culinary ecstasy prized by gourmands. Yeah, bunk.

The earliest precursor to paella I could find dates to about 1520, when the notes of the master chef to Ferdinand I, Rupert de Nola (who, despite his name, was not from New Orleans), were codified into Libre del Coch (later Libro de Guisados), said to be the first printed cookbook in Catalan (and, some further allege, in Spain). It seems to have been compiled originally in 1477, which indicates that book publishers back then maintained the same sort of leisurely release schedule they do today.

What? A book without pictures? Depends on your edition.

But I digress. According to Saveur magazine, the original Valencian paella was likely cobbled together from local ingredients. Rice was a Moorish legacy dating back to the overthrow of the Visigoths in 711, and Arab traders brought saffron to the region a couple hundred years later. Then, all they had to do was add some veggies and protein, and presto! It’s said that snails (which sound much tastier in Spanish, as caracoles) and rabbits were often featured, as were local beans. [Beans and rice? How is it that there’s no paella burrito food truck in Los Angeles? Maybe this.] In any event, the natives are passionate about what is and is not authentic (even when they disagree on specifics), but what else would you expect from citizens of a town that sports its own rice museum?

In the early 20th century, one Valencian had gone completely heretical, not only adding seafood to paella, but substituting noodles for rice! There are competing legends surrounding the origin of fideuá, one of which portrays it as an accident by a chef who had run out of rice, another concerning a chef who attempted to dissuade a gluttonous sea captain by ostensibly making his paella less palatable with noodles. Whatever the truth, the dish became a hit, though it migrated up the coast into Catalunya for its most elegant expression.

While I have a great deal of respect for the tradition of Spanish cuisine, I’m not above a cultural mashup (I am going to pull together a paella burrito one of these days!), so I assembled a dish I proudly call Fideuà Inauténtico. [I once worked with a multiple Grammy-nominated art director who occasionally said, “Go ugly early.” I’m not sure exactly what she meant by that, but it seems to apply here.] I will note that, as with many of the recipes found on this blog, this is more of a suggestion than an absolutist set of instructions.

Developing the socarrat.

Fideuà Inauténtico
Serves approximately 4 to 6, with a little left over

NOTE: This was made in a 16″ Staub pan designed for cooking paella. Technically, the pan is also called a paella, so saying “paella pan” is as redundant as saying “La Brea Tar Pits.” Mine is rather heavy and thick, while the traditional Spanish version of the pan is thin. The size and weight of your pan will affect cooking time, so have a care. The ultimate goal is for the pasta to absorb the liquid, and to develop a bit of a crust (or socarrat). While the dish as pictured was made on top of my ancient O’Keefe and Merritt stovetop, I often use my outdoor gas grill for this dish, because it produces a superior socarrat, thanks to the larger burners and higher BTU output.

INGREDIENTS
2 packages fideo pasta* (7 oz. / 400 g each)
½ cup / 120 ml extra-virgin Spanish olive oil
1 pound / ½ kg boneless chicken thighs, cooked and chopped
1 – 2 teaspoons / 2½ – 5 g pimentón de la Vera (sweet/dulce if you have it, but bittersweet/agridulce or hot/picante work fine)
1 medium onion, chopped
4 garlic cloves, chopped
2 pounds / 1 kg tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and chopped or two 14-oz / 400 g cans of fire-roasted diced tomatoes
20-24 large shrimp, tail on, uncooked
8 oz. / 225 g link of Spanish chorizo** cut into 20 or so slices
3½ – 4 cups / 820 – 940 ml of stock (I used chicken stock, but fish or veggie or beef would work fine also), heated
⅛ – ¼ teaspoon / .09 – .17 g saffron (not really very much, because it’s super expensive, but you can add more if you want)
¼ cup / 60 ml dry Spanish white wine such as Albariño (optional)
Salt to taste

*Angel hair pasta and vermicelli also work well, so long as they are in broken into short pieces and you adjust the cooking time and amount of liquid so they don’t get overcooked. Spaghetti, on the other hand, is too thick.
**Spanish chorizo, unlike Mexican chorizo, is cured and has the texture of a hard sausage.

