Paella. Since N has a deep abiding love for Spanish food, I figured it would be a fun experiment, especially since I had recently been gifted some of the key ingredients.
Saffron is essential for the right color and, more importantly, the right flavor. I had never really worked with real saffron before (played with a crushed mixture, but that was far too yellow to be pure, so it was likely highly supplemented with tarragon), and I was pleasantly surprised by its almost earthy pungency.
The other real new thing for me was muscles. I'm not much of a seafood person by nature, but I've been expanding my palette slowly and have recently decided to learn how to cook fish in order to expedite the process. Up until tonight, I'd made baked salmon twice, but that was the extent of my fish-cooking experience. Shellfish were an entirely new game.
I stalked the fish counter at Wegmans for a good while before settling on muscles for the paella. I had at least eaten muscles before. Maybe. I tried a few once in college, I think. Anyway, muscles were on the cheaper end of the spectrum. When I started the paella, the recipe I was following called for cleaned and de-bearded muscles. The cleaning part was self explanatory, but beards? So I learned all about muscles's byssal threads and how to remove them. (Tug toward the hinge with a dry towel.) In the process, I found a description of how to select muscles and which ones to throw away; that article made me a little paranoid and I think I ended up tossing many more muscles than needed.
When we served it up, there was a moment in which I looked at the muscles and said to N, "Okay, I know how to cook these, but how do I eat them?" I have far to go...
Simple American-kitchen Paella
6-7 cloves garlic, minced
2 small onions, diced
1 bell pepper, diced
1 can diced tomatoes, drained and minced (or just "petitie diced" and drained)
2 cups short-grain white rice
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon saffron threads, crushed
3 1/2 cups water (or broth/white wine for more flavor)
3/4 cup peas
1 dozen muscles
Sautee garlic, onion and peppers in olive oil in a dutch oven until aromatic and beginning to soften. Add tomatoes and cook for a few minutes until some of the juice cooks off. Stir in the rice so it is coated with sauce, then add the salt, pepper, saffron, and water and bring to a boil. Cover the pot and turn the heat down to a simmer. When the rice has absorbed most of the liquid, add the peas and the muscles hinge-down into the rice, which should be able to keep them upright. Cover again and continue to simmer/steam until the muscles open and the liquid is nearly all absorbed. Turn off the heat and let set for a few minutes before serving.