In the past,
mealtimes were often opportunities for friends and families to gather. Often lasting for hours at a time,
they were filled with celebration of the company gathered, the culture and cuisine. Today, as we hurry from
meeting to conference to rush-hour traffic, we often forget the beautiful simplicity of cooking with friends
and family, opting instead to use mealtimes as rushed opportunities to refuel. This season, embrace the
instincts of your inner chef, and allow nature’s beautiful sights, aromas and fresh flavours to inspire your
François Viau, senior partner at the Business Development Bank of Canada, was inspired when he took a break from his hectic job and went to visit his daughter, Olivia, who was on a student exchange program in beautiful Spain. While exploring the Mediterranean coast, they were attracted by the fragrant aroma of paella surrounding the local restaurants in Valencia, the birthplace of the dish.
“I was fascinated by the restaurants right on the beach making this huge paella — we’re looking at a 40, 50-inch pan on an open fire,” says Viau. “I couldn’t help but tell myself: ‘When I get home, I’ve got to make this dish. Who could I call, who could be into this?’”
It would be more than a year before Viau was able to bring some of his closest friends to a cottage near Minden, Ont. Although the scene was drastically different from the Spanish coastline, Viau set out to recreate Spain’s signature culinary dish — a paella inspired by his adventures with his daughter in the Mediterranean.
Historically, paella was cooked and eaten outdoors by fishermen. Traditionally made with three key ingredients — seafood, rice and meat — the Spanish would gather what they were able to find during the day, using prawns, calamari, rabbits, fowl and unsold fish to enrich the stew.
Viau allowed the fall season and his culinary preferences to inspire his version of Valencia’s paella.
“I went from memory and went to the Kensington Market in Toronto,” he says. “I bought the ingredients with the view of cooking on an open fire right beside the lake.”
Viau and his comrades embraced the authenticity of the dish and its preparation by leaving the comforts of the cottage kitchen in favour of immersing themselves in the natural beauty of the outdoors. “It was one of those superb, bright fall days,” he says. “It was 20 degrees, and when we ate at the end, we watched the sunset unfold.”
While the view may be beautiful, cooking outdoors does have its challenges, especially for those of us who have grown so accustomed to our gas ranges and microwaves. Cooking over an open flame introduces complications such as wind, which can fuel an eager fire into a blaze threatening the fate of your entire meal, even for those who enjoy their meat “well-done.” The trick is to keep lake water at hand to subdue an unruly fire and to remain confident. After all, cooking outdoors is far more natural than our dependence on the number of appliances we use today to prepare a meal.
“You need to think on your feet quickly and use your judgment,” Viau says. “It’s not a controlled environment. There wasn’t an oven or anything — we had to control the flame and ensure that the pan would be level.”
While creating and taming their fire was something of a challenge initially, the rest of the method was fairly simple. “We built up the fire to get enough heat, and we had this huge pan ready for our ingredients: first-cold-pressed olive oil, a big bag of bomba rice, two grain-fed, free-range chickens, shrimp, saffron, homemade chicken stock, calamari, sea salt, black pepper, white wine, onions, celery, fresh ripe tomatoes and lots of garlic. We built the dish slowly, from one layer to another; it was a four-hour process!”
Viau stresses the importance of deglazing the pan and allowing the dish to cook slowly. Meals like this cannot be rushed. Pour yourself a glass of wine while you wait for your ingredients to caramelize and develop flavour. (Lifestyle recommends pairing your paella with Laforêt Bourgogne Pinot Noir, Domaine Joseph Drouhin 2008. Available through WineOnline.ca.)
Viau and his companions began by roasting the onions and the celery over the open flame, then added the tomatoes and white wine and let the sauce reduce. Viau removed the vegetables and sauce before roasting the chicken, calamari and shrimp, allowing them to take on colour.
After removing the previous ingredients, he deglazed the pan with a generous amount of white wine and stock, and brought the mixture to a boil. Finally, he added the rice and cooked vegetables and let the mixture simmer until tender. Viau then completed this act of love with a very generous amount of his favourite spice, saffron. “The paella tasted wonderful. The dish had a nice orange colour and we drank Pinot Noir with it — lots of it. It was one of those magical moments that you’ll cherish for the rest of your life.”
In cooking a dish like paella, the fundamentals lie in the ratios of rice, broth and hearty meats, seafood and vegetables. For this reason, fans of lighter fare could make a vegetable-inspired paella. Fishing aficionados could likewise make fresh paella bursting with the flavours of citrus and fresh-from-the-lake catch. Fowl, pork, homemade sausage and rich red wine — all flavour combinations are deliciously possible, as long as the ratio of liquid to rice is respected. “When in doubt, just taste, add more wine and adjust the seasoning. Go with your instinct,” Viau laughs, “don’t be afraid!”
The magic of the process lies in its precision — or rather, the lack thereof. Authentic paella varies from household to household, and that is what has made it a culinary favourite in Spain. Viau rejected the official recipe in favour of spontaneous cooking inspired by cultural flavours, personal preferences and seasonal freshness. “That’s what cooking is all about,” he says. “It’s more of a dynamic, creative, experimental process than just reading a recipe passively and executing [it].”
The experience is one Viau plans to repeat, though next time a different culture may be on the menu. “It was a lot of fun, the whole thing as it unfolded,” he says. “You’re out there in the sun cooking. It was just magical. It’s how people used to cook for centuries. Everybody had gathered, the fragrance coming off of the dish was unbelievable. Everybody left the cottage with savoury leftovers and we relived some of Spain’s history, culture and culinary experiences.” •