DIRECTIONS

Cook chicken thighs in advance, using whatever method you prefer. I braised mine in wine, intending to finish them off with a little browning on the gas grill, but I skipped that step for time’s sake, and it worked out fine. In fact, I made the thighs the previous night, and just chopped them up the following evening. I saved the cooking juices to combine with the stock.

Heat the stock in a saucepan to simmer; you will be adding it in a bit at a time later in the recipe.

In large paella pan (sic), combine olive oil and fideo over high heat; brown fideo to golden colour, stirring frequently (don’t worry if some gets a little too dark, just don’t burn it). Add pimentón de la Vera and onion and cook until softened, about 3-4 minutes. Add garlic and continue cooking about one minute. If it looks like the fideo is getting too dark, splash in a little stock or wine and allow it to evaporate.

Add tomatoes, cooked chicken, chorizo, shrimp, and saffron, arranging them in the pan evenly. Begin pouring stock in a bit at a time (about 40% the first time, then 20% or so with each subsequent pour), allowing it to reduce a bit before adding more. DO NOT STIR, because this will mess with the formation of the socarrat. [You can sample the pasta along the way, checking to see if it has gone from crunchy to al dente. Typically, fideo requires only 4-5 minutes in boiling water.] A couple of minutes after the first stock addition, flip over the shrimp. When they are cooked, they’ll turn from grey to pink and white. You may need to turn them over a couple of times to get them there. Should you run out of stock, you can add a bit of dry wine, such as Albariño, or even a dry rosé. It’s also possible that you may not need to use all your stock. Let your tastebuds be your guide. If the pasta’s done and the shrimp are pink, you’re good to go. Allow the liquid to evaporate, take the pan off flame, and let it sit for a 3-5 minutes to help build the socarrat.

Lift portions out of pan with spatula, making sure to scrape off the socarrat in the process. It is traditionally served with allioli, a kind of garlic mayo that can be made in a food processor or with a mortar and pestle. Possibly due to the number of margaritas I had consumed, I skipped this step. It tasted fine without the condiment.

Just about fork-ready.

Shameless repurposing, part two — My Dream Date with Emeril

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Emeril and Thane

Last summer, I was contacted by the American editor of Style magazine (then Sands Style) to see if I would like to interview Chef Emeril Lagasse for the relaunch of the magazine. Like every cooking fan in America, I’d seen Emeril a gazillion times; unlike many cooking fans, I’ve eaten at one of his restaurants in New Orleans. Naturally, I agreed.

Despite his fireplug stature, Lagasse looms larger than life in virtually ever aspect of his being. He is immediately gregarious and extraordinarily self-effacing. He’s passionate about food. He loves to teach and to share what he’s learned. And he is remarkably generous in spirit.

Here’s a story that didn’t make it into the piece I had published: Part of the craft of managing a celebrity interview is figuring out what to ask him or her first. Way back when I was in college, my brilliant journalism spirit guide, Joseph N. Bell — a lecturer, because he was a working stiff, not an ivy-clad professor — told his class that something like 75-80% of one’s energy prepping for an interview should be devoted to formulating the first question. Famous (and even semi-famous) people are subjected to an endless parade of clueless journos who haven’t read their book or seen their movie or listened to their record, who inevitably kick off the interview with some slow-pitch softball such as “So… what inspired you to _____?” B-o-r-i-n-g. Shockingly, the rest of that sort of interview winds up with a lifeless string of canned answers to the canned questions.

The night before I was to chat with Chef Lagasse, The Bride suggested I might mention a shrimp and grits recipe she’d had at NOLA several years back, and for which she desired the recipe. “Excellent!” I thought. “Here’s a way under his radar.”

