An Unexpected Spanish Dinner Series
Every good dinner party has a story behind it. They say that a dinner party is meaningless if it doesn't have a motive or a mission. Supposedly the act of bringing people together just to eat dinner is too simple, and while it can lead to a pleasant experience, it does not open any doors to achieve a greater purpose to the gathering, or stronger connection among the participants.
This idea of giving a purpose to each dinner party was hardly on my radar when I began (what I consider now) to be my first unofficial, yet most loved, dinner series: a collection of weekly dinners I hosted out of an apartment in Barcelona, Spain back in 2013.
After graduating from college, I decided to leave New York for a bit and took a job teaching English at a language academy in Barcelona. Tucked away at the end of an alleyway off of the prominent Passeig de Gracia sat the tiny two floor academy where I would spend spend long days giving private language lessons to adults of all ages. There were about 8 teachers total, most of us ripe college graduates who had taken this role as an excuse to live as a young person in the enchanting Barcelona. Our schedules at the school were long, but the endless hours spent together, combined with a mutual newness to the city, led us to bond quite quickly.
Our wages at the school were nominal, and so our diets consisted mostly of cheap sandwiches we would assemble ourselves in the park accompanied with a bag of chips and a homemade clara (mixture of lemon Fanta and beer). However, I quickly found myself craving the dinner parties and home cooked meals I was so used to throwing back home in New York, as well as had grown tired of how routine my eating habits had become.
It soon was decided that I would host a "family dinner" for our little teaching crew at my apartment on an upcoming Tuesday after we finished work. I was currently sharing an apartment with three roommates , and so the apartment felt massive. There was a long wooden table that was calling to have friends seated around it.
Once our school day let out for the evening, my fellow teachers and I ran to the nearby Carrefour on Passieg de Gracia, where we zigzagged throughout the two story supermarket throwing items items into our basket that we hoped could be turned into a paella, as well as an abundance of potato chips, pan de pipas, chocolates, and chorizo slices to hold us over as snacks while we cooked. None of us had ever attempted paella before, but given the location (even though the origins of the Spanish rice dish do come from Valencia), we decided this was the dish we were going to make. We boarded the L6 train at Plaça Catalunya and set off to my apartment in Tres Torres. Back in my home we fumbled with the ingredients that were foreign to us not just because we were in a new country, but more so because we all had limited cooking experience. I had begun teaching myself to cook only a year or so prior to this, and at this point was really just working on perfecting the same few recipes I already knew. My group of coworkers turned sous chefs had even less cooking experience.
We started with the rice (admittedly I had never cooked rice before this because perfecting the water to rice ratio always made me nervous) which ended up being more like rice soup which needed the way one does with pasta. Yet, the strained rice ended up blending perfectly with the mix of chicken broth, tomatoes, peas and spices that we added into it, and most likely by not paying attention and leaving it on the stove too long, it perfectly crisped and stuck to the frying pan giving it that perfectly charred taste that a good paella should have. Combined with heap of chicken and chorizo that had been simmering in a pan next to it, marinating with 6 cloves of garlic, generous spoonfuls of paprika, and a couple of fresh lemons. Our "culinary masterpiece" (which most likely would have severely disappointed any true paella aficionados) was not the most aesthetically pleasing dish, but the taste was pleasing, and the journey we took to find ourselves around the dinner table, digging into a plate we had prepared ourselves, recounting the trials and tribulations it took for us to overcome the long day at work and end up at this particular table in each others company, was a most rewarding and fulfilling adventure.
After the first successful "family dinner", the Tuesday night cooking/ dining together quickly became a weekly tradition, and within no time transformed this group of acquaintances/ coworkers into a tight group of friends who would soon become inseparable. It was through these dinners that I came to understand the difference between a standard dinning experience, and one that had been enhanced by a story.
"Family Dinner" Paella Recipe
4 1/2 cup chicken broth
1 teaspoon saffron threads
4 tablespoons olive oil
1 pounds chorizo (or any type of sausague)
2 pounds boneless chicken breast, cut into small pieces
Salt and black pepper to taste
1 cup onion, finely chopped
1 cup red pepper, finely chopped
5 garlic cloves, minced
3 cups paella rice (or any short grain rice)
1 cup canned diced tomatoes, undrained
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice / lemon zest from remaining lemon
1 teaspoon paprika
1 cup fresh parsley leaves, chopped
1 cup canned sweet peas
1. In a medium bowl, mix together 2 tablespoons olive oil, paprika, oregano, and salt and pepper. Stir in chicken pieces to coat. Cover, and refrigerate for about 1 hour.
2. Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a large skillet or paella pan over medium heat. Stir in garlic, red pepper flakes, and rice. Cook, stirring, to coat rice with oil, about 3 minutes. Stir in saffron threads, bay leaf, parsley, chicken stock, and lemon zest. Bring to a boil, cover, and reduce heat to medium low. Simmer 20 minutes, or until all of the chicken broth has been absorbed by the rice. Blend in the caned tomatoes and peas. .
3. At the same time, heat 2 tablespoons olive oil and garlic in a separate pan. Stir in marinated chicken and onion and cook for 5 minutes. Stir in bell pepper and sausage and cook for 5 minutes, or until the chicken is cooked all the way through.
4. Toss chicken and sausage into the pan with the rice mix, and stir over a low heat until the rice begins to crisp and stick to the pan.
5. Serve and enjoy!