Paella Valenciana (En Praga)

As the rest of Prague was gearing up for the England v. US World Cup soccer match, I was gearing up for an entirely different challenge.  I was about to make paella, real paella, at home in my kitchen in Prague.  I had made several half-hearted attempts at paella in the past using everything from packaged “saffron” rice (in college) to slightly more authentic chicken and rice pilafs a few years back.  But I had never attempted a real, honest to goodness paella.  All of that was about to change.

However, to begin, I needed an inspirational drink.  Sangria was the perfect accompaniment.  Unlike paella, I have made sangria a million times before.  I’ve pretty much co-opted Fredericksburg Flash’s recipe that he’s been making since I was in diapers.  I have yet to taste better sangria in all the world.  Isn’t it interesting that a dentist from Nebraska holds the gold standard of sangria for pretty much everyone who has tasted it?  I say, why mess with perfection?

So, with fruit cut and the delicious purple nectar providing just the right motivation, I began making the paella.  Scampwalker and I had experienced Paella Valenciana in Valencia a little over a year ago.  I was thoroughly impressed and I sought to make the base of the dish as close to the original as possible.  However, because of my audience and geographic location, I was going to substitute a few ingredients.  I used peas instead of green beans, threw in some chicken breasts instead of all bone-in chicken (I kept some drumsticks in for myself), no chorizo (because the only stuff we can get here adds too much spice) and shrimp instead of some other shellfish.  I didn’t have access to any clams or mussels for this batch, either.  I did have lots of saffron, though and I was pretty sure that could overcome any other shortcoming.

Looking for online recipes, I took the first one I could find.  It was Alton Brown’s Paella recipe and it served as the base for my dish.  I’ve found Brown to be a pretty consistent cook and his recipe had all the things I needed to serve as the base for my escapade.  His recipe is pretty dense with instruction.  He also uses a wood fire.  I used the stove and a big, 15 inch Caphalon pan.  I varied cooking a bit and this is a rough guide to what I did to make the dish.

Paella Valenciana (En Praga)

1 can peeled, chopped tomatoes
9 cups low-sodium chicken broth (heated in microwave)
3 cups short or medium-grain rice
20 threads saffron
1 teaspoon dried rosemary
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoon paprika
2 tablespoons olive oil

4 chicken legs and seasoned with S&P
2 chicken breasts, cubed
and seasoned with S&P
1 red bell pepper, sliced thinly lengthwise
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 cups fresh green peas
15 Jumbo shrimp, peeled, tails on

Alton’s directions are much more thorough, but here are mine in a nutshell:

Heat oil on high.  Add chicken and cook 12 minutes.  Add peas, peppers, onions, garlic and cook 2-3 minutes.  Add tomatoes and cook until liquid is reduced, about 4 minutes.  Add rice, saffron, salt, paprika, rosemary and cook one minute – stirring the whole time.  Add 4 cups of heated broth.  Stir only until rice is covered in broth and then don’t stir it again until it’s finished.  Simmer on med-hi heat for 9 minutes.  Add peas.  Add another 4 cups of heated broth.  Simmer another 4 minutes.  Add shrimp on top.  Simmer 3 minutes.  With tongs, flip shrimp but don’t touch the rice!  Simmer 6 minutes or until liquid looks almost gone.

Turn off heat. Cover loosely with a lid and let sit 15 minutes.

The result was one of the best paellas I’ve ever had in my life.  Little NH gobbled it up like it was going out of style.  Mrs. NH, when quizzed, only lamented the lack of chorizo and mussels.  I agreed, but didn’t feel too bad about it as I shoveled delicious fork full after fork full into my mouth.

We finished off the meal with a couple glasses of slightly-chilled Oloroso Sherry.   The nutty, toffee sweetness was the perfect finish to a perfect meal.

As an American taking on a very non-American dish, I fared better than the US against England this evening.  Whereas the US footie team was luck to eke out a draw, my challenge in the kitchen produced a huge win.

