By Marcia Pilgeram
I turn to therapy cooking when I’m whirlwind-busy with my travel business. The kitchen’s my sanctuary, where I seek solace from work and life-related stress. These long days of airline-induced anxiety have given me dozens of reasons to spend long hours at my stovetop, cooking more and more and more.
The travel business has kept me busy, albeit far from my kitchen. April was devoted to Tahiti, May belonged to Ireland and June was dedicated to wedding travels. Now, July is all mine, all mine!
It’s good to be home in my kitchen — a favorite hub, hangout and gathering spot. This month I whipped up food for an “Irish mingle” (a gathering of past travelers sharing photos of our recent trip), and prepared food for a special friend’s memorial. Finally, this week, I hosted a long overdue paella cooking class and invited some extra friends (donated long ago to the fundraising auction for Friends of Scotchman Peaks Wilderness). I am definitely back in my element.
Planning menus, shopping, prepping and cooking have refueled me. My kitchen crowd might include a friend perched on a stool at the counter, sipping coffee and rendering opinions of the samples I offer from across the stovetop. Near the sink, another longtime friend carefully chops and dices, per my specifications. For years, my mom often served alongside me as my prep help, and she would press her index fingers and thumbs together to form a small square and estimate the size of the chop I had in mind. She’s been gone nearly 20 years, but I still use her technique as a measuring stick for vegetable prepping.
Other friends will drop everything to come and help me load my vehicle with sheet pans, baskets and assorted serving vessels.
Now that we’re all out and about more, it’s been fun to see old friends and make new ones, as I did last week at the memorial service. Some of the kindest and most loving people attended, and feeding them was pure honor. A few days later, I received a delightfully unexpected note from the host of the home where the memorial was held, which I shall forever cherish.
“The love you stirred into the food was tasted in each bite,” she wrote.
She also included a quote by an unknown author: “Real cooking is more about following your heart than following recipes.”
I was unfamiliar with that particular quote, but I loved the sentiment.
I have oodles of favorite food quotes, and many are credited to my favorite chef, Julia Child: “People who love to eat are always the best people.” And, “if you’re afraid of butter, use cream.” My favorite Julia quote: “I think every woman should have a blow torch.” I agree and have several.
I also love this Irish proverb I recently saw hanging in a Dublin pub, “Laughter is brightest where food is best.” I couldn’t agree more.
I have a book of food quotes and, thumbing through them, I realized none speak of food as a commodity or a scientific endeavor, and rarely do they even mention an ingredient, measurement or technique. Instead, they mostly read as a love language, filled with inspirational words of food that warm the heart and nourish the soul.
Other quotes I love are credited to Anthony Bourdain, whose zest for life (ironically), and interpretation of global food and travel remain unmatched. His words continue to inspire me, especially these words: “For me, the cooking life has been a long love affair, with moments both sublime and ridiculous. But like a love affair, looking back you remember the happy times best.”
I love cooking professionally, but honestly, my happiest cooking life memories will always revolve around my kitchen — abuzz with helpers and eaters who gather at my table. And a dish that always brings me great pleasure from all the prep to finally sharing, family-style, is paella. So, gather your gang and stir up some love!
Spanish paella • This recipe can be altered to suit your taste. In Spain, paella dishes are regional — all different and all delicious. For vegetarian paella, start with vegetable stock and add additional vegetables, like artichoke hearts and peas.
• ¼ cup olive oil
• 1 cup dry white wine
• 1 tsp saffron threads
• 1 ½ lbs boneless chicken thighs, or quartered squab or Cornish game hen pieces
• Sea salt
• 6 cloves garlic, minced
• 1 tbsp fresh thyme leaves
• 2 tsp sweet smoked paprika
• 2 tsp finely chopped parsley
• 1 large tomato, skinned and finely chopped
• 1 medium onion, chopped
• 1 red bell pepper, cored, seeded and chopped
• 6 scallions, chopped
• 1 cup fresh green beans, snapped into thirds
• 2 cups paella rice (short grain)
• 1 dozen mussels, scrubbed, de-bearded and rinsed well
• 1 dozen small clams
• 12 large shrimp in shells
• Lemon wedges and parsley for garnish
Soak the clams in salted water for a couple of hours (before you start the paella) to remove any sand. Discard clams that do not close when you tap on them. Press together the shells of any mussels that are open. If the shell doesn’t close, the mussel should be discarded.
Heat broth, wine and saffron together in a large pot. Keep liquids on low simmer. Pat chicken and shrimp dry with paper towels. Sprinkle with salt. Set aside.
Use a mortar and pestle to mash parsley, garlic and thyme, then stir in paprika and salt. Mash until paste-like.
Heat half the olive oil in a 15” paella pan over medium-high heat and quickly brown the meat on both sides 3-4 minutes. Do not fully cook. Place in 300-degree oven for 20 minutes.
Reduce heat in paella pan to medium, add remaining oil, onion, scallions and bell pepper to paella pan, and cook, stirring occasionally until the vegetables are soft but not brown. Raise heat slightly, add tomato with its juices and cook, stirring occasionally, until it becomes sauce-like, 2 to 5 minutes. Sprinkle the rice evenly across the pan and continue to stir ingredients.
Pour in the warm broth and wine and bring to a boil, stir in parsley paste and mix well. Add the green beans. Continue stirring rice and rotating pan occasionally.
Add all reserved meats (but not shrimp). Gently stir the meat to coat in the sauce.
It is important not to stir after this point. Lower the heat and allow to simmer, shaking pan continuously until mixture is no longer soupy but enough liquid remains to continue cooking the rice (about 10 min.). Add extra hot liquid if necessary.
Artfully tuck the shrimp, clams and mussels into the rice, placing edges of mussel and clam shells so they open facing up and out. Cover. Continue shaking pan for 15-20 minutes until rice is almost done. Remove pan from the heat and cover with foil. Let sit 10 minutes. Discard any mussels or clams that did not open. Garnish with lemon wedges.
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