Paella & Panna Cotta Party Time

Each summer we try to grill at least one paella with a few friends, alfresco on our backyard patio. This year we did so in early June, so there would be plenty of time over the remainder of the season to create another paella—the quintessentially Spanish dish of saffron rice cooked and served in a wide, shallow skillet, spiked with meat and/or fish. An aromatic and filling staple from the Valencia region, this party-friendly rice dish is a great alternative to pasta, risotto, and casseroles when feeding a group. It’s easy and presents a complete meal packed with flavor.

Joining us for this feast were friends Gary and Rosanne Zarrilli. But before we got down to the business of making paella, we got down to the enjoyment of sampling Rosanne’s beautifully crafted appetizers of endive, blue cheese, toasted almond slivers and orange segments, and another of tasty Tuscan mushrooms stuffed with olive, pepper and cheese. We polished all of them babies off in no time!

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The paella pan is characterized by being round with a flat bottom and can be anywhere from a 12″ in diameter to several feet; ours is 16″. The one thing that doesn’t change is the height. It is about “first joint in the thumb deep” as the Spanish would say, so that the rice has maximum contact with the bottom of the pan.

Eat Real Fest Girards Paella Pan
Years ago, we ran across one while vacationing in the Riviera Maya that had to be six feet or more in diameter, similar to the one pictured here—now that’s a party!! (courtesy of the culture bite)

The best paellas have pockets of slightly burnt, charcoal-y rice that has stuck to the bottom of the pan only to be scraped off and circulated along with the perfectly-cooked mounds. But there’s a fine line between burning rice (the most popular is Bomba) for taste and accidentally burning too much and spoiling a meal.

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Russ and Gary man the paella grill.

Onions, garlic, quartered artichokes, green peas and red peppers make up the traditional vegetables. The required seasonings are Spanish smoked paprika and saffron, which gives paella its distinctive golden color. Saffron has long been, by weight, the most expensive ingredient in the world, but don’t fear, a little goes a long way and a few strands will produce a subtle flavor and lovely color. Meat and fish can take any number of varieties, but chicken and chorizo is standard, as are shrimp, clams, and mussels (we swapped out the mussels for bay scallops.)

The sofrito—that aromatic mixture of gently sautéed onions, garlic and tomatoes—is a lynchpin of Spanish cookery, and of most paellas. It is sometimes served with aioli, and most aficionados of paella prefer it tepid rather than hot, and with good reason: it tastes much better.

So the next time there’s a social gathering headed your way, whether it’s a birthday party, potluck, or just a Saturday dinner with good friends, and burgers or ribs seem a little ho-hum, try this easy alternative. It’s sure to surprise and delight even the most discriminating palates.

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Lynn and Rosanne add the finishing touches.

In a couple of earlier blog posts you can find a Classic Seafood Paella article, and the Classic Chicken Paella recipe.

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Gary digs in and the feast begins…

Now for dessert. Light and simple, panna cotta is all about texture. It should be a bit wobbly on the plate, and then melt quickly in your mouth. Not only does buttermilk add a bright flavor, but it also makes for a lighter, softer panna cotta. The sauce was inspired by our batch of fresh strawberries and chambord, a raspberry liqueur— which is subtle but adds a bit of depth and sophistication—just like you, right?

The following recipe is an adaptation of two recipes from Faith Durand of Fine Cooking.

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Buttermilk Panna Cotta with Strawberry Chambord Sauce

Ingredients

For the panna cottas

  • Cooking spray
  • 1-1/2 cups heavy cream
  • 2-1/2 tsp. unflavored powdered gelatin (substitute vegan gelatin for a vegetarian dessert)
  • 1/3 cup granulated sugar
  • 1-1/2 cups buttermilk
  • 1 tsp. pure vanilla extract
  • Pinch table salt

For the sauce

  • 12 oz. (about 2-1/2 cups) fresh or frozen strawberries
  • 1/4 cup chambord (raspberry liqueur)
  • 3 Tbs. granulated sugar
  • 2 Tbs. plus 1 tsp. fresh lemon juice
  • Pinch table salt
  • 1-1/2 tsp. cornstarch
  • 1 tsp. pure vanilla extract

Directions

Make the panna cottas

  • Lightly spray six 6- to 8-oz. ramekins, small bowls, or pastry molds with cooking spray.
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  • Put the cream in a 2-quart saucepan and sprinkle with the gelatin. Allow the gelatin to soften for about 5 minutes. Place the saucepan over low heat and whisk in the sugar until the gelatin and sugar are completely dissolved, 2 to 3 minutes. Rub a little between your fingers to check. (Avoid simmering, which destroys the gelatin’s thickening ability; if you see bubbles, remove from the heat and let it cool.)
  • Off the heat, whisk in the buttermilk, vanilla and salt.
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  • Transfer the mixture to a large measuring cup and divide among the prepared ramekins. Cover loosely with plastic wrap. Refrigerate until set, 1 to 2 hours.
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  • Serve the panna cottas in their ramekins, or unmold: Moisten six serving plates with a little warm water (this makes it easier to center the panna cottas). Loosen the edges of a panna cotta with a fingertip, then slowly invert it onto a plate. Gently jiggle the ramekin side to side until the panna cotta slips out. Lift the ramekin, reposition the panna cotta on the plate, if needed, and pat the plate dry. Serve, chilled for a firm panna cotta or at room temperature for a softer one, with the strawberry sauce.

Make the sauce

  • If using fresh strawberries, halve them. If using frozen, thaw, drain, and halve them.
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  • In a 2-quart saucepan, whisk together the chambord, sugar, lemon juice, and salt. Stir in the strawberries. Bring to a boil over medium heat, stirring occasionally. Reduce to a simmer and cook until the liquid thickens enough to coat the back of a spoon, about 5 minutes.
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  • In a small bowl, stir the cornstarch with 1 tsp. water. Add to the strawberry sauce and cook until thickened, about 2 minutes. Remove from the heat and stir in the vanilla. Let cool to room temperature. If the sauce thickens during cooling, stir in water, 1 tsp. at a time, until it reaches your desired consistency.
  • Spoon over chilled panna cotta. Garnish with fresh mint if desired.
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