La Venencia – Madrid, Spain

La Venecia
La Venencia

I was out to dinner the other night with my family and friends and did a little research before I went.  It was a warm summer evening and we were going to be dining outside under a cloudless sky.  The thought of sucking down heady Czech beer seemed a little heavy handed to my palate so I made a strategic decision early on.  I ordered one of my favorite drinks, Sherry.  I’ve written about a few of my experiences with this typical Spanish drink before but nowhere outside of Jerez typifies it more in my mind more than the place I’m about to tell you about, quietly, like a well-kept secret.  The place is – come closer – La Venencia in Madrid, Spain.

My first experience in La Venencia was brought on by my wife, well, needing a bathroom break.  We were cavorting around Madrid one evening about nine-or-so years ago and nature called.  The rest, as they say, is history.  My wife found what she needed and for me the doors to a secret world opened by dumb luck.  Upon my first visit, I had no idea where I was.  I didn’t know what they served but I did see a whole lot of what looked like wine casks.  I figured I could at least get a glass of wine while I waited.  So, I asked for a glass of “algún vino blanco y seco” (some dry white wine).  The guy behind the bar just smiled and said “Solo tenemos blanco.”  Not knowing what I had stepped into, I did what came naturally.  “Vále” (OK), I retorted.  The next 7 seconds passed, he smiled and, for some unknown reason, decided to take pity on me.  He reached for one of the five corked bottles behind the bar and poured the light, grassy copita of Sherry.  “Fino,” he said as he re-corked the bottle and scrawled my order on the bar in chalk.  My senses were reeling.  Chalk on the bar?  Leather on the walls?  Casks?  Air impossibly thick with smoke?  This must be it.  Heaven!

For anyone with even a passing interest in Sherry, it was and is a slice heaven.  La Venencia is about as authentic as anything gets in all of Iberia.  From the people behind the bar to the impossibly yellowed posters and pictures adorning the walls, the place is so Spanish it hurts.  It’s the place where my wife turned into a Sherry fan and I believe the place where we first considered the idea of a trip to Jeréz which we just completed earlier this year.  It’s also a place that I visited with my brother while in Madrid – on several occasions during our trip there.  In fact, every time we walked by and it was open, we stopped in for a copa.  From the Seco Amontillado, to the Fino, to the Manzanilla (among others), all glasses are served with an intensity and sacredness that really respects the liquid that is being poured as much as the tradition of the place.

Rounding out the flavor package are the complimentary plates of tapas that go with the delicious copas.  The olives are some of the best I have had in Spain.  Garlicky, slightly salty, and steeped in grassy Spanish oil.  The cheese under the glass cover behind the bar is a queso de cabra, I believe, but can’t be entirely sure.  Then there are the slices of chorizo that seem to melt in your mouth and lay the perfect foundation for a sip of this Spanish ambrosia.

Finally, there are the people themselves.  The faces behind the bar are solemn and seem as worn as the dark brown wood and the leather covered walls.  Their faces appear to tell a story of the place with years of tobacco smoke plotting a sort of relief map of Sherry history.  They can be fairly conversational if the stars are aligned correctly.  On one early visit,  I was mistaken as an Italian and the bartender seemed amazed that I was, in fact, an American.

This bar would be an impossibility in another country.  Not only could one never find this many smokers in one city but the phenomenon of Sherry is purely Spanish.  However, there is something else.  This is Spain, or more specifically, Madrid.  It’s the tradition of the city.  The grittiness mixed with hospitality that exists but is not over-exuberant.  It is authenticity like I have never witnessed anywhere else.  Of course, it wouldn’t be the same without the Sherry.  And, oh, the Sherry.

Tortilla de Camarones

It’s easy to get in a rut when dining in Spain.  However, Spanish cuisine is incredibly varied when you decide to extend beyond the staples.  Factor in that most of Spain is bordered by the sea and it increases your chances of finding something you had never heard of.  On my last trip there, one such discovery was the tortilla de camarones.  When my wife told me, according to her pre trip research, that the place in Sanlúcar in which we were seated was famous for them, I was skeptical.  Shrimp in a tortilla?  It sounded kind of low on the texture scale.  Plus, I’m a tortilla purist and the thought of sticking anything other than the essentials (egg, potato, onion) in a tortilla is just a distraction.  Luckily, a couple of tables down, the folks ordered an unidentified plate of something heaping and fried and it piqued my curiosity.  I went to the counter at Casa Balbino and ordered a plate of the tortilla de camarones for two and another couple glasses of La Gitana.  I waited and was greeted with this:

