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'cause it's easier being a green sinner than a green saint . . .


2 Vendémiaire: Safran (Saffron)

When I think of saffron, the first food that comes to mind is paella. If you're not familiar with paella, the basics are this: it's a rice dish from Spain flavored with saffron, and you just throw in whatever sausage, poultry, and seafood you can get your hands on. It's a big dish to feed a lot of people, and the traditional method uses a wide, shallow pan and takes a loooong time to put together and cook (several hours at least).

I made up a batch of paella recently and Jimmy and I had our friend Zandrea over to test it out. I'd never attempted paella before (and it's a little complex) so I consulted the experts: I adapted a method from Cook's Illustrated. They used a Dutch oven instead of a paella pan (no need to buy a special pan for just one dish!) and part of the cooking happens in the oven (so I get to enjoy cocktails and appetizers while it's cooking). I have to say, I'm an online subscriber to Cook's Illustrated, and for the equivalent of the cover price of a single cookbook for a year's subscription, it totally pays off. I always consult them for methods on foods I'm not familiar with because I know they have tested all the angles, and they have really excellent equipment and ingredient reviews as well.

Shellfish at Wholey'sSo, in anticipation of my attempt at paella, we took a trip to Pittsburgh's Strip District and made a stop at Wholey's, my go-to place for seafood. We got some scallops (buy the little ones, they're cheaper than the big ones and you just need them bite-size for this anyway), shrimp, and mussels. I also got some boneless chicken thighs. (I prefer thigh meat over breast in most cases. It's got more flavor, and for that matter, it's cheaper too.)

If you're not familiar with the Strip District, it's a neighborhood in Pittsburgh that serves as a nexus for distributors of produce and meats, and also has many retail locations and street vendors. It's a great time on a Saturday morning (when it's not too crowded -- avoid holidays).

100 pounds of onions

Everyone in Pittsburgh has their favorite vendors. On my list: Wholey's for seafood, Reyna's for Mexican, Lotus and also the no-English-name Asian place up on twenty-somethingth-street for Asian foods. Pennsylvania Macaroni Company (Penn Mac for short) is an excellent place for Italian foods and has a cheese counter rivaled by none.

(Go early or risk being in line for half an hour or more at the cheese counter.

Pittsburgh's Strip District

Cross your fingers and if you're lucky, you'll get served by the lady who calls everybody "dear heart". If you're in a hurry, try Stamoolis Bros., the Greek grocery right next door -- similar selection but less lines.) And lastly, the thing I never, ever miss on a trip to the Strip District, is getting a mung bean pancake made by the Korean lady at the stand on Penn Ave. (Someday, someday, I will learn how to make a mung bean pancake.)

I also procured some chorizo from Reyna's. (This was the Mexican version of chorizo -- basically a spicy, fresh pork sausage. It's hard to find Spanish chorizo, which is a dry-cured sausage, but the Mexican version is fine in this dish if that's what you've got. If you can't find either, spice up some ground pork yourself with chili powder, cayenne, salt and black pepper and call it close enough. We're not trying to be authentic Spaniards here, just make something tasty.)

We also picked up a tasty selection of olives and cheeses to tide us over while we chatted before dinner...

I decided some Spanish-themed beverages were in order and made some white sangria as well as Palomas (grapefruit soda, salt, and tequila -- yum).

White sangria

Anyway, the main show: the paella. It has a lot in common with risotto, and starts with a creamy, short-grain rice roasting in a pan. (I used Arborio, the Italian rice I also always use in a risotto.) It finishes in the oven, adding the various meat and seafood at intervals depending on how long much time each takes to cook. (In this case, the chicken, sausage, and scallops got stirred directly into the rice, and the shrimp and mussels steamed on top in the last 10 or 15 minutes of cooking.) There are also a variety of vegetables, including roasted peppers and peas. And the distinctive flavor, is, of course, the saffron.

