Sunday, November 18, 2007

More Food and Friends

At the end of my most recent post, Breaking Bread, I talked about how we were having some friends visit this weekend, I would be attempting a fairly difficult recipe - authentic Spanish Paella (sans rabbit, of course) - and that we would be heading off to "A Day Out With Thomas".
So its only fair that I report the results of the weekend .... which was a rousing success on all levels!
First up, the Paella. You must realize that I am a foodie with little opportunity for outlet of my foodie-ism. I am not a big eater, but I like what I like and often crave well-prepared fresh foods . Suffice it to say that flavor trumps dietary value in my book. So when I set out to decide what to make for our guests this weekend, I hearkened back to a recipe I last made, with the help of my visiting-from-Chicago gourmand best friend about 7 years ago (pre-kids). Actually, this is the same recipe we used then.
Essential is the Paella pan. This is a 13-inch skillet with low, flared sides and dual handles. It is the utensil that gives the dish its name. Paella is Spanish fare, and therefore it is prepared in numerous forms dependent upon the region the cook hails from. In coastal regions, for example, clams and oysters are de rigeur. In regions with hard winters, such as the mountainous areas, cured meats are common ingredients. Since I am not a seafood guy, I lean more towards the "turf" than the "surf" version. I chose to use bone-in chicken breasts (chopped into thirds) and Portuguese Linguica sausage for the meats, and green beans, artichoke hearts, and red peppers for the veggies.
The true heart and soul of Paella, however, is the rice and the saffron. Saffron - that rarest and most expensive of all spices, gives Paella its characteristic yellow color and unmistakeable aroma. The rice I used is Arborio - a medium grain that tends to end up al dente as opposed to mushy or chewy.
The recipe took me three hours to complete - non-stop cooking. I probably could reduce the over-the-stove time with experience, but since I am a Paella novice I really had to sweat every step this time.

Here I am slowly sauteeing the red peppers. In the pan you will notice a whole head of garlic with the top trimmed off. This stays in the pan the whole time - through all steps - and imparts a wonderful, deep, rich garlicky flavor that deepens as the process unfolds. The sauce pan holds the saffron-infused chicken stock that provides the unique flavor of the dish. The broth won't be added for another hour or so from this point. The red peppers are sauteed after the chicken and sausage has been done. After they have softened considerably, I will remove them to a plate and tent them with foil. This way, the steam their heat builds under the foil will help loosen the skin so I can easily remove it before adding the peppers back in for the final step. Details, details!
While all that sauteeing is going on, I have to keep chopping,mincing, and grating. Yes, grating. Part of the key to a good Paella is the Sofrito. The Sofrito provides the flavor base. It is the equivalent of a Mirepoix, or the Holy Trinity of celery, onions, and bell pepper in Cajun cooking.
But since Paella does not stew or roast for long periods, the flavor base has to be pre-deconstructed, so to speak. So what I did is grate a whole tomato and grate a whole onion to make a big tomato/onion mush. To this, I added thin slivers of garlic (yes, more garlic). Also in this picture you will see a bottle of Spanish Rioja - a sturdy red wine made from Tempranillo grapes. When in Rome, and all that, right? The lemon wedges are to serve with the finished product for those who prefer to add a squeeze of tartness. The Bosc pears are for the salad.
And now, the finished product! At this point I have boiled down over 5 cups of saffron-infused chicken stock. By rotating the Paella pan over two burners, as well as covering it with foil and placing it in a 425-degree oven, I have caused the rice to absorb all this liquid. Also, I have been passably proficient in producing the pinnacle of Paella perfection (awesome alliteration, eh?) - the Soccarat. This is the term that describes the light brown crusting that develops on the bottom layer of rice in the pan. It is just shy of burnt, and is the final piece of the multi-layered puzzle of flavor in this dish. Note in the middle of the pan that whole head of garlic still tagging along.
Okay, no more food talk. I am sated for a while, and now return to my regular diet.

This morning we went to 'A Day Out With Thomas'. This was out third year going, as Jason is perhaps the biggest Thomas fan the world has ever known.
{Aside - One of the best moments I have ever had with Jason was a time when he had found the Thomas website (by himself, of course). He was in his fourth year, and was gaining some verbal skills at the time. He still had lots of issues - and still does - with voice volume modulation, so I was trying to teach him to whisper. To do so, we got on the webpage that has all the Sodor characters listed vertically, with a brief synopsis (a CV, if you will) of each one. Well, little did I know he was going to go through every single one, whispering their name and 'story'. I was simply overwhelmed with the volume of information he threw at me that night (it was late at night as I remember, before we discovered melatonin), and amazed at his ability to keep reverting to a whisper as I reminded him. It was one of those moments where we just ... connected. Those moments were rare back then, and I'll always appreciate his love for Thomas as being one of the things that gave us some 'conversation material'. }
What would make this year's visit interesting would be our friends' little boy - all of almost-three years old - and his undying enthusiasm for all things Thomas. And the day certainly lived up to its billing.

We rode the train pulled by the life-sized Thomas engine - that was fun as always.This is Colin on the train, straining to be turned loose on the unsuspecting passengers.

We also got some pictures with Sir Topham Hatt. Trying to get three young boys to look at a cameraman is difficult in any case - when you add the Amphetamine Personified that is Sir TH, it becomes nigh on impossible. Making the day even more .. interesting .. is that it was close to 90 degrees fahrenheit. It was just downright HOT and it was hard to escape the heat and sunlight. If you combine the effects of the heat, the crowds, the excitement, having guests spend the night before at our house, all the Thomas paraphernalia, and some ice cream you begin to see the recipe for what parents of ASD kids know to be somewhat of a problem - sensory overload.

Today, though, Jason surprised us all. He actually agreed to let a clown paint his face! This is a huge step for him, and one that caught us completely off guard. His sensory integration issues would have prevented this from even having been a consideration in the past. This is a huge difference from last year, and we are just so proud of him for doing this today. He has always had a lot of sensory issues, and that makes this a really big deal!


Another Voice said...

You have had two great weekends back to back, I am very happy for all of you. I notice that despite the heat, the uniform of the day is a long sleeve Thomas shirt.

Marla Fauchier Baltes said...

Sounds like you have a great time. That is a big deal about the face painting. Very cool!

Navi said...

90 degrees in November... can I move in??? (this transplanted Texan is still hating the MI cold, even after being here for 13+ years...)

and wow to the face painting. a couple years ago, we went somewhere where my daughter got her face painted, and Tristan was interested. I directed them to paint his hand, as I was pretty sure he'd freak if they touched his face. He seemed to like it quite well. (He tends to be hyposensitive unless you are dealing with his head)

Sharon said...

Wow, a real Thomas and Sir Topham Hat! You were in the presence of greatness!

The last time we were around face painting, I asked them to paint a small Thomas train on Duncan's arm which worked well.

Your paella looks so good, making me anticipate even more my forthcoming trip to Spain with my husband.

S.L. said...

Wow, kudos for that face painting! That really is a huge deal. We are hoping to catch Thomas in '08. Our daughter just loves the trains. Great blog, I am trying to get my husband to write more. Loved reading about all the food too...YUM!