At the table: paella equals Spain | Food

I made my first trip to Spain in 2016. I landed in Barcelona for a vacation with my adult children for a week, then alone in Madrid for two days of museum bliss. The longest part of the trip started when my husband and four friends arrived to visit the Andalusia region together. I was excited about the range of dishes I wanted to experience: Catalan cuisine in Barcelona, ​​sophisticated dishes from the capital, Madrid, and seafood, olives and wine from Andalucia.

Barcelona did not disappoint. It was here that I discovered tapas bars, places that served small plates of food to accompany your drinks. Patatas bravas (roasted potatoes) with spicy aioli, rubbed tomato on toast topped with an anchovy and smoked chorizo ​​with peppers, all washed down with a lively vermouth made me really feel part of the culture.

Madrid was also magnificent. I spent my days in museums, savoring art at my own pace. The Prado is rightly famous for its huge collection, and I wandered around with a cafe con leche at the museum cafe. In the evening, I dined alone, chatting with other diners and enjoying music and dancing in the main square near my hotel.

My friend organized the Andalusian part of our trip and found accommodation to rent in Jerez from relatives who lived there. I had seen pictures of the house before leaving the United States. It looked impressive, but our place in Barcelona was much lower than advertised, so my expectations were low. I traveled by train from Madrid to Jerez, arriving a few hours before the others, who were flying to Seville and coming by rental car.

My taxi from the station pulled up in front of an unremarkable building crowded with others in typical European fashion. I rang outside a door, looking down the dark hallway at a massive wooden door. A tall, well-dressed, handsome man opened the door for her.

Jose Maria introduced himself as the owner and ushered me in. I was glad to be behind him as he led me inside, so he didn’t see my jaw drop. The wide marble hallway was covered with Persian rugs. Oil paintings and massive tapestries hung on the walls which rose two stories high. We walked past an indoor pool with a fountain, surrounded by lush tropical plants. Classical music played softly in the background. I wondered if I had entered an alternate universe, or a movie set.

He showed me the two bedrooms on this level and the garden with its outdoor kitchen, a study in Spanish tiles and color. We climbed wide marble stairs to the second floor where the bedroom doors lined the hallways and the surrounding balcony allowed you to take in views of the courtyard below. More bedrooms, with gorgeous tubs and cabinets, a dining room with a massive table and three French doors, and a cheerful, well-appointed yellow and blue kitchen.

We entered the living room, and in front of the fireplace, some snacks were placed on a silver tray. Jose Maria offered me a glass of sherry and as we sipped and nibbled he shared the history of the house. General Sanchez Mira, who was governor of Cuba when it was part of the Spanish crown, built the “palace” in the 18th century. Jose Maria, an architect, bought and restored the property and rents it out to groups from time to time.

Another man entered the room, and Jose Maria introduced me to Carlos, the on-site caregiver who was going to help us during our stay. José Maria has left for the evening; Carlos bowed and retreated upstairs. Couldn’t wait for our contingent to come see this! When they finally arrived, we gave a giddy toast to the auspicious start of our journey.

Breakfast was served in the dining room, Carlos bringing fresh bread each morning. My husband Eric and I headed into town and found both the farmer’s market and a seafood market which kept us stocked during our stay. Jerez is known as the birthplace of sherry and given its proximity to the Atlantic coast, spectacularly fresh seafood. We came home to exquisite produce, smelly cheeses, smoked sausages and unusual seafood.

A beautiful routine has developed. Shopping at the market in the morning, visiting other cities at noon and a mandatory visit to a tapas bar. Rest at home before prepping and dinner, then seek out live music in the evening.

My favorite travel experiences have been when I can stay in one place for a while. Our guide listed Jerez as a “good for a half-day visit” town but I strongly disagree. It was perfect to experience daily life in Spain.

When our host learned that we liked to cook at home, he offered us a cooking class. We gladly accepted. Jose Maria would guide the making of paella, a quintessential Spanish dish, and Carlos would share the secret of his famous gazpacho. He gave us a list of ingredients and we set about supplying our class.

We learned that the key to gazpacho was simple: use really good tomatoes. Chop a cucumber, peppers and a little onion. Add tomatoes, olive oil and vinegar and puree in a blender, strain and serve. That was delicious. During my travels in the rest of Spain, I ate gazpacho made with other fresh vegetables or fruit too, different and good!

The star of the evening was the paella, a rice dish originating from the region of Valencia. Other regions of Spain have developed their own versions using local ingredients available to them. The recipe we made that night was also simple: garlic, onion, peppers, chicken, chorizo, rice, saffron, paprika and tomato. Use a good chicken broth.

We shared the meal at the table with Jose Maria, his daughter and some relatives of my friend. I circulated my diary asking guests to share their thoughts on the evening. The entries are priceless, including that of a young guest who wrote about “getting lost in this GIANT house”. Many congratulated us on our first paella.

Memories of this trip came flooding back to us as we made paella here last night, as part of a Spanish themed dinner for 16. We started with tapas in the courtyard and hired our friends to help make the paella on the grill, a multi-step process. and good entertainment for the crowd. When the paella was ready, we moved to the long table on the porch, opening the seated portion of the meal with green gazpacho and a toast to each other. A salad followed the paella, then “drinking chocolate” (thick hot chocolate spiced with chilli, cinnamon and brandy) and brown butter almond cakes for dessert. A special guest completed the evening by playing the piano for us. A perfect night, again.

¡Ole!

Paella

For 6 to 8 people

Pinch of saffron

6-8 chicken drumsticks

6 tablespoons of olive oil

8 oz. chorizo, sliced

1 medium onion, chopped

2 garlic cloves, minced

1 large tomato, seeded and chopped

2 Tbsp medium grain rice (Bomba or Arborio)

6 tsp chicken broth

1 t. paprika or Spanish smoked paprika

Salt and pepper to taste

2oz. green beans or peas

1 sweet red bell pepper, diced or stripped

1.5 lbs of mussels or shrimp

3 T. drained capers

1-2 lemons, sliced ​​into thin rounds or wedges

3 tablespoons chopped parsley

Soak a good pinch of saffron threads in a little lukewarm water for about 10 minutes. Put aside.

In a paella pan or large heavy frying pan, heat 2 T. of oil. Add the chicken and cook until browned and almost cooked. Remove from mold. Add the chorizo ​​and brown, remove when done with the chicken. Reserve the meat.

Add the rest of the oil and heat over medium-high heat. Add onion, reduce heat to medium and stir until softened. Add the garlic, stir for 2 minutes, then add the tomato and cook for another 2 minutes.

Add the rice and stir to coat, then add the saffron and soaking water, and 4 cups of broth, turning the heat to medium-high. Add the paprika and a little salt and pepper. Taste and add more seasoning if needed.

Stir in chorizo, beans or peas and red pepper. Arrange the chicken on top, bring to a boil, then lower the heat to gently cook the rice, adding more broth a little at a time as needed. When the rice is almost cooked, add the last bit of broth and arrange the prawns or mussels on top. Cover the pan to steam the seafood and finish the rice, about 5 minutes. When finished, line the outer rim of the pan with lemons and sprinkle the top with parsley and capers before serving.