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Classic paella

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The Rowdy Chowgirl

(Read caption) Spanish paella evokes warm nights in Barcelona dining under a starry sky.

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Paella is a complicated dish. Not difficult to make, but rather a dish full of multiple contrasting flavors that become so much more than the sum of their parts. There are many variations on the basic theme of rice, meat, or some seafood, and each has its passionate advocates.

And it is also complicated by layers of associations and memories.

We have eaten paella at outdoor restaurants up and down La Rambla in Barcelona. Wonderful paella, studded with lobster, mussels, and clams, served steaming hot in individual paella pans at tables under the night sky. The noises of the city, the flow of Spanish conversation, the sights of the crowded pedestrian street, the soft warm air and the summer stars, all served as a backdrop to some truly memorable meals.

But the version of paella I love best, the one that I hold up as a standard by which to judge all others, is the paella that Michael makes. His recipe varies just a little, depending on his mood and what is available. The asparagus, bell peppers, or artichokes come and go, but the core elements are always there: the rice richly flavored with garlic and saffron, the chorizo, roasted chicken legs, and shrimp. This is the paella that he makes for friends, and the one he also makes for intimate dinners for two.

And then, another layer of association: Michael’s paella recipe grew out of a memory of the long-ago summer he spent on Long Beach, of night after night at a restaurant with friends, eating paella bursting with chicken legs and fat shrimp.

As is always true, the pleasure, the real magic, is not just in the food itself. It’s also in the warmth and comfort associated with it, the view of the city outside rain-streaked windows, the pleasure of watching his assured movements as he puts the finishing touches on a special meal for just the two of us, as he did this Valentine’s Day.

If you don’t have a proper paella pan – the traditional shallow, double-handled pan – a large cast-iron skillet will do quite well. You can vary almost any of the ingredients to suit your own tastes-use chicken breasts if you prefer, or leave the chicken out entirely or substitute lobster. This will easily make enough paella for four to six people, but it is just right for two with leftovers, as well.

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