The cover, larger than life. The pic of Emeril, not so much.

The cover, larger than life. The pic of Emeril, not so much.

Our phoner kicked off with the typical pleasantries; underneath it all, I’m sure he was probing to see if I was actually interested in and/or knowledgeable of what he was doing, and I was curious to ascertain whether he was full of camaraderie when the red light was on, only to turn cold as a fish case haddock in its absence. As luck would have it, the two of us fell into sync more or less immediately. Even without asking, when I relayed the story of The Bride and The Grits, he responded with, “I’ll be happy to send you the recipe.” Within an hour of our interview’s conclusion, he (or one of his minions, at his direction) had.

Like most celebrated chefs, Lagasse had served his Malcolm Gladwell 10,000 hour apprenticeship many times over. And, like virtually all of the chefs I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing, he was generous to a fault regarding his team. Many of Emeril’s krewe have been soldiering on with him in excess of a decade (some even two!), a surprising display of loyalty considering the fluidity of movement in the world of haute cuisine. Clearly, the man is doing something right.

Some time after the story was filed, my editor invited me to the magazine’s relaunch in Las Vegas. The Bride and I made the pilgrimage, given that the magazine was kind enough to comp our hotel room. Emeril was just as engaging in person as he had been over the phone, and — ever the businessman — he asked his assistant to jot down my contact info, should we be of some mutual benefit sometime in the future. Fair play, that. I hope our paths cross again, even if just to hear him say “BAM!”

Every now and then, we all aspire to kick it up a notch.

Here’s a link to the article.

And this is the shrimp and grits recipe that kicked off our conversation:

As prepared family-style.

As prepared family-style.

NOLA’S SHRIMP AND SMOKED CHEDDAR GRITS
Recipe from NOLA Restaurant by Emeril Lagasse.

For the Shrimp:

Ingredients

2 pounds medium shrimp, peeled and deveined
2 1/2 teaspoons Emeril’s Original Essence, recipe follows
3/4 teaspoons salt
2 tablespoons olive oil
4 tablespoons butter, room temperature
1 recipe Smoked Cheddar Grits, recipe follows
1 recipe Citrus Buerre Blanc, recipe follows
1 recipe Abita BBQ Glaze, recipe follows
1 recipe Smoked Cremini Mushrooms and Rendered Bacon, recipe follows
1 recipe Grilled Green Onions, recipe follows

Instructions

In a large bowl, combine the shrimp with the Essence and salt and toss to blend. Set aside as you prepare the skillet. Place a large, 14-inch skillet over high heat and add the olive oil and heat until very hot. Add 1 tablespoon of the butter to the pan. Swirl to melt, then add the shrimp to the pan, being sure that the shrimp are in one layer in the pan. Sear the shrimp until well caramelized on the first side, about 1 minute. Turn the shrimp over and add the smoked mushrooms, bacon and Abita BBQ Glaze to the pan. Continue to cook, stirring occasionally, until the shrimp are well coated with the sauce and just cooked through, about 3 minutes. Add the remaining butter to the pan and swirl until melted into the sauce.

To serve, divide the grits between 8 entrée-sized shallow bowls. Drizzle about 2 tablespoons of the Citrus Beurre Blanc around the edge of the grits near the rim of the bowl. Divide the shrimp, mushrooms, bacon and sauce evenly between the bowls, and place a grilled green onion on top of the grits in a circle. Serve immediately.

