Anatomy of a Dinner Party: a day in the life of a hospitalityaholic

Guest Blogger – Curtis and His Deconstructed Paella

Written by Patti on December 1st, 2009

Good Morning, Darlings!

Today we have a guest blogger – my hilarious blogging (and real life) friend Curtis from over at Complete Waste of Time. If you remember, Curtis and I made carrot curd together. If that piqued your interest, his cautionary tale of deconstructed cuisine will slay you. I laughed until my sides hurt upon reading his story.

I think you will, too.


xoxo, Patti

Hungry and Waiting for Paella

Hungry and Waiting for Paella

Paella Calamity

St. Augustine defined pride as: love of one’s own excellence. Pride I have in excess. Imagination I also have in excess. Cooking technique I do not. Don’t get me wrong, I cook quite well. But every so often I decide to leave the safety of my tried and true abilities for the culinary unknown. When I’m at my best, I do this at the most inopportune time.
This whole fiasco begins with an episode of Bravo’s Top Chef series. They did an episode based around deconstruction. Each chef chose a classical dish and had to deconstruct it as part of the competition. The losing dish was a horrid failing of paella.

Seeing this I decide that I can do better than the trained chef on television and will make it myself. But for what occasion? Paella is a pretty big dish and you don’t just make it on a Wednesday night. And considering I’ve never made it before, I let my imagination run wild with the possibilities. The occasion presented itself in a trip to a cabin in Blue Ridge, Ga. According to the website, the cabin had a well appointed kitchen with every pot and pan needed except a paella pan. But I’m deconstructing so I wouldn’t need it.

In the weeks leading up to the trip I consulted with anyone that knew their way around a kitchen and liked food. This relatively short list consisted of Patti and my friend Stefan. I mentioned it to others including Patti’s husband and took everyone’s input into consideration.

As the trip grew closer the menu began growing more and more out of hand. What was paella alone, turned into paella and a salad. Then it became paella, salad and a bread pudding.

For the salad I decided I would do a roasted beet salad using gold and yellow beets on a bed of arugula with pancetta, goat cheese, walnuts and a saffron aioli.

For the paella I decided that in addition to the traditional yellow saffron rice, I would also do rice with squid ink. They would be made into cakes with clams, mussels, chorizo and shrimp, surrounded in a shellfish stock.

The bread pudding is something I’ve always wanted to try. I love the buttery taste of croissants so I decided to use those, slicing them in half and layering them with apple. It was going to be topped with a brandy caramel sauce.

That is what was supposed to happen.

The shenanigans began on Wednesday before the trip. I had a birthday party to go to on Thursday so I needed to buy all the food on Wednesday so I could leave directly from work on Friday. I went to the Dekalb County Farmer’s Market to do my shopping.

I love the Farmer’s Market. But on occasion they do things a little strangely. For instance: clams, mussels and oysters are still alive (or should be) when you buy them. They need oxygen to breathe. If you buy a bag of 100 of any shellfish they come in this lovely little net bag so your crustacean friends can make it home safely. If, however, you only need a pound or so they come in the standard oxygen depriving plastic bag which they seal tightly. They obviously had not been informed that every gold fish I ever owned died quickly. So I poke holes in the bags to allow air in for my new friends.

At the deli counter I planned to get pancetta. I was planning on baking it in the oven so there would be this rich salty pancetta “chip” on each plate. Unfortunately they were out of pancetta. So I went with an excellent back up: prosciutto de parma.

Now I had the task of keeping my shellfish alive for the next 72 hours. I was cooking dinner on Saturday. I checked online and found every contradictory method to keep them alive. Fresh water, salt water, no water. Refrigerate them. Freeze them. The internet failed me big time on this one. So I went with a combination of all three. I kept them refrigerated at all times. I sprinkled them with fresh water. Anything I could think of. And I actually got them to the cabin almost all alive. Victory for me.

But it’s going on 48 hours and under the influence of a few drinks, and a friend who has had a few more, decide to cook the mussels and clams that night instead of risking another night. In the light of day, this was a bad idea. But it seemed SOOOOOO right at the time. I steamed them in white wine with garlic, parsley, and basil. How I accomplish this after shots of Jaeger is nothing short of a miracle.

So we fast forward to the next day. We are a late rousing crowd so breakfast isn’t until 10 AM or so. Lunch around three. Both meals were stellar and expertly cooked by my fellow campers. Yes I call it camping even though it’s a cabin. Once bears become a realistic concern I call it camping.

I begin my work around 3:00 pm. The train jumped the tracks right about 3:15.

Remember the fantastic prosciutto de parma I bought? Yeah, I totally forgot that in my refrigerator at home. I realized this fact as I pulled into Ellijay. Ellijay is known for apples. Ellijay is not known for its fantastic delis that have imported Italian ham. So I stop where any tourist would stop to remedy this problem; the local Wal-Mart. Lo and behold they actually have some prosciutto…… from Delaware.

Back at the cabin I decide the appropriate way to get this done is to roast the beets while cooking the rice. Dinner wouldn’t be for hours so this would give both time to cook and cool before I would need to handle them. While those were cooking I would do remaining prep on the dressings, aiolis, and the shrimp. Rather than just serve the prosciutto as is I decided to crisp it in the oven as well.

