Highlands neighborhood. Denver, Colorado. Just another kiddie birthday party in good ol’ middle America: a warm summer evening, kids splashing in the wading pool in the backyard, soccer ball being kicked around, music, and a 3 foot diameter “paella” (pan for which the dish is named) heating over a high flame. This is how our friends Telly and Nicole celebrate another year for their little man Zannis.
Making paella in huge quantities is not a new trick for Telly. Co-owner (with his brother) of Jake and Telly’s Greek Taverna in Colorado Springs, and creator and previous owner of Parea Wine Bar in San Francisco, it’s safe to say he knows a thing or two about good food and wine. Jake and Telly’s does a wine dinner featuring wines and food from a selected country or region of the world each month, and so Telly began making paella 2 years ago as part of his Wines of Spain dinner, cooking out in the dining room for all his patrons to see.
When you think of the food of Spain, jamón Iberico, queso Manchego, Sherry, and churros con chocolate all come to mind. But being able to witness the creation of a Valencian specialty like paella on such a large scale is, at least here in the USA, not common. And being able to do it with friends on a beautiful summer evening with a nice glass of Giné Rosat from Priorato in hand is an added bonus indeed.
In case you start salivating (you will) and need to have this, Telly was kind enough to allow me to share his method with you. Unless you’ll be cooking for a crowd, a 3 foot pan isn’t necessary, but a good industrial quality pan (All-Clad or other stainless steel, not aluminum) is recommended. Or, if you are fortunate enough to live within a car’s drive of Jake and Telly’s, sign up for their emails and watch for the Wines of Spain dinner which is usually in October.
Telly began his day by making a homemade fish stock with fresh meaty halibut bones (no tail, head or fins are used for this), and a mirepoix: equal parts onion, carrots, celery and also parsley, bay leaf, salt and pepper. He let this cook for about 4 hours, and strained out the solids. I was able to sneak a taste and in my opinion, this was the foundation of this decadent seafood paella. The flavour was delicate with a clear blond color.
To start the paella, Telly heated the pan on high flame until quite hot and added olive oil, and seared large chunks of sea bass to season the pan. After a quick dance over the heat, he whisked the sea bass off, reserving the pieces for later and then added the chopped onions and crushed garlic gloves.
He gave those some time, frequently moving them around with his big spatula, then added fresh red bell peppers, Anaheims, and jalapeños.
He opened a bottle of dry sherry and poured in the whole thing to deglaze and bring up all those tasty bits of sea bass and onion.
Then he added fresh tomatoes, and the pot of fish stock (about 3.5 parts liquid to 1 part rice), some splashes of a dry Greek white wine — a blend of Moschofilero and Roditis grapes (c’mon, it wouldn’t be authentic Topakas cuisine if there weren’t something Greek in it) and paprika, saffron ground up a bit with some sea salt, freshly cracked pepper and piquillo peppers.
This deserves a caption, don’t you think?
Jake does a little Greek dancing while Telly perfects the balance of the paella.
At this point, his mission was to “balance” the paella which, especially while cooking outside, can be tricky. The goal being to have the rice mixture spread evenly across the pan, including the stock and wine, in order for everything to cook evenly. So, there was some rigging of the paella stand, and rotating the pan (with the help of four large guys holding hot pads!) to get things just right. Telly cooks with precision and focus, and that my friends, is why his food is so delicious.
Once he was satisfied with the balance of the paella, he continued to monitor the liquid cooking down, adding a bit of water if needed, and checked regularly for the optimal “thin crust” to form on the bottom of the pan which is typical of a good paella. Now was the time to stand back for a bit, sip some wine, and wait for the next phase.
And then came the seafood. Piece by piece, Telly laid down each chunk of sea bass first, starting with the edges of the pan and working his way in.
Next the live Prince Edward Island mussels (and so began my heart palpitations . . . ) which were handled with much care, again placed on top one by one, and then the lobster meat, and the crab claws — claws pointing up for a beautiful show of seafood.
And finally halved and seeded Anaheim and red peppers for a gorgeous finishing splash of color, and a sprinkling of baby peas and parsley. Lastly, Telly recommends a bit of acid at the end, like a squeeze of lemon to brighten things up.
Dinner was served to eager guests, who were officially ready to eat the spectacular dish prepared before their eyes. How was it? Well, why bother with silly social rules: let me tell you — I ate three bowls. And I would have had a fourth, except by that point they were serving birthday cake and it seemed wrong to mix bites of paella with chocolate. Telly did a fantastic job of staging the vegetables and the fish, and therefore everything was cooked to perfection.
Most importantly, little Zannis seemed to have a very happy birthday party and as for the rest of us, nothing beats “parea” with good friends and delicious food.