Makes 8 entrée servings

For the Emeril’s Original Essence:

Ingredients

2 1/2 tablespoons paprika
2 tablespoons salt
2 tablespoons garlic powder
1 tablespoon black pepper
1 tablespoon onion powder
1 tablespoon cayenne pepper
1 tablespoon dried oregano
1 tablespoon dried thyme

Instructions

Combine all ingredients thoroughly. Makes 2/3 cup

For the Smoked Cheddar Grits:

Ingredients

6 cups water
Salt, to taste
1 1/2 cups quick cooking or old-fashioned grits (not instant!)
1 cup milk
1 cup heavy cream
4 tablespoons butter
6 ounces grated smoked white cheddar cheese
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Instructions

In a large, heavy saucepan bring the water to a boil. Add a generous teaspoon of salt and the grits and stir with a wooden spoon to combine. When grits thicken, add the milk, cream and butter and return to a boil. Reduce heat to a simmer, partially cover the sauce pan and cook for 45 minutes to one hour, until grits are very tender, smooth, and creamy-thick. Add the cheddar, season with black pepper, and stir until cheese is melted. Serve hot.

Makes almost 2 quarts

For the Citrus Beurre Blanc:

Ingredients

1/2 cup fresh squeezed orange juice
1/2 cup dry white wine
1/4 cup fresh squeezed lemon juice
1/4 cup fresh squeezed lime juice
1/4 cup thinly sliced shallots
1 2-inch strip orange zest
1 2-inch strip lemon zest
1 2-inch strip lime zest
1 garlic clove, smashed
1/2 bay leaf
1 sprig of thyme
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon black peppercorns
1/3 cup heavy cream
2 sticks cold unsalted butter, cubed

Instructions

Place all the ingredients except the heavy cream and butter in a 1-quart saucepan and place over high heat. Bring to a boil and reduce until the liquid is nearly evaporated, 12 to 14 minutes. Add the heavy cream to the pan and reduce by half, 1 to 2 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat and reduce the temperature to medium low. Add a few cubes of the butter to the pan and use a whisk to stir constantly until the butter is melted. Return to the heat and add a few more pieces. Continue to place the pan on and off the heat, adding a few cubes of butter to the pan and whisking until all the butter is used. Remove the sauce from the heat and strain through a fine-mesh strainer. Keep warm until ready to serve – do not allow the sauce to boil or it will separate.

Makes about 1 1/4 cups

For the Abita BBQ Glaze:

Ingredients

1 cup ketchup
1 cup Abita amber beer
6 tablespoons packed light brown sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons crushed red pepper

Instructions

Combine the ketchup, beer, brown sugar and crushed red pepper in a saucepan and bring to a boil. Reduce heat slightly and continue to cook at a steady simmer until the sauce is translucent and reduces to a consistency thick enough to coat the back of a spoon, 5 to 10 minutes. Set aside. You should have about 1 1/4 cups of glaze.

Makes 1 1/4 cups

For the Smoked Cremini Mushrooms and Rendered Bacon:

Ingredients

3/4 pound cremini mushrooms, halved, or quartered if large
1 1/2 teaspoons Essence
4 teaspoons olive oil
1/2 pound bacon, diced

Instructions

In a medium bowl, combine the mushrooms, Essence and olive oil. Toss to combine and place on the rack of a stovetop smoker. Prepare the smoker over medium-high heat using applewood smoking dust, or the smoke chips of your choice. When the smoker begins to smoke, close the lid. Smoke the mushrooms until cooked through, about 20 to 25 minutes. Remove from the smoker and set aside until ready to use.

While the mushrooms smoke, place the bacon in a 10-inch sauté pan over medium-low heat and render the fat from them until they are just beginning to get crispy, 10 to 12 minutes. Remove the bacon from the pan using a slotted spoon and transfer to paper towels to drain. Set aside until ready to use.

For the Grilled Green Onions:

Ingredients

8 green onions, root end and tips trimmed
4 teaspoons olive oil
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon white pepper

Instructions

Place a grill pan over medium-high heat. Drizzle the green onions with the olive oil and season with the salt and pepper. Place the green onions on the grill and cook for 2-3 minutes, turning occasionally to ensure even browning. Remove the green onions from the heat and set aside as you prepare the rest of the dish.

As served at NOLA.

As served at NOLA.