Paella is a dish that taunted me quietly for years.
People raved. There were cute pans with brightly coloured handles that would look fantastic resting casually on my stove top and a reason to keep saffron in my pantry. Paella promised warm hues and tantalising aromas from the home of Sarasate, Casals, flamenco, passion and romance, amontillado and choritzo.
But as a fish-wuss who cooks for even bigger fish-wusses, the thought of cooking anything where you picked food out from around the shells was distasteful. Perhaps nearly as distressing as the composition of black pudding or watching someone dig around inside a marrow bone.
Why not just leave the ruddy shellfish out? What if that meant my paella was not all it could be? No, ladies and gentlemen, it was time to man up, as it were, and take the fish by the shell.
At the same time good friend and fellow foodie Natasha and I were thinking of trying out some cooking classes. Natasha, always a few steps ahead of me when it comes to knowing what’s going on, had heard of a new cooking school down by Wellington’s waterfront called Social Cooking. The classes were $99 for one person, so we thought they must be pretty sharp. Times are hard, but the curiosity was killing us, so we promised ourselves a treat … one day.
Fate intervened in the form of one of those email voucher offers. A class with wine and dessert, it told us, would normally cost us $234, but we were special and could go to the ball for a significantly more palatable $92. We pounced on the voucher and waited patiently to sign ourselves up for a paella class.
The first troubling sign came with the reminder (kind thought) sent to get my “taste buds rocking”. It was my “night to cook – baby”. I was thanked for “getting social” with them. A reminder to us all never to draft anything after watching Austin Powers movies.
The Big Night
I was running about 25 minutes late, but apparently so was the class. I arrived just as the demonstrator’s paprika-dusted prawns hit the pan, or so I gathered. Despite my 6 feet (height not appendages), I couldn’t see into the pan and the overhead mirror added nothing. Prawns par-fried, we went on to explore the mysteries of the sofrito: onions, tomatoes and garlic, three beings in one.
The grating of the tomatoes was about the highlight of the evening. You want finely chopped tomatoes in this dish, but not their skins.
Blanching the tomato, we were told, would take too much equipment . If you halve a tomato cross ways and rub cut side down against the grater until you’ve worn through to the tomato skin, you can save the blanching, if not your knuckles.
My Polish aunties blanched tomatoes by dropping one into a good sized mug and covering it with boiling water straight from the kettle. Give it three minutes, refresh under cold tap water and slip off the skin. Probably not how they do it at the Cordon Bleu, but it works.
I can report that the grating method is also effective, and trust that you will feel empowered by the choices now at your disposal.
Tinned vs Fresh
In response to a question, the demonstrator asserted that use of tinned tomatoes would not be right. They should be fresh, regardless how expensive, and, in all likelihood, how out of season. I wonder.
Whilst tinned tomatoes were not acceptable, bottled garlic (sponsor’s product) was. Likewise the not very Spanish or smoked looking paprika.
The rest of the demonstration barreled along amiably, albeit with the assistant constantly hopping out the back for plates and bits that had been forgotten. We learned to spread the rice out into a thin (c. 1cm or 1/2″) layer (hence the big flat pans), to let it cook without stirring until you can see the rice through the cooking liquid, then how to cover it with paper until the cooking is complete.
The demonstrator explained how to cook paella without the specialist pans (damn and blast), how to check up on progress without creating a starchy mess, and what to do if the rice wasn’t cooked through. We went through how to score the squid and how to check the mussels were still alive, but not how to clean them. There was no discussion about the types of rice suitable for paella.
Unusually, we were not able to taste the demonstrator’s paella before we went on to cook our own. This was apparently reserved as dinner for the demonstrator and her assistant.
Natasha and I agreed that cooking the squid for 10 or more minutes seemed like a bad idea. The demonstrator suggested a slow simmer in stock while the rest of the paella was cooking. We settled for pre-cooking the squid on a hot pan along with the prawns and were rewarded with great flavour. The squid and prawns were added back for the last five minutes of cooking, but could have gone in a bit later.
Did I mention our glass of wine? No? That’s because so far we were still waiting for it. When it did arrive, it had all the bouquet of a bottle you find hiding in the back of the fridge about two weeks after a dinner party. We drank it anyway. There were only two bottles of water set out for 20 people in a small shop front and 10 lots of paella cooking away furiously. We had to drink something.
On the hygiene side, the hand washing facilities were inadequate and we came across dirty glasses, plates and cutlery over the course of the evening. At the other extreme, thank goodness for the paper protecting our rice as one of the presenters merrily sprayed the bench cleaner around right next to where our pan was cooking.
It all went along much as promised and produced, I must admit, a very tasty dinner. The crust on the bottom of rice was just delicious. As for the mussels, they were tender and sweet and lent a delicacy to the dish not remotely reminiscent of low tide. Definitely something I will try again at home. I can only think how much better it will be with homemade chicken stock. What we had tasted distinctly as though it came from a cube.
Dessert consisted of a small scoop of partially melted ice cream with a previously hot chocolate sauce congealed around the edges of the mismatched bowls. And there was coffee, if not quite enough coffee cups.
The social aspect of the evening would have been greatly enhanced if only we had all been able to sit down for dinner, but as there was only table space for 8, the rest of us ate by our benches, once again contributing to the sense of cooking in a student flat. Pretty much everyone was there with someone else. I imagine it would feel quite awkward if you went on your own.
We had pretty much been, gone and eaten by 8:15pm. As we waited for the nice AA man to come and revive my car battery, we watched the remaining attendees trickle out. That they had done by about 8:30pm, well before the advertised 9:15pm finish. Makes you wonder why they didn’t pack in more time on the fundamental techniques and ingredients.
All said and done, I really did enjoy the evening. Always good to spend time with Natasha, I tried some new ingredients and learned to cook a tasty new dish that I would not have tried at home by myself.
Will I cook this dish again? Yes. Would I go to another class? They won’t have me back now anyway. Would I be happy to pay $117 for the pleasure? You must be joking. Did the class represent value at $46 per person? Just barely.
Click here for the recipe.
Natasha and I beaming over our diced onions.
A finishing touch of parsley.
Time to eat. Two servings took quite a large pan. Pan size has to increase with the number of servings or you miss the all-delicious crust.