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November 3, 2008 at 7:22 AM

Eaters say: (Paella) party on!

“Paella freaks unite!” wrote Brian Williamson — one of several Eaters who emailed last week after reading my entry about making paella. The grain from Spain “is a subject near and dear to our hearts at our little house in Haller Lake,” Brian said. And to prove it, he sent this stunning glamour-shot from his own paella party, held this past summer:

Brian writes that he and his wife, Maria Giammona, originally made their paella on the stovetop but in recent years have come to rely on their Weber grill — using wood from their fruit trees and sturdy old rosemary plants to impart a certain “smoikeynesscence” (as they call it at their house). “Wood smoke can really make the difference when you’ve already got a dish that, by the nature and ingredients of the beast, is already superlative,” he says. It probably doesn’t hurt that they use Spanish bomba rice and homemade shellfish stock for added flavor (Maria saves the shells from grilled prawns to make the stock).

It’s no wonder the couple’s paella parties have become somewhat ledgendary among their friends — a culinarily inclined crowd, he says, that includes a restaurant owner, a wine sales rep and a Cordon Bleu grad who eagerly anticipate the summer fun-filled rice-eating fetes — and often try to sneak in extra guests. When it comes to grilling paella in the great outdoors, Brian mourns the warm summer days and the opportunitity to dine with his other pal, Al Fresco, but in the true Northwest spirit notes, “There are times when even the November cold hasn’t stopped us.”

Mimi Berger wrote to tell me that she learned to make paella from her former brother-in-law — a native of Barcelona — when she was only 17. “The taste of that first bite of paella has remained rooted in my memory since. My first taste of an exotic food, perfectly prepared and presented. Wow.” She recalls that he precooked the rice until it was translucent, using “ONE CUP! of fruity olive oil” before adding additional ingredients.

These days, a more calorie-conscious Mimi relies on recipes from a favored cookbook: “Paella! Spectacular Rice Dishes from Spain,” by Penelope Casas — and says she isn’t shy about taking liberties with Casas’ recipes. “Our favorite is seafood paella, but we’re not opposed to adding chorizo and chicken on occasion.” Like Brian and Maria, Mimi also uses bomba rice, as well as Spanish paprika — “they make the dish perfect every time.” She also adds frozen peas just a few minutes before it’s done so the peas don’t overcook. And take heed, those of you who don’t own a paella pan: before purchasing a proper paellera, she used an electric skillet “which worked nicely.”

My Seattle Times colleague Ian Ith, presently on paternity leave, took time out from caring for his twins to offer his two-cents on the subject of paella. He scoffed at the notion (OK, I’m being polite: he sent a royal — and most entertaining — rant) regarding Seattle’s fussy foodies rushing out to fancy-pants restaurants to spend a small fortune eating so-called “authentic” paella.

“Paella is peasant food. Peasant food! Backyard barbecue chow!” he insists. “If you think about it, paella is basically the Hamburger Helper of Spain. You take whatever you have (poultry, cheap seafood you caught that day), and stretch it by mixing it with a whold gob of cheaply-had rice.” To prove his point, he also sent along some visuals — from a trip to Spain where he got his authentic authentic-fix at this open-air joint right on the playa:

So, how much did it cost for a taste of that beachside barbecue bonanza? “Six euros — for all you can eat,” said Ian [that’s less than eight bucks, paella pals!]. “Not $34 for a little pan-pizza-size pan.”

Someday — and soon, I hope — I’ll get to Spain to eat paella on the beach, enjoying it, as Ian suggests, “with cold beer, not some kind of $35 bottle of vino tinto.” In the meantime, we’ll just have to keep experimenting with recipes here at home. Next time I’m trying this one from The Spanish Table –employed to great effect by a couple of Eaters who sang its praises on the original paella post. At the Western Avenue store, they’ll even give you a copy of the recipe for free, and while there, you can pick up a paella pan, the Penelope Casas paella cookbook and everything from bomba rice to fresh chorizo to fruity olive oil to (sorry Ian!) a fussy-foodie-worthy bottle of $35 vino tinto.

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