The rice actually goes according to plan. Both the saffron rice and squid ink rice cooked perfectly. The only questions are from the other campers what the pot of blue-black is on the stove.

After the rice is done I start smelling something burning coming from the oven. I assumed it was my beets and that they were done. I remove them and set them aside to cool. I never stuck a knife in to check for doneness. This is a mistake that starts a gigantic snowball going downhill.

Because so much of my dish is seafood based and doesn’t cook quickly I spent a great deal of time standing around waiting for things to cool off so I can use them.

At this point I have the beets done (or so I think), the rice, prosciutto and shellfish are all also done. I feel like I’m ahead of the game. I’m thinking all I have to do is slice the beets and the salad would be ready to assemble. And then form the rice in to cakes and toast them in the skillet to make the cakes and its all gravy. I start making my bread pudding. I sliced the croissants the night before and had allowed them to stale overnight. A friend offered to help and sliced the apples for me. I got it assembled with ease and got it into the oven.

Next I start slicing the beets and discover that they are far too underdone. I plot three or four ways to attempt to save them and none work. Roasting them again would only dry them out and blanching them would only water log them. Add to this that the golden beets are beginning to turn from oxidation. So I make the decision to toss them all together. The shrimp for the paella is now going on the salad. They are ten gorgeous large shrimp with heads still on. So I think I have that plan rescued to some degree.

My next move is the brandy caramel sauce. Once again I’ve left the brandy at home in Atlanta. So I decide to make just a regular old caramel sauce. Nothing flashy but it’s solid and servable. Some where along the way I turn my head at that crucial moment when the sugar melts and I end up with a wonderful, aromatic, seized mess. Someone even remarks how great it smells as I take it out side to dispose of the caramel rock candy that I’ve made.

Now I have to turn my attention back to the paella. I cooked the rice in a lobster base so I figured that I wouldn’t really need to serve it with a broth. I thought the flavor would carry it. And now that the rice had cooled I spread it in a baking pan and use a large mug as a cookie cutter to make discs of rice. I put olive oil in the pan and begin to toast the cakes.

Most people, I call you all the normal people, would never make something the first time using a technique you’ve only imagined up in the last week. I, however, am a culinary Genghis Khan, laying waste to kitchens everywhere. It’s obvious that I shouldn’t have attempted this without doing it at home first. Fortune favors the bold! Right?

I need to mention here that I’ve been cooking and screwing up for about four hours. That’s right FOUR HOURS. 75% of this is simply the fact that I’ve let my imagination outpace my skill. The other 25% is that I’m doing this all by myself. I actually prefer to cook on my own because I know exactly how I want things done. But in this case I should have thrown up the red flag far earlier. A couple of people offered to help but admitted they had no idea what I was doing. That made two of us.

It’s nearing 8:00 and people are starting to get a little hungry, but they can also see the obvious frustration on my face. I still have to figure out how I’m going to make the rice “cake” work. I haven’t reheated the shellfish, not to mention that the chorizo is still in the refrigerator. And I need to cook the shrimp. The bread pudding is going fantastic however.

At that point something clicks and I hit the “I’m hungry and need to make this work” zone. Out come the plates for the salad. I dress the arugula and plate it with the prosciutto and some saffron aioli. I cook the shrimp under the broiler and add them to the salad. The goat cheese? Completely forgotten.

I get the shellfish going again to warm up in the lobster stock and some wine I have left and throw the chorizo in a pan to cook. I turn back to the rice “cakes” and finally get the saffron cakes to come out like I want them, even if they are a little thinner than I want. The squid ink rice poses a whole different problem though; it sticks. Rather than try to make it work as a cake I improvise it as a soft mound next to the saffron cake. Did I reheat it? Of course not! It’s been cooling for 3 hours, why would I bother with that sort of foolishness. Oh, wait! Turn the chorizo! With some greatly needed help I just start plating things as they are done. Rice cake, rice dollop, shellfish and now overcooked (but still easily edible) chorizo. I should have saved some of the lobster stock and used it as a broth for the plate. It would have made for a great base for the plate. Especially if I’d reduced it down a bit and maybe added some sriraichia to spice it up.

I literally collapse into a chair with everything done at 8:30. Five and a half hours of cooking. The plus side of all of this is that everything actually tasted good. While a great bit of it was improvisation and not what I had planned I’m okay with the direction it ended up going in. On the downside I felt like I’d been beaten with a ham to the face. It was exhausting physically and mentally. After dinner I passed out in a chair next to a fire.

If there is anything I can teach people it would be the following two things.

1. Don’t get involved in a land war in Asia.
2. Laboratories exist for a reason. I think the meal as planned was completely plausible. If I had attempted some of the techniques (many of them basic, but complicated by some of the ingredients), and if I had used a better timeline. Also, if I had to do over again, rather than sautéing the crust that we all love so much back onto the rice I would have cooked the rice in the oven in a wide pan so I could merely cut the cakes out rather than reforming them.

Learn from my mistakes, America.


1 Comments so far ↓

  1. Erika says:

    Great writeup! Loved it 🙂