Anna Marie is the kind of woman who hops a plane to Ireland as soon as she lands a teaching gig. She settles in quickly, surrounding herself with friends galore, pub hopping and venturing out on cultural scavenger hunts. To most, she is a fearless friend-magnet up for adventure at any time. No one, though, is fearless at all times, and when Anna Marie landed in Barcelona on holiday, she probably sensed it’d be a vacation for one—even when her boyfriend landed at the same airport. They met, embraced and just as quickly admitted the relationship ship had sailed. He went his way and she went hers. Instead of taking the next flight back to Ireland, Anna Marie looked around, felt a pang in her gut. Part of the pang was grief of course; the other part was hunger, for food and exploration. As she tugged her suitcase toward the hostel, she realized the only way to extinguish the pang was to “eat [her] way through Spain.” And so she did.
For the first time in her life, she planted herself at a table, requested the second setting be removed. As she gazed out over the water, she sipped wine and swallowed paella. The pang lessened, and there it was decided. Over the next month, she would trot through the country tasting every paella available.
Memories of multiple paellas followed her back to the States, but she hadn’t yet found a recipe delectable enough to satisfy her expert paella palate. Until she saw Mario Batali and Gwyneth Paltrow on Oprah dishing about doing what she herself did; she says “They pretty much copied me; they ate themselves through Spain,”. While she wasn’t fond of Batali’s pony, she admired Paltrow’s style, and since Gwyneth had aligned herself with him, Anna Marie thought she’d give Mario a try. After all, she wasn’t after hairstyle advice from the chef.
The choice was a smart one. Anna Marie began using the chef’s recipe while making alterations of her own: she never found his Spanish onions so opts for yellow instead; she’s not a fan of smoky stew, so she exchanges smoke for paprika. The “wonderful thing about paella,” she admits, “you can do whatever you want.” Now that her little ones have come along, she adds peas for her hungry little pods, preferring frozen to fresh in an attempt to save time. Empty bowls, both breakable and bouncy, show everyone in the family is pleased with her rendition of paella.
For Anna Marie, though, there is a higher purpose that drives her to prepare paella any time of the year. Whenever she hears of a new little pea pod descending from a mother’s belly, Anna Marie bursts into the kitchen with a force. She understands the profound life change a new baby brings; she reminisces: it’s “such a transitional time; you’re shocked by your new experience.” Just as Anna Marie was shocked into paella as a result of a break-up, she whips up a batch and delivers it right away, hoping to bring comfort to chaos just as sitting over the sea, sipping wine and savoring paella did for her all those years ago.
Paella [makes 6 servings]
10 small to medium chicken drumsticks 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil 2 cups medium shrimp , enough for about 5 per person 1 medium yellow onion , cut into 1/4-inch dice 1/2 cup pureed ripe tomatoes 1 tsp. kosher salt , or to taste 1 tsp. saffron threads 2 Tbsp. Paprika 8 cups chicken stock 2 cups short grain rice 1 cup fresh peas or frozen peas 10 spears pencil asparagus 1-inch pieces of sausage
-Preheat an oven to 400°. Place the drumsticks on a baking sheet and season all over with salt and extra-virgin olive oil. Bake for 20 to 22 minutes and set aside. -Grill or cook sausages thoroughly in a pan on the stove. -In the meantime, heat a 14- to 18-inch paella pan over medium-high heat. Add the oil and heat until smoking. Add the shrimp and cook until golden brown on both sides, about 3 minutes per side. Transfer to a plate and set aside. -Add the onion to the pan and cook until soft, about 8 minutes. Push the onions into the center of the pan and sprinkle 2 tablespoons of the salt around the edges of the pan. Add the tomato puree, stirring it into the onions, and cook for 3 minutes. Add the remaining salt, the saffron, paprika and cook, stirring, for 5 minutes. Add chicken stock, bring to a boil, and cook for 5 minutes. Add the rice and stir well to distribute it evenly. Add clams, drumsticks, arranging them nicely throughout the pan. Then add the peas and asparagus and bring the stock back to a boil, and cook, without stirring, for 10 minutes. Taste for salt and add it if needed, then cook, again without stirring, for 10 more minutes, or until the liquid is almost completely absorbed and the pan starts to make a crackling noise (don't worry, this is what you want).
Remove from the heat and let rest for 10 minutes before serving.