Saffron threadsSaffron is a spice that's made from the tiny center parts of a crocus flower that grows in the Mediterranean. Since it comes from such a tiny part of the plant (Wikipedia tells me it takes a football field full of flowers to make 1 pound), it's very expensive. Fortunately, it doesn't take very much to lend a dish its dintinctive yellow color and a largely indescribable flavor. There's really no substitute (sometimes cookbooks say to use turmeric, which is also yellow and has a likewise indescribable flavor, though one that's quite different from saffron). It comes in little dried reddish "threads" like the ones pictured here, which you simply crumble into your dish.

The paella turned out pretty well, I think, given it was my first try!

PaellaRecipe: Paella

Serves 6. Takes about an hour and a half to two hours, but the latter half hour or so it's mostly in the oven and you're free to have cocktails and appetizers.

  • 1/2 lb. large shrimp, peeled & deveined
  • 1/2 lb. scallops (the small ones are fine, see above)
  • 1 dozen mussels
  • 1 lb. boneless skinless chicken thighs
  • 1/2 lb. chorizo (Spanish if you can find it, see above)
  • 1 red and 1 green bell pepper
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 8 cloves garlic, minced or pressed
  • 1 can tomatoes, diced and drained
  • 1/2 c. frozen peas
  • 2 cups Arborio rice
  • 3 cups chicken broth
  • 1/2 c. white wine
  • olive oil
  • 1/2 t. saffron threads, crumbled
  • 2 bay leaves
  • chopped fresh parsley
  • lemon wedges

  1. Preheat the oven to 350°F.
  2. Peel and devein the shrimp. (People always say to leave the tails on when you do this to make the shrimp look pretty, but I find that makes them a pain in the ass to eat in a dish you are otherwise consuming with a fork.) Season the shrimp with salt & pepper and refrigerate until needed.
  3. If your mussels are precleaned, just keep them in the fridge. If they're not, soak them in cold water in the sink, scrub the shells clean, and remove the "beards" by pinching them between your thumb and the flat of a knife and pulling.
  4. Trim any excess fat off the chicken thighs and cut each thigh into thirds lengthwise. Season with salt & pepper.
  5. If you have Spanish chorizo (the dry sausage) cut it into bite-size pieces.
  6. Chop the onion. Seed the bell peppers and cut them into strips.
  7. Get out your trusty Dutch oven -- it's the only pot we're going to use for this whole shindig. You need a large one, at least 6 quarts or so, to fit all of this in. Heat a couple of tablespoons of olive oil in the bottom on medium-high heat. Put the pepper strips in, skin-side down, and cook them until they get a little black and blistery. Remove them to a bowl.
  8. Add a little more oil if necessary, then place the chicken strips in the hot pan. Cook until they're brown on one side, about 3 minutes, then flip them over and go another 3. When the chicken is done, remove it to a bowl.
  9. Reduce the heat to medium. Add the chorizo and cook until the fat renders and it browns. If you're using the Mexican chorizo, break it up with a wooden spoon into small pieces as it cooks. Remove the chorizo to the bowl with the chicken.
  10. If the chorizo was really fatty, remove some fat from the pan. If it was lean, you may need a little more olive oil. Add the onion and cook until soft, then add the garlic and stir about a minute, then add the tomatoes. Cook until the tomatoes break up and begin to thicken, then add the rice, stirring thouroughly. Then add the remaining liquids -- broth and wine -- and the spices -- bay leaf and saffron. Add the chicken and chorizo back to the pot and also add the scallops at this time. Turn the heat back up and bring to a boil, stirring occasionally.
  11. When you've reached a boil, cover the pot and transfer it to the oven. Cook until most of the liquid is absorbed by the rice, about 15 minutes.
  12. Remove the pot from the oven. Arrange the pepper strips, shrimp, and mussels over the surface of the rice (point the mussels straight up so they open upward). Scatter the peas over the top. Replace the cover and return pot to the oven for about 10 minutes or until the shrimp are opaque and the mussels have opened.
  13. Remove the pot from the oven and place it back on the burner for 2 minutes on medium-high heat. The idea is to get a browned, crispy bottom crust of rice (although you can certainly skip this step if you like).
  14. Remove the pot from heat and let rest 5 minutes. If any of the mussels didn't open, remove them now and discard. Sprinkle some parsley over the top, and serve with lemon wedges and a big spoon to fill everyone's plate with yumminess.