05 February 2016

I tried Mark Bittman's Paella Master Recipe. It was OK.

Bittman's paella from NYT

I referenced Mark Bittman's latest cookbook, Kitchen Matrix, less than a month ago in this blog, and I still say it's a great book. It is written as a set of master recipes and basic techniques with ingredient options to cater to your tastes.  I have long admired Bittman's pedagogical approach to food writing, whether it's in the New York Times, his classic handbooks, How To Cook Everything and How To Cook Everything Vegetarian, or delivered charmingly on his various PBS shows. He is practical, flexible, and incredibly clear in his directions, and his recipes always turn out as promised (for me). So when I saw that Matrix contained a paella recipe, I jumped on it.  I remembered having it on various occasions during sea-faring vacations and loving it, but I have always been too intimidated to try to make it at home.  Partially because I live in a very landlocked place, and partly because I (therefore) have no experience cooking a good many of the creepy-crawlies that go into the dish, I never thought I should try it, until I saw Bittman's inviting instructions taking up no more than a page. So I got a packet of mixed frozen seafood and got to work.  

If you don't have access to Kitchen Matrix, you can also read his Paella Master Recipe on the New York Times site here. Basically, as he explains it, paella is rice and things, but what truly makes it paella is the lack of stirring, so that a crunchy, browned layer forms at the bottom of the pan. I followed his recipe, with this exception: instead of saffron, I used about half a packet of Goya sazon to season the rice.  I stand by that decision, as I really like the flavor, and it's way cheap, while saffron is far to precious for my taste. I also used water instead of stock, with a splash of red wine.

My flavoring agents were as follows: that mixed seafood packet, which contained mussels, shrimp, squid, and clams; a drained can of tomatoes, chopped Kalamata olives, half a zucchini, and some frozen peas; a chopped vegetarian sausage (why, you ask, when I'm already eating seafood? CANCER, that's why!), and of course the bell pepper and onion.  I also threw in  two minced cloves of garlic, because it's garlic.

As for the crunchy bottom, mine got a little closer to the black side of the spectrum, after having to add more water a couple of times until the rice was tender enough.  I probably should have lowered the heat more, and sooner; the rest of it I blame on the higher elevation (approx. 4700 feet above sea level), which can make cooking rice a little tricky. But again, a lower temp would have done the trick, so that one's on me. 

The result was...OK.  The shrimp were very rubbery and overcooked, but the rest of the seafood was a good consistency.  Everything else worked the way it should have.  It was a bit bland, and I found that generous squeezes of fresh lemon and hot sauce (Tapatio has a great chili flavor) helped, but I think that the nature of paella is actually to be quite bland.  So, in my cobwebbed memories of this dish, I think it was an accurate rendering, but I also discovered that, once the novelty wears off, it's kind of a boring meal. If you think you would like a very mild, tomatoey rice dish with bits of seafood and vegetables in it, this is a very user-friendly recipe to try.  If you want something truly exotic and/or brightly flavored, I would recommend Bittman's take on Asian dishes in the book, which are much more interesting and equally accessible to the home cook. 

My paella from Greeley, CO