To win Alton Brown’s Cutthroat Kitchen on the Food Network last year, chef Dakota Soifer of Boulder’s Cafe Aion had to run a maze of red velvet ropes and make a red velvet cake using beets for color. It was, he says, “really fun and really cool, but I wouldn’t say it’s the style or section of the restaurant world that I am most interested in. Some of my very favorite experiences of cooking were the Meadowlark Farm Dinners: hanging out in a field all day and building a fire and cooking over wood — I get the most personal pleasure out of it. Being in LA, in the studio was exciting and new, but it seemed a bit like Mars to me. Still, I feel lucky for getting the chance to experience it.”
Paella is a centerpiece at Cafe Aion, which specializes in Spanish tapas and serves menus of small plates; Soifer includes an entire chapter on the joys and complexities of paella in the cookbook he's working on. “It’s central to our philosophy,” he says. “It’s something to share, takes a while to cook — and I love it for parties because it’s not like risotto, where you have to stand over it. It’s great to drink wine and have a few slices of jamón and wait for it to do its thing.”
While there’s always paella at hand at Cafe Aion, both house paella and vegetarian, there’s a special emphasis on the dish on Wednesday nights, because Soifer regularly visits the Boulder Farmers’ Market Wednesday afternoons. “It’s great to pop down to the market and see what’s useful there," he says. "It gives our chef the chance to play around and try some fun ideas. Along with wine pairings, paella creates a great atmosphere. At every table, people are sharing and it changes the entire vibe in the restaurant.
“Tonight at the cafe we have paella with chorizo, topped with clams — and also pea shoots and spring garlic from Cure Farms,” he adds. The paella changes as different kinds of produce come into season: “The fresher vegetables that just need a moment or two of heat, we like to add at the end when we’re adding shellfish to open, or shaved fennel — just at the very end with your chopped herbs. Hardier vegetables like summer squash, eggplant, winter squash and cauliflower benefit from braising with the rice for the duration of the cooking. Corn is great right at the end as well.”
Here are some of Soifer’s thoughts on paella, along with his recipe:
Paella is one of those dishes that benefits from imperfections. To me, those endearing burnt edges, clumps and crunches, make a dish so much more soulful and singular than a perfectly sous-vide piece of protein. (Not to worry, though, I don't believe anyone is trying to sous-vide paella right now.) The Spanish even have a word for the coveted burnt crust which forms on the bottom of the paella pan: socarrat. A socarrat is to a chef as the red cape is to a matador – very, very, important; without it you've just got soggy rice in a pan, or a horn ornament on a bull.
The paella is my favorite dish to cook. It really does take about 35 minutes to complete. At the café our signature paella highlights Aion's linguica sausage, house smoked and hung to dry for five days, mussels from Maine (my home state), saffron, and preserved lemon (two-month curing time, but available in local stores). Nothing about this dish is quick, but the patience needed to put it together will pay off ten–fold!
It might seem counter-intuitive to work for 30 minutes to achieve a layer of burnt rice, after all, your grandmother did it with Uncle Ben's on Sunday right, so what's the big deal? Well, we’re not talking about “throw it all in, crank the burner to high, and blacken it.” It's more about finding a Zen place with your rice and adding in just the right amount of stock over just the right heat to slowly achieve the perfectly crispy, crunchy, deeply caramelized crust of rice, onions, tomatoes and saffron. The very best paellas are made outside over a wood fire, where consistency and a controlled environment are not your friend, so let loose, use your instinct, and enjoy the paella process. And remember, if you burn the shit out of it you can always try pulling the socarrat explanation on your dining companions!
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Cafe Aion Paella
Paella Pan (14”)
8 slices (about a 6 inch portion) linguica, chorizo, or other spicy, smoky sausage you really like
1 small red onion, julienned
6 cloves of garlic, sliced
8-ounce canned tomato or fresh tomatoes
Saffron – a nice three finger pinch
½ cup white wine
Coriander seeds, ground
½ cup short grain, Spanish paella rice or similar short gain white rice.
1 quart chicken stock
½ pound mussels
A little minced preserved lemon (recipe follows; can also be omitted.)
Fresno chile, minced, or any other chile you like
Flat-leaf parsley, chopped
This will take a little bit, don't rush it. Make sure everyone, including yourself, has nibbles (lomo, chorizo, hummus, manchego, olives) and wine to hold them over for the next hour. The nice thing about this dish is that you don't need to stand over it the whole time — it’s not risotto. Actually, you never really want to stir the paella once your stock is in. Just don't totally forget about it.
Over a medium heat in enough olive oil to coat the bottom of the pan, start sweating the sliced linguica (or other sausage) with the onions and garlic. The oils should start coming out of the sausage and mingle with the onions as they soften and caramelize. Keep an eye on the heat as you don't want them to burn, but too low a heat and it will go limp and sad. Once the onions have caramelized nicely, add in the rice and coriander. Continue to stir, allowing the coriander to become fragrant and the rice to toast to a nice golden brown. In go the tomatoes (squeeze them through your fingers into the pan to aid in the breaking up) and the saffron. Turn up the heat a bit and let it all reduce to a thick consistency.
This is when you hit the rice with a liberal splash of wine, being careful of any possible flare-up. Give the pan a little shake to even out the distribution of rice, this will be the last real movement of the rice, let it be still to develop the coveted socarrat for the duration of the cooking. Ladle stock around the outer edge of the pan until the liquid level is just that of the rice's. Reduce the heat to achieve a slow bubbling on the pan and let the magic unfold. You may have to add a bit more stock from time to time. If you do, use that moment to taste for seasoning as if it is needed the salt will be better distributed if it is introduced with a flush of liquid.
When the rice is just al dente and the liquid has just about been evaporated and absorbed it is time to add the mussels. Arrange them standing on their hinge just set in the rice. Ensuring that there is a touch of liquid left to steam open the mussels will be very helpful for having them cook and open in a timely manner. Once they all pop open it is pretty much time to eat! Pull the paella off the heat, top with chopped parsley, Fresno chile, preserved lemon, and a generous drizzle of great olive oil.
Enjoy your hard work and patience, salud!
Preserved lemon: “We just make a mixture of salt and sugar, two parts salt to one part sugar and throw some aromatics in there—bay leaves, chilis, coriander seeds maybe. Cut the lemons in half across the equator and almost quarter each half but leave intact. Pack the salt mixture into the open lemon halves,. Put them in a container, pack in more salt, squish them to get liquid to release, and let them sit for two months. At that point, discard the flesh and chop up the peel, which has been cured. They make cute little gifts packed into jars.