In California, our seasons seem to blend into one another. I recall as many calm and quiet winters as I do blustery, rain-soaked ones. But visit a farm, orchard or vineyard and you’ll see firsthand winter’s embrace on our part of the world.
One of my brothers manages a vineyard, and I am fortunate enough to spend time there during winter. The year’s Pinot Noir harvest is undergoing malolactic fermentation in French oak barrels, and the Chardonnay is beginning its aging process in steel. Workers have a well-earned break from the early-morning to late-evening schedule of autumn. Among the barren vines, there is peaceful rest.
The canopy of leaves is long gone, highlighting the sky’s endless expanse, and the vines rise and sprawl out haphazardly like dreams waiting to be remembered. The first morning light makes frost on the vines glisten and sparkle. It’s months before bud break, and the plants are doing just what they ought this time of year - waiting. They are hunkering down into the sumptuous ground and sinking into their roots in anticipation of what is to come.
As I consider the importance of the vines’ rest, I can’t help but think about how their slumber reflects our own actions during winter. After all, isn’t it this time of year that we sink into our roots by partaking in the holiday customs of our cultural heritage?
The frantic pace of work, school and life slows temporarily and we settle into the celebrations of the season. We toast the successes we’ve had in the preceding months, reflect on the life we’ve lived, rejoice with our loved ones and contemplate peace. Like the vines, we are resting and preparing for new beginnings.
Our heritage is brought to life in the food we eat during the holidays. I am Irish-American, so Christmas Day is a feast of traditional fare but also reflects how California has shaped us. We serve prime rib, roast potatoes and Yorkshire puddings beside honey-drizzled rosemary carrots and peas, brightened by a sprinkling of the still-growing mint from my mom’s herb garden.
Throughout the meal, we tumble wine made with my brother’s hands into our glasses. The dinner is joyful, abundant and essential, encapsulating our family and our traditions. It is what we’ve eaten on Christmas for as long as I can remember, and it is not to be edited in any way.
We’re not the only family to serve cherished meals. I’ve been fortunate enough to taste some of the holiday traditions of my friends and loved ones. I’ve rolled rugula and prepared latkes, attended an Italian seafood feast, enjoyed the labor of homemade tamales, marveled at how British Christmas pudding is prepared and savored Southern-style cornbread dressing. These meals each brought insight into my friends’ lives. They’ve also inspired me to create a new culinary tradition for my family.
So, with an untouchable Christmas Day menu, and the desire to stake my claim to a meal over the holiday season, I looked to Christmas Eve. I wanted to make something that brought together many of the aspects of the foods I’d shared with friends throughout the years: simple and nourishing, using seasonal ingredients, with exotic flavor and bountiful enough to accommodate an extra mouth (or four) at the table without advance notice. I landed on paella.
Paella is a savory and rustic Spanish dish that can be as elaborate as you’d like it to be. It’s the kind of one-pot meal that can be finessed depending on mood and time availability. I’ve adapted my recipe over the years and created what I consider to be a uniquely Californian version.
A year or so ago I was gifted traditional paella forks. The gift felt monumental, like a badge or addition to our family’s coat of arms: We eat paella on Christmas Eve, and we have the flatware to prove it.
I’m sharing my Christmas Eve Paella recipe and information about the wines I’ll be serving with it. Make the cooking a fun affair by enlisting help from your guests and serving a platter of Spanish cheeses, olives, dried figs and quince paste during prep time.
I hope your holiday celebrations include time around a table with the people and food you love.
Mountain View resident Christine Moore is learning more about wine every day. To read her blog, visit sheepishsommelier.blogspot.com.
Paella and wine
Paella is a down-to-earth dish, so keeping the wine simple makes sense. I like to serve Spanish wines, but California Rosés or Syrahs would be wonderful with it, too.
This year, I’m serving Martin Códax 2011 Albariño from the Rías Baixas region. Albariño is a Spanish white varietal. The crisp minerality, fresh aromatics and juicy tropical notes of the Martin Códax is just right with the seafood-laden paella.
For red, I’ll serve Las Rocas 2009 Garnacha from Calatayud. The hints of dark cherry and blackberry make this well-structured and light wine a wonderful complement to the rustic flavors of the rice dish. Chill slightly before service.
A Cava would be fun to serve, too, and don’t forget some sparkling pomegranate cider for the nondrinkers.
Christine’s Christmas Eve Paella
• 6 cups Quick Seafood Broth (recipe follows), warm
• Generous pinch saffron threads
• 1 pound boneless, skinless chicken thighs (preparation follows)
• 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
• 4 Spanish chorizo sausages, sliced thickly
• 1 yellow onion, diced
• 3 garlic cloves, minced
• 1 bunch flat-leaf parsley leaves, chopped (set some aside for garnish)
• 1 10-ounce bag frozen, cubed butternut squash, defrosted
• 4 cups paella rice
• 1 dozen littleneck clams, scrubbed
• 1 pound jumbo shrimp, peeled (shells reserved) and de-veined
• 1 pound bay scallops
• 1 cooked and cleaned Dungeness crab, claws removed but body intact
• 1 cup frozen petite peas, thawed
• 3 whole roasted red peppers from jar, sliced thinly
• Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
• Lemon wedges, for serving
One hour before cooking, prepare chicken and clean shrimp (reserving shells to make seafood broth) and refrigerate.
Prepare Quick Seafood Broth
• 6 cups water
• Reserved shrimp shells
• 1 onion, quartered
• 3 garlic cloves, smashed
• 1 bunch parsley
• Large pinch of whole black peppercorns
Place all ingredients in large pot over medium. Bring to boil, then reduce heat so that broth is just simmering for 1 hour.
Strain broth, discarding shells, onions, garlic, parsley and peppercorns.
Return broth to stove, add generous pinch of saffron and salt to taste, keep warm on lowest temperature.
Prepare chicken thighs
• 1 pound boneless, skinless chicken thighs
• 2 teaspoons sweet paprika
• 1/2 teaspoon oregano
• Kosher salt to taste
Cube chicken thighs into 1-inch pieces, sprinkle with paprika, oregano and kosher salt, then cover and refrigerate for 1 hour.
Heat oil in paella pan over medium-high heat. Brown chorizo, remove and reserve.
Add chicken pieces and brown on all sides, turning with tongs. Remove from pan and reserve.
Add onions and sauté for 2-3 minutes, then add parsley, garlic and butternut squash and sauté for 5 minutes more, or until mixture is caramelized. Season to taste with salt and freshly ground pepper.
Fold in rice and stir to coat grains.
Pour in broth and simmer for 10 minutes. Using handles, slowly rotate pan during cooking time to ensure that broth is evenly absorbed (do not stir).
Add reserved chorizo and chicken. Add clams, scallops and shrimp, burying each slightly into rice. Cook for 7-8 minutes, or until shrimp is pink.
Using handles of pan, vigorously shake paella and let it continue to simmer for approximately 15 minutes (do not stir).
During last 5 minutes of cooking, when rice is still slightly al dente, add peas, sliced roasted red peppers and crab, placing claws throughout and laying body in center.
When rice becomes fluffy and moist looking, you’ll know paella is done. Crank heat up to high for 30 seconds to toast bottom of rice (toasted rice, also known as socarrat, is critical to a perfect paella).
Let stand for 5 minutes. Garnish with parsley and lemon wedges and serve in pan.