demons in my kitchen
February 21, 2006

It was 2000. I was 20 years old and in Paris for the first time. I had no money, spoke no French and was entirely lacking in urban sensibility—but none of that could color my infatuation with Paris. Unfortunately my traveling companion had no such rose-colored glasses. He wanted coke instead of wine; he didn't want to wander aimlessly and eat crepes; he didn't even want to eat French food. We were odds from our arrival. Finally, in desperation, I dragged him to the edge of the city to a hole-in-the-wall cafe. I think my guidebook indicated it was the "real Paris." I know it said you could eat fabulous roast chicken for about $5.

There were signs. I'm sure if I hadn't been on my francophile mission I would have seen the lone grizzled man in the corner who stared at us when we came in. I would have noticed the lack of customers, and also the lack of employees. I would have seen the framed picture of Fidel Castro. And Che. And Lenin.

Of course it was a communist cafe. You could eat roast chicken for $5. Except that you couldn't. Once we'd finally gone to the kitchen to get someone's attention, and after I'd confusedly said I spoke French, we were handed menus. We pointed to the roast chicken. "No," we were told. "Only paella." At least, that's what she brought to our table. Neither of us wanted paella and so we sat there, in icy silence, trying to eat. I cried; Gil got sick. And that was the end of my interest in the national dish of Spain.

But this week I've been planning a Spanish menu for a friend and last year I threw a tapas party (and cheated my way around tradition). So I've been thinking about paella. It's full of things I love. Really, it's full of whatever you want it to be. So I decide to purge my demons and make paella.

The first thing I learn, when I hit the cookbooks, is that traditional Valencian paella bears little resemblance to what I've come to expect: no seafood, no saffron, no chorizo, no peas. It's all beans and rabbit—kind of like cassoulet, but with a rice base. Still, I opt for the seafood variety, and proceed to overwhelm myself with its own permutations. La and Dean and DeLuca convince me that I need Calasparra rice (which I overspend for at D&D in SoHo, but it comes in a little red-and-white cloth sack, so I don't mind). Paella does not convince me I need to buy a paella pan, but it does convince me that I need to make alioli (a Spanish version of aioli, garlic mayonnaise) and also that less is more. Williams-Sonoma, Joy of Cooking, and my mother convince me that it doesn't really matter at all what I throw into my skillet.

I know I'm going to have to readjust all the portions for my 10-inch skillet (which is fine because I don't know how long I want to eat shellfish leftovers). I annoy the fishmonger at Park Slope Seafood by ordering very exact tiny portions of four kinds of seafood. But I don't make it to the shop that sells chorizo and Serrano ham before it closes. So, by choice or not, I've further simplified my dish. With that instinct in mind, I decide that—beyond spices and garlic—I'll just embellish the seafood with red bell pepper and green beans, since I have both in the fridge. (Ultimately, I think this pared-down paella is better than the chorizo and ham and olive varieties I've had: less salty, and I'm a big fan of salt.)

What's most surprising to me is how quickly and cheaply the whole thing goes together. I spend less on seafood than I did on rice (I never guessed mussels were so cheap; they may become my new favorite week-night dinner). And I'm eating less than an hour from when I walked in the door.

My paella is spicy, lemony and reeks of garlic (I love it). It turns out a little stickier than I would have liked, and I wish the green beans had stayed greener so the colors would have been brighter. The crowning glory, however, is the alioli. I'm not sure how to spread it on top of the paella (and wish I had remembered to buy bread), but I take a spoon and sort of rub the alioli over the top of the rice after it's fully cooked, kind of like brushing pastry with egg white. That extra shot of garlic is exactly what all the paellas I've had before were lacking. And luckily the Salneval Albariño my wine guy has pointed me to seems like it's made for garlicky, salty foods. It's citrusy and fresh, but with an undercurrent kick that holds its own.

Awhile after the Paris trip, Gil and I decided that we both equate food with love—so a negative response to, "Do you want to eat here?" triggers a mental response like, "Why don't you love me anymore?" I'd like to say I've grown out of this, but—well, acknowledging your neuroses is the first step.

Food is love. Can I offer anyone some paella?