Every summer, my boyfriend and I gather friends and family around his 20-something-inch cast-iron skillet. The skillet was a gift from a friend and its purpose has almost exclusively been to make enough paella to feed at least 15 people.
The summer tradition began before Nate and I started dating, when we were just friends. Back then, roughly five years ago, he lived in a duplex with a small side yard, and burned wood inside a rusty washing machine basin. The small holes throughout the bin — which once allowed water to seep through and saturate a load of laundry — allowed the oxygen in the air to feed the flame, keeping the heat consistent. We fed his roommates, his neighbors and each other. At the time, there was no recipe, just a list of ingredients and a cook’s intuition.
I’ve since encouraged him to jot down the directions, but the paella manages to morph and change with each summer’s unique iteration. The summer we moved to Kenai, friends and family from Anchorage traveled to our little house to celebrate the transition over paper plates of golden-yellow paella.
Last year, we waited until nearly fall and it was almost dark outside while we ate in the yard.
This summer, as we were packing and moving our belongings to our new apartment in Anchorage, we took an evening to bid adieu to the friends and places that have made our house home for the last two years. The event was outside and tension from newly loosened COVID-19 state health mandates hung heavy in the air. This wouldn’t be the last time we were all together, but it felt like it.
The promise of a paella night felt like the only thing keeping our friend group together during quarantine.
Everyone volunteered to grab an ingredient. Olivia and Nicole got shrimp. Brian got chorizo. Chelsea brought pork. We provided the rice, veggies and the non-negotiable saffron. Nate spent a couple hours cooking everything in the pan, while we helped and enjoyed the show.
Over the years, a paella feed has marked momentous occasions, like moving or birthday parties. But it’s also been an event in and of itself. It’s a reason to celebrate, get together and feed the ones you love. It might be hard to embrace summer traditions right now, but if you safely can, savor it.
Here’s an idea on how to make paella, a Spanish rice dish full of seafood and saffron.
1 cup chopped parsley
1/4 cup lemon juice
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 large garlic cloves, minced
Paella and Protein
1 cup water
1 teaspoon saffron threads
3 (16-ounce) cans chicken broth
8 unpeeled jumbo shrimp (about 1/2 pound)
1 tablespoon olive oil
4 skinned, boned chicken thighs, cut in half
2 links Spanish chorizo sausage (about 6 1/2 ounces)
2 cups finely chopped onion
1 cup finely chopped red bell pepper
1 cup canned diced tomatoes, undrained
1 teaspoon sweet paprika
3 large garlic cloves, minced
3 cups uncooked Arborio rice or other short-grain rice
1 cup frozen green peas
8 mussels, scrubbed and debearded
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
Lemon wedges (optional)
Prepare herb blend by combining all the herb ingredients. Set mixture aside.
Combine water, oil, saffron and broth in a large cast-iron skillet and bring to simmer, keep warm over medium heat.
Add chicken, sausage and shrimp. Reduce heat to medium-low and add onion and bell pepper, stirring occasionally. Add the tomatoes, paprika and three garlic cloves. Let cook for about three minutes.
Add rice; cook for one minute, stirring constantly.
Stir in the herb blend. Bring to a low boil and cook for 10 minutes, stirring frequently. Add mussels to the pan, nestling them into rice mixture.
Cook for several minutes or until mussel shells open. Arrange shrimp, heads down, in rice mixture and cook for five minutes or until shrimp are done. Sprinkle with 1/4 cup lemon juice. Serve with lemon wedges, if desired.