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Betsy Block

Make Mama Look Good

That Stinks

That Stinks
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We were trying to come up with a menu when BD said, "You can make paella!"

And with that, everything was under control again - or so it seemed.

BD's folks were in town for a visit during Passover and some of my mother-in-law's relatives were coming for dinner. We'd been wondering what to make when BD remembered I had some leftover sofrito in the freezer from when I'd made lobster paella. This time, in honor of the holiday, I'd skip the lobster and go for the chicken and mushroom version instead. Problem solved.

I did all the prep work and had the ingredients organized and lined up by the stove an hour before people were due to arrive. I knew just how long it would take to make dinner and exactly when we would eat. Not to be immodest, but I was in top form.

Until I opened the chicken we'd had cut to order just hours earlier.

"Um, BD's mom? How's this smell to you?"

She came over for a sniff. I didn't like the slight frown on her face as she said, "Give it a rinse. It's probably okay."

I gave it a rinse then called BD over for a third opinion, but by then I already knew: the chicken so totally wasn't okay.

"What should we do?" I moaned, then, "I know - takeout!" At times like this, I'm always up for bailing, but BD could see that everything was ready to roll, which is why he insisted on racing to the store just minutes before our guests were due. Fortunately, they were 40 minutes late, so they got here just as BD got back home with more chicken. Dinner would definitely be later than planned, but the evening was still salvageable. There were three hungry kids waiting to eat, though, so the pressure was on.

I cranked the stove up high and blasted that chicken, which turned out to be a great idea since it made the outside crispy and golden and everything you want your chicken skin to be. The only down side (other than a grease-splattered stove)? I'd forgotten that high heat plus high speed plus grease = bad news, but luckily I managed to put the fire out before anyone else saw it.

Meanwhile, when she'd extended the dinner invitation to her cousins a few days earlier, my mom-in-law had asked if either of them had any dietary restrictions, especially since it was Passover. No, she said, she didn't. In fact, she'd just had Chinese the night before. Except the not-keeping-kosher thing turned out not to be strictly true, because when she got to our house she told us she wasn't eating: rice. Why? Because of Passover. Did she remember she'd said she wasn't keeping kosher for Passover? Besides, who knew that rice isn't kosher for Passover? And most important of all, why would anyone want to eat Chinese food without rice?

So we served her up as rice-less a plate of paella as we could, then we all sat down to eat. BD was next to me. "This looks great," he said enthusiastically. He picked up his fork and knife and cut into a piece of his beautiful, brown, crispy-skinned chicken only to find - it was raw. I believe I actually left my body at that moment. Here I was, a food writer, cooking for my in-laws and their relatives, not only serving food one of them couldn't eat for religious reasons, but also serving it dangerously undercooked.

"We should say something," BD whispered urgently, but I shook my head. I just couldn't. Instead, as I faked a smile and frantically cut into my own chicken (fine), I surreptitiously checked everyone's plates as they ate. And while one chicken leg I spied across the table was a tiny bit more colorful next to the bone than I would have liked, in the end, I'm pretty sure it was a disaster averted. Anyway, unless I hear otherwise (which I'm fervently hoping I don't), that's what I choose to believe. (We do create our own reality, right?)

I'd made it through fetid meat, late guests, a small but exciting grease fire and undercooked chicken, not to mention dietary restrictions that somehow hadn't gotten fully articulated prior to menu planning. Yet still and all, the paella, with its crispy-skinned chicken and earthy mushrooms squatting in their bed of fragrant, yellow, apparently non-kosher rice, was delicious; the company was equally wonderful. Some people even had seconds. I'm thankful to BD, for keeping his mouth shut when I needed him to.

Oh, and I'm thankful for wine. Endlessly thankful for wine.

Chicken and Mushroom Paella

by Jos Andres of Washington, D.C.'s Jaleo

Taken from Tapas: A Taste of Spain in America

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

2 chicken legs, cut into small pieces (this is where I went wrong - pieces not small enough. Learn from my mistake ...)

1/2 pound fresh wild mushrooms

3 ounces green beans cut into 1-inch pieces

1/2 garlic clove, peeled and finely chopped (about 1 tbsp.)

2 tablespoons chopped jamon serrano (Spanish cured ham)

1/4 cup dry white wine

1/4 cup sofrito

1 quart chicken stock

1 pinch saffron threads

1 bay leaf

1 tablespoon salt

1 1/2 cups Spanish Bomba or Calasparra rice (neither of which I could find) or Arborio rice

Heat the olive oil in a pan over high heat. Add the chicken and saute until it is very brown on all sides, about 8 minutes. Remove and set aside.

Add the mushrooms to the  pan and saute until they are golden, about 3 minutes. Add the green beans and the garlic, and cook for 3 minutes. Return the chicken to the pan, along with the pan.

Pour in the white wine and cook until it is reduced by half, about 1 minute. Add the sofrito and cook for 3 minutes. Pour in the chicken stock and bring to a boil. Crush the saffron and add it to the pan, along with the bay leaf. Season with the salt. (The chef says to make sure it's just a little salty, because when you add the rice, the dish will balance itself out.)

Add the rice, taking care to spread it evenly around the pan. Cook for 5 minutes on a high flame, stirring frequently with a wooden spoon. You'll see the rice floating around the pan. If it's not, add an extra 1/2 cup of stock or water.

Reduce the heat to low and cook at a slow boil for 10 minutes, or until the liquid is absorbed. Never put your finger or a spoon into the paella during this cooking, or the rice will cook unevenly.

Remove the pan from the heat and let it sit for 3 minutes. The stock should be absorbed by the rice and there should be a nice shine to the top of the paella. Serve immediately.