Monday, July 09, 2007

My Favorite Column, "To Pea Or not to Pea" (originally published December, 2005)

To pea or not to pea, that was the question that nearly drove my family to blows. Well, not blows exactly. I’m sure they wanted to hit me, but decorum and the fact that we were in a public place precluded any real violence. Nonetheless the argument was heated and nearly ruined a perfectly good trip to Spain. It was one of those arguments that only families can have. There I stood, in the middle of a super mercado in Spain, stubbornly resolute that I was going to create an authentic paella, not just some American version of Spain’s national dish. Already exasperated by a long day (which included driving several hours only to get lost in Spanish wine country), the rest of my family stared at me incredulously as they realized that they were going to have to deal with my, sometimes unbearable, stubbornness.

“Do you have a recipe?,” they asked.

“No, but I’m sure this place has cookbooks.” It didn’t, but that wasn’t going to stop me.

“Have you ever made an authentic paella,” they continued hopefully?

“No.” Was my only reply, thinking that if I could find a prepackaged version or a picture of the dish I could piece one together.

And so continued the debate for another fifteen minutes or so, they asking totally reasonable questions, my answering with obtuse and irrational replies all the while becoming more and more morose. It was at this point that my Step-Dad decided to take matters into his own hands and began collecting ingredients for his version of paella. A paella that I will now admit to enjoying every time he’s made it, but we were in Spain damn it, living in a house in Pyrenees and this improvised version wasn’t going to cut it. So what did I do? I pouted of course and eventually gave in to my parent’s demands, like the child was being.

When we got back to our home in the mountains the argument continued silently. I had agreed to work with my Step-Dad on the paella, but once in the kitchen I took over. Out of frustration he left me alone and I continued to improvise my way to an “authentic” paella. Near the end of the cooking process, I made a mistake that would haunt me for the rest of the trip; I added a handful of spring peas to the dish. When I unveiled my creation at the table, the sparks and frustration that had been building burst forth.

“You call this an authentic paella?” My parents asked. “It’s got peas in it, no real paella has peas.” They continued to mock my dish, “We’ve eaten paella throughout Spain and we’ve never had peas in it. This isn’t real paella.”

They were as insistent in their belief that paella was pealess as I was unyielding in my conviction that real paellas included peas. For the rest of the trip I made sure to note the number of paellas either real or in pictures that included peas. Not to be out done, my parents pointed out all paellas that were pealess. While this game eventually became a running joke for the rest of the trip, the root of the debate was never solved.

So, who was right? Well actually both of us. According to Spanish cookbook author and authority on Spanish cooking Alex Elger, the emblematic dish of Spain was born in the wetlands of Valencia during the 8th century Muslim occupation of the region. There the moors imported and began growing their staple crop, rice. As the years continued, rice became an important cash crop and farmers throughout Valencia opened more and more land to rice cultivation. According to local lore, it was these rice farmers who invented Spain’s national dish.

The original Valencian dish included, the now familiar, rice flavored with saffron and a variety of seasonal vegetables and game cooked over wood fires in open fields. That’s right, game not seafood, which most Americans and tourists to Spain usually associate with the dish. According to Penelope Casas’ “Paella! Spectacular Rice dishes from Spain,” these rice farmers, “traditionally lived by hunting, fishing, and foraging…The original paella was a dish cooked by the rice reapers, who made their midday meal from the foods that were hunted, fished, foraged and grown—, eels, wild duck, wild rabbit, snails and frog legs” featured prominently in the original dish. In the spring, she continues, “seasonal vegetables would include peas.” Yes, vindication is mine! Peas were featured in the original paellas along with green beans, white beans, a variety of bell peppers, onions and other fresh vegetables.

However, like other dishes that define a nation each region adapted the original to the foodstuffs unique to their specific area of the country. Thus as many food writers have noted paella has become a dish that is different from region to region and Spaniard to Spaniard. Admittedly, included in these many variations are several that are pealess.

Over time, the recipes became considerably more elaborate, the most recognizable paella de marisc ("seafood paella"), emerged in the coastal cities throughout the country. These paellas, which feature shrimp, muscles, clams, fish, shellfish and other mollusks, became a favorite of both Spaniard and tourists alike. Today the dish is served throughout Spain, but most critics agree that best seafood paellas are still found on the Atlantic and Mediterranean coasts.

Throughout Spain and even in the United States one can now find paellas with chorizo, duck, green beans, garlic, langoustines, lobster, mussels, onions, peas, red bell peppers, shrimp, squid and a variety of other creative ingredients. Some recipes even mix traditional meats and game with seafood, so its not uncommon, even in Spain, to be served a paella that features rabbit, chorizo, mussels, shrimp and peas, all together. Be careful of prepackaged paellas and recipes that eschew saffron for less expensive artificial colorings. While food purists and snobs like me may not accept these ingredients and combinations as authentic, they (with the exceptions of those that don’t use saffron) can be quite tasty.

A good Paella whether a simple, rustic dish cooked in open air and eaten straight from the pan, or an elaborate preparation, created in a high-end restaurant served with peas or without is a culinary treat that shouldn’t be missed.
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