Monday, July 25, 2011

Deconstructed Paella On The Grill...

Long Ago and Far Away, I grilled paella in what was essentially a parking lot abutting the circa 1901 house where Karl and I lived.

Our grill was set up three steps from our apartment's back door, in what ought to have been our yard, except that Astoria landlords can't ever resist paving over a lawn in order to charge another couple hundred bucks a month as a parking spot... The remaining backyard, such as it was, was the size of a postage stamp, so I gamely set the grill up against the house in the parking lot. It was hilarious and pretty ridiculous, but it worked.

At the time, Zora suggested paella on the grill; She had read about it somewhere and it looked like fun. Always game for a new idea, I said, "Uhh, fuck yeah!" and away we went.

This was not the first time I had prepared paella, but due to a number of factors, this one ended up as another paella with overcooked shellfish in it. I know, I know... Scandalous! How could I? The truth, in my experience, is that when you cook paella traditionally, the seafood ends up steaming for at least twenty minutes, and that's about fifteen minutes too long for my taste, which sucks. But life without paella, EVER?... well that would suck way worse than overcooked shellfish...

I started thinking about the elements of paella - Rice, saffron, tomatoes, vegetables, shellfish, chorizo... and then I realized you could deconstruct it, cook each ingredient separately, and then combine the disparate flavors on the plate. I'm no Ferran Adriá, but you can see where I was going with this. Once I went with this plan as the potential solution to my overcooked shellfish problem, the menu fell into place:

The Menu:
Pan Con Tomate
Zucchini/Feta/Dill Fritters
Farmer Ben's Brooklyn Grange Lettuces with Cumin Yogurt Dressing
Grilled Shrimp, Clams and Chorizo with Smoked Paprika Butter
South Jersey Cantaloupe with Mint, Shaved Celery and Lime Vinaigrette
Grilled Radicchio and Escarole with Anchovy Butter
Calasparra Rice with Peas, Summer Squash, Cherry Tomatoes, Mint and Basil
Cherry Berry Trifle

Pan Con Tomate is a no-brainer.

Who doesn't love grilled bread, slathered with crushed, so-ripe-it-hurts tomatoes, olive oil and raw garlic?

Plus, there is something deeply satisfying about grilled bread, and the tomatoes can be crushed with garlic, olive oil and salt and then left out on the counter to mingle for hours, making the flavor so intense you want to cry.

I had prepared Zucchini, Feta & Dill Fritters at a catered event for my friend Tina Daniels, a few months earlier.

I love the way the shredded zucchini/feta mixture fans out in the hot oil, making little fritter-spiders.

The salty, creamy feta inside, along with the salty and crispy outside makes them the ideal Scooby Snack for diners hanging out in the yard on a humid summer night.

Farmer Ben Flanner of Brooklyn Grange supplied my lettuces: A sharp, tender mix of baby mustard greens, red leaf, green leaf, and mizuna lettuces.
Photo: Ray Woods

The dressing was made from toasted cumin seeds crushed in a mortar, with lemon zest, buttermilk, greek yogurt, a touch of lemon juice, olive oil and salt. I shook it like a polaroid picture and then let the dressing mellow in the fridge for about seven hours. Earthy, funky and bright all at the same time, with just enough tang and fat to stand up to the bitter little mustard greens and mizuna.

Celery and cantaloupe were sourced from a Jersey farm via the Socrates Sculpture Park Greenmarket (Saturdays through November, 8am - 4pm, I'm just saying...)

Organically grown celery is a whole different animal than supermarket-bought celery; The taste is so strong and intense, that you don't need anywhere near as much as you are used to.

I think the sugar content in the cantaloupe wasn't quite high enough for this salad. I'll make it again, this week now that it's later in the season and the cantaloupes are sweeter. It's an incredibly simple recipe though: Cut cantaloupe into pieces, shave celery, salt, and toss everything in a lime vinaigrette (lime juice, sugar, salt, a touch of sherry vinegar and olive oil.) Shake it up, pour it over, toss and chill until ready to serve.

I wonder too, now that I am typing this, if fresh, chopped mint might not be a welcome addition...

The Grilled Radicchio and Escarole ended up just being Grilled Escarole, since the radicchio looked kinda crappy.

Nice legs, Anna!

Truth be told, the grilled escarole in this recipe is really just a delicious vehicle for anchovy butter. We rinsed and quartered the heads, and Karl put them (still wet) on the grill after baptizing them with a little olive oil. They were grilled until slightly charred, then cut into manageable pieces with scissors.

Finally, the whole shebang was doused with a fuckload of anchovy butter, and the juice of a lemon squeezed over the top for a little acidic lift. Fucking delicious.

And then, the main event. Karl put the Chorizo on the grill first, because it takes the longest to cook...

Then the clams,

then the shrimp.

Some of the clams had to go back on for a minute as they had opened, but weren't quite done, but they were just as juicy after hitting the grill the second time around.

Karl made a personal glass of fake-ass sangria using rosé wine, a crushed orange slice and some Fresca!

I sauteed the cherry tomatoes, and yellow summer squash with a good amount of olive oil, garlic, and added some white wine at the end.

The calasparra rice was cooked with shimp and lobster stock we had in the freezer from months before, giving it a rich, buttery shellfish taste. Shrimp stock is one of the easiest flavor boosters to make-- ever, and having some in the freezer to add to a dish last minute always makes a difference. When the rice was done, I tossed the squash/tomato business into it and finished it with torn basil leaves from the garden.

We served the "deconstructed paella" with smoked paprika butter on the side, for melting onto the shellfish or chorizo, or mixing in with the rice.

I put little dollops of it on my clams and sucked them out of the shells.

Dessert ended up being fresh strawberries from the greenmarket with whipped, sherried cream.

It was the ideal combination of little-old-lady and fresh summer flavors. Kinda perfect.

Kudos to Anna who showed up suuuuper early to visit and help-- it is always such a pleasure to have a partner in the kitchen-- especially a real, live cook!

These dinners in the yard are always so amazing. The heat, the lazy summer feeling, the char smell of the grill mixes with the citronella tiki torches and the über-green smell of the tomato plants... The swoosh of water and ice as bottles come out of the coolers and the clink of glasses, and the light is replaced by winking fireflies as it fades into the gloaming and then into the night.

Everyone totters out at dinner's end, sated and usually a little drunk, leaving me with a deep feeling of satisfaction.

And like the disparate elements that form paella, the faces and sounds and whispered conversations merge with the flavors and aromas of dinner to create this phenomenon that is The Sunday Night Dinner.

And I am so grateful.