Tortilla de Camarones
Tortilla de Camarones

It’s not a tortilla in the classic sense but an incredibly airy, perfectly seasoned, fried nest of whole baby shrimp.  The crunch of the batter mixed with the shell of the shrimp reminded me of softshell crab – without the unfortunate mush that sometimes accompanies the latter.  It was incredible.  The Manzanilla cut though the grease perfectly and I had no problem devouring the majority of the plate.  My wife enjoyed it as well but is not quite as adventurous of an eater as I am especially when it comes to baby shellfish.  Still, she said she loved it.  (Maybe I just didn’t give her a chance to eat more!)

Spain is a big country and the amount of culinary diversity is immense.  Tortilla de camarones is a standout, however.  If you ever find yourself in a restaurant where it is served, order it – and don’t forget the manzanilla.

Sherry Rebujitos in Grazalema, Spain

A Rebujito in Grazalema, Spain
A Rebujito in Grazalema, Spain

Our last trip to Spain opened my eyes to lots of new food and deepened my understanding of a few of the most classic Spanish drinks.  One of the tipples that I really got to know on this journey was Sherry, or Jerez, as it is called on the peninsula.  I’ve been a fan of Sherry since the first vacation to Spain with my wife.  Oddly, when I lived there as an 18-year-old foreign exchange student, I didn’t get into it.  I think I was too busy discovering J&B with coke.  (Don’t ask.)  Anyway, a little more maturity has paved the way for the immensely satisfying world of Spanish Sherry.  Its flavor is legendary and is as varied as the Spanish landscape itself.  There are many more experienced Sherry palates on the web to discuss the topic in detail so I’ve chosen to bring one small strata of the world of Jerez to you  – El Rebujito.

El Rebujito comes from a long line of Spanish drinks that mix beer or wine with juice or soda (sangria, tinto de verano, cerveza clara…).  El Rebujito takes this a step further and mixes Fino Sherry with lemonade or, as we experienced more often, 7-Up.  Yep, 7-Up.  The flavor of the sherry was mellowed by the 7-Up, which managed to take away some of the characteristic acidity of the Fino.  Served over ice, it was the perfect midday sipping concoction to enjoy in the local sun-drenched plaza.  Mixed with a salty tapa or just a good bunch of potato chips, it was perfect.  Having enjoyed the single drinks early on in the trip, imagine our delight when we found it served in a pitcher in a little place in Sevilla, outdoors, on a characteristically scorching Sevilla day.

Sherry showed its incredible versatility and variety on this trip.  It’s made a permanent home for itself in my bar/armory.  And, the Rebujito is a welcome foot soldier in the war to beat the summer heat.

Return of the Spanish Caravan

I know where treasure is waiting for me.
Silver and gold in the mountains of Spain
I have to see you again and again.

We’ve just wrapped up another trip to Spain.  That’s three trips for me in just a little over a year and my obsession with Iberia shows little sign of abating.  On this trip we covered about 1000 miles through Andalusia, snapped about 1300 digital pics, consumed countless cañas, tintos de verano, finos, manzanillas, tapas of all stripes and saw some stunningly beautiful countryside.  I probably have enough material for 15 posts over the next few weeks so prepare for NotHemingway.com to shift into serious Iberiophile mode.

The road outside Grazalema, Spain
The road outside Grazalema, Spain

 

Ay, Tio

We’re sitting on another balcony tonight. This one is in Jerez, the home of sherry. We toured the Tio Pepe bodega today and learned a lot about sherry. Cool stuff. Thanks to a Zune, Dora the Explorer and some kid-sized headphones, the 2 year old NHer did the tour with us. Funny stuff. Especially for the tour guide.

Tried to enjoy some time on the beach today just north of Cadiz but the royal sandblasting proved to be too much for all of us. Maybe we should take up windsurfing – ay, tio!

Hasta pronto.