If I was to narrow my food fascination down to one moment, an epiphany of sorts , it would be my first ever taste of paella on my first ever family holiday abroad.
I was six and in sunny Spain (Mallorca, to be exact) and we were eating a meal at a local restaurant. My dad had ordered a large paella for us to share. It hadn’t entered my head that it might be an adventurous choice for some kids,I just wanted to eat what Dad was having, obvs, because he was easily the coolest person I knew (and know).
When it arrived at the table, the golden colour of the saffron made it look far more exotic than the chicken risotto we always had on Tuesday tea times and the garlic and smoked paprika permeating the fresh prawns, squid and chicken meant I was soon battling Dad for the serving spoon. I’ve struggled to find squid cooked as well since, though my annual pilgrimage to Barcelona has established paella as one of my favourite foods.
So, when I was asked to enter a blogger’s competition held by Villa Plus to celebrate the launch of their local food guides for Menorca, Kefalonia, Costa Blanca,Fuertaventura and the Costa Del Sol I was most definitely hoping to be assigned a Spanish destination. I was pleased as punch (or Sangria) when I was given Menorca as my food inspiration. I was given money for ingredients and tasked with creating an authentic family meal that could be cooked in self catering accommodation using local ingredients and factored in budget considerations. After looking at the winning entry in the previous round from Alice at Harley-Wood I knew I was going to have to think a little bit differently and so, I present you my pasta paella – the family friendly fideua!
As you may have guessed, fideua uses pasta in place of rice to make a speedier but full-flavoured paella dish. fideua is a type of pasta and it is available to buy online but as I was trying to keep costs down I opted to use supermarket value spaghetti. In total my meal cost £1.89 per person if served to four, though it could easily stretch to six as the photograph above is of a fairly small serving. I was lucky enough to have many of the ingredients like saffron and pimento in my store cupboard and was also able to use garlic from my Dad’s allotment, lemon sage from my own herb garden and in place of the usual broad beans used in this type of recipe, I used some courgettes, again from Dad’s allotment. I bought my prawns at the fishmonger’s (which meant being up bright and early because they close at 12noon) and my chicken thighs at the butchers next door. I’m lucky that these things are on my doorstep thanks to living in a small village on the coast. I was a tad disappointed that the fishmonger didn’t have any in shell prawns to decorate my dish with but the fishmonger did give me some empty crabs to boil in my stock. Asking nicely in local shops pays dividends!
I can occasionally get a bit carried away and over spice things, but I have to say not doing so in this case really worked out and I enjoyed getting a hint of the lemon sage through the slightly smokey spaghetti. I’ll be making a big pan of this on the barbecue next time I have friends over!
Here’s how it’s made
300-350g spaghetti – in place of fideua pasta, though you can buy this online
a pinch of saffron
6 tablespoons of passata
5 cloves garlic
1 tablespoon of rosemary and chilli olive oil (you can use normal, I only have home-flavoured in the cupboard and it works well)
6 tablespoons peas
Half a red pepper
700 ml water
2 x celery sticks
1 star anise
around 8-10 lemon sage leaves (in place of basil, adds a nice hint of citrus)
sliced yellow and green courgettes (instead of the usual beans)
Pimento (to taste)
A few tablespoons of mayonnaise, one egg yolk, sprinkling of pimento
I skipped a few steps I would usually take with paella because even in the most well-equipped of self catering apartments, you don’t want to be slaving away for hours in the kitchen. To accelerate the cooking of the chicken thighs, I cooked them for a few moments on my foreman grill first, though this could be just as easily done on the barbecue or in the pan. Later, instead of serving with homemade aioli, I cheated and dusted some mayo mixed with egg yolk and garlic salt and dusted with smoked paprika. Aioli is usually plentiful in Spanish countries without the need to laboriously pour a drizzle of oil into a pestle and mortar with garlic and it can be found in the chilled section of most corner shops.
My first step was to make a stock by frying the crab claws, onion, star anise, 2 garlic cloves and celery in a pan with a pinch of pimento, then added the star anise, water and passata. I fished out the claws, leaving any meat, blitzed with my hand blender and put through a sieve. This sounds laborious but only took ten minutes and you could opt to use ready made stock instead.
Next, I continued to brown off the chicken thighs in a pan with a little of the rosemary and chilli oil, added the remaining garlic cloves and broke the spaghetti into the pan. After stirring, I sprinkled with saffron and pimento and added about one third of the stock mix. From here on in, it was a case of keeping the pan at a moderate heat and adding things in the order they would cook – so prawns and pepper next and finishing with the sage leaves, courgettes and peas. If using beans you’d allow them to go a little mushy but I wanted my courgettes a little al dente, so added them on the top of the pan towards the end.
As with cooking paella, it’s important not to stir the pan too often. I stirred mine only when adding the liquid, which was soaked up in three batches, with the dish taking just 20 minutes to cook thanks to my pre-cooking of the chicken. I found the dish filling on its own but you could add some crusty bread and a salad and of course, if you have the option to use fresh mussels and other seafood, you should definitely take advantage – particularly if your children are open to a little food experimentation!
You can check out the other competition entrants from this round and previous rounds by exploring the #VPeats hashtag on Twitter.
What is your earliest food memory of trying something a little different? Have you gotten more adventurous as you got older or have you always been willing to try new foods?