Sunday, 26 July 2009

Paella Cooked Over an Open Fire

It's been almost a year since my Paella on the Beach (A Fantasy) article. I have been seeking an opportunity to cook paella over an open fire ever since being seduced by a story in one of my long lost Time Life cookbooks in the eighties. The origins of the dish have been explained in more detail in my earlier article (above) but it is enough to say that it was originally an inland dish in Spain, cooked by farm workers for lunch over an open fire, and made with whatever was available.

The experience began with us taking a short weekend camping break to the New Forest. This meant travelling 'light' and making the decision NOT to take the ever faithful 'go anywhere weber'. We were to rely on the butane fuelled camp cooker for everything. On the first night I realised my cock-up. I had a mis-matched gas regulator, so no camp cooker, and no other means of cooking anything for the weekend. I realised this just after we finished setting up camp on the Friday afternoon before making our way to visit some family friends for a meal not too far away.

The general air of panic subsided as I started to formulate a solution in my mind. This was focused around how on earth would we be able to cook breakfast the following morning. No gas, ok, accepted. No shops open early enough to get a new regulator in time to cook breakfast, accepted. A way out began to emerge.

We needed to get some diesel for the car and I thought that one of those (heaven forbid) disposable barbeques might do the trick, at least to get over the breakfast hurdle. So I fuelled up the Kia en route and collected two disposable barbeques and a 5 kg bag of lumpwood charcoal from the forecourt (hellishly expensive) to relieve the family's anxieties about breakfast on a campsite with scant facilites.

A few campsite rules were niggling as I was driving. No barbeques on the ground for example. So I asked our fabulous hosts that evening for a few bricks to keep the container of charcoal off the ground. We left with a large concrete block and two clay bricks. The obvious components for an impromptu DIY charcoal barbeque.

It was while I was cooking breakfast the next morning that I decided on Paella and how to make the most of the current barbeque setup.

The spirit soaked briquettes in their foil container had more
bark than bite. I was hoping to boil the kettle on the first intense part of the burn, and then follow by putting my pan on the embers to cook the bacon, tomoatoes and eggs. What a pain. A handful of briquettes (10 if I counted correctly) got hot quickly but not for long. The kettle took forever to boil and the breakfast was more stewed than fried, but it got me thinking about the rest of the day.

After a late breakfast we went into a camping shop in Lyndhurst for a new regulator and then to the coast so the kids could enjoy the beach. Nice and sunny but far too windy so we decided to go back inland to the campsite near Brockenhurst.

We gathered some provisions from Waitrose in Christchurch on the way. I had already by then revealed my intention to make paella at the campsite for dinner and what better a place to get the ingredients: (enough for four adults)

- Fresh clams (no mussels available)
- Cooked king prawns (shelled and easy to eat, raw variety too expensive)
- Chorizo
- Saffron
- 8 chicken thighs
- 1 large onion
- 1 Green pepper
- 1 Bulb of garlic
- Salt and pepper
- Basmati rice (2 cups)
- Water for the stock
- (forgot to get lemons but they would have helped)

Paella die hards will probably wince at my choice of rice. Traditional paella rice is firm and stodgy, where basmati rice is light and fluffy. I first used basmati rice because I thought that I had paella rice in the pantry when I hadn't. It's different, but it works really well. It allows more of the other ingredients to fill the bowl, and the rice is a richly flavoured but not overwhelming accompaniment.

The whole afternoon was spent in the sun at the campsite. Firefoodie heaven. I managed to stretch out the making of the paella for the best part of three leisurely hours.

I took the bones out of the chicken thighs for the stock and diced the flesh for the paella. Then I chopped up all of the vegetables and chorizo for the dish (with some help from our Kitty) and then prepared a structure from the 3 brick items for the fire.

The breakfast episode taught me that extra charcoal was the answer to the measly fire from a disposable barbeque. I piled up a good kilo or more of lumpwood charcoal on top of the alcohol soaked briquettes and constructed a brick home for the tray of charcoal that would also suit my paella dish. The large concrete block formed the base and the two bricks were placed either side as supports for the handles of the pan.

To cook paella this way, first you need to make a good stock. This takes lots of heat and a fair amount of time. I got the chicken bones, some of the garlic, half of the diced onion, a few pieces of the diced chorizo and some salt and pepper for the first stage of the meal.

The extra charcoal worked and the pan was good and hot. I browned off the bones and other ingredients in a dash of olive oil, and slowly added enough water so that I would have about 4 cups of stock. After half an hour or so, I removed the bones and discarded them before transferring the stock and all the bits in it to another pan and set it aside.

Then the remaining vegetables, saffron and chorizo were browned in the paella dish over a high heat from the charcoal before I added the diced chicken thighs. After about 10 minutes, I added 2 cups of rice and 4 cups of the stock prepared earlier. Then the clams and prawns were laid on top, the pan was covered with foil, and then checked every now and then for the next 30 minutes or so before serving.

Towards the end the cooking needs to slow down, so I removed some of the charcoal from below as my fire was still a bit too hot.

This meal went down a treat and my paella over an open fire fantasy was finally fulfilled.

(iPhone photography by Kitty)



Anonymous said...

definately one of your best yet!!


firefoodie said...

Glad you liked it. It's been a long time coming that one. Looking forward to seeing you all in the Var in a week or so! Firefoodie.

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for sending me the link to this. Looks outstanding and just the kind of thing I am about to start looking up. I am sooo excited about getting into paellas. I think this is going to be a fun cook. Way to improvise on your camping trip.

Related Posts with Thumbnails