Paella on Fire


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Written and photographed by Karim Shamsi-Basha

OvenBird is the place for paella in Birmingham on Wednesday nights.

The dish originated in the mid-19th century in the Spanish city of Valencia. It includes seafood, chicken, or any kind of meat, along with a plethora of vegetables, beans, rice, and other legumes.

The key to cooking a tantalizing version of the Spanish national dish is simple: a huge metal pan over an open fire.

At Chris and Idie Hastings’ OvenBird, there are no gas lines or electrical stoves. They only cook over live and open fires, and that’s just how paella comes to life every Wednesday night on the patio, just as the Hastings learned to do on a trip to Argentina in 2005.

“Chris and I were fascinated with the principle of cooking over an open fire,” Idie says. “We wanted to replicate that here in Birmingham. The dishes taste incredible.”

“I think it tastes different,” Chris says “You have the coal, the ash, the smoke, and tremendous heat from the wood—plenty of reasons to make the taste very unique.”

OvenBird also offers a brunch on Saturdays during the Paper Place Farmers Market. For more information, visit ovenbirdrestaurant.com

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Vegetable Paella

¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
2 cups sunchokes, cut into 1-inch-by-1-inch pieces
2 cups shiitake mushrooms, torn into 1-inch-by-1-inch pieces
2 tablespoon thyme, minced
½ cup sofrito (see recipe below)
1 cup red wine
9 cups vegetable stock, lightly seasoned with salt
3 cups paella rice
Salt and pepper, to taste
1 pinch saffron
½ bunch parsley, minced
¼ cup chives, sliced

In a shallow wide pan (preferably a paella pan), heat the extra virgin olive oil until it shimmers and small wisps of smoke are visible. Lower into the pan the pieces of sunchoke so that they are spread evenly among the pan surface.

Brown all sides and then add the shiitake mushrooms. Continue cooking until they have browned and add the minced thyme. Next add the sofrito and let cook for 5 minutes over medium heat. Deglaze with red wine and reduce until there is about 2 tablespoons of wine remaining. Then add the vegetable stock and saffron.

Bring to a simmer and sprinkle in the rice evenly over the bottom of the pan. Cook at a simmer for 10 minutes. Do not stir but rather rotate the pan so that the heat distributes evenly. If you notice one side not simmering at the same rate, adjust the position and rotate so that it cooks evenly.

After 10 minutes, taste and adjust seasoning to the rice as necessary, but if the broth is seasoned appropriately, there should be no reason to add more salt.

Continue cooking for another 10 to 20 minutes, adding a little more stock or water if the rice is not cooking evenly and part of it is drying out. For the last 5 minutes, increase the heat of the burner to further toast the rice at the bottom of the pan developing what is called “socarrat” (the crispy fried rice portion that you must scrape the bottom of the pan for). The rice is ready when it is toothsome and not raw.

Let the paella rest for up to 20 minutes depending on size. Sprinkle with parsley and chives and serve.

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Chicken Paella

¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
1 whole chicken, cut into 2-inch-by-2-inch pieces with bone, or 6 boneless chicken thighs, skin on
Salt and pepper, to taste
½ cup sofrito (see recipe below)
1 cup dry white wine
9 cups chicken stock, lightly seasoned with salt
1 pinch saffron
3 cups paella rice
2 cups snap beans, halved
½ bunch parsley, minced

In a shallow wide pan (preferably a paella pan), heat ¼ cup extra virgin olive oil until it shimmers and small wisps of smoke are visible. Season the chicken pieces with salt and pepper and lower into the pan a few pieces at a time so that they are spread evenly among the pan surface.

Brown all sides of the chicken and then remove them to a rack to drain any excess fat. Next add the sofrito and let cook for 5 minutes over medium heat. Deglaze with white wine, reduce until there is about 2 tablespoons of wine remaining, and then add the chicken stock and saffron.

Bring to a simmer and sprinkle in the rice evenly over the bottom of the pan. Cook at a simmer for 10 minutes. Do not stir but rather rotate the pan so that the heat distributes evenly. If you notice one side not simmering at the same rate, adjust the position and rotate so that it cooks evenly.

After 10 minutes, distribute the chicken back to the rice evenly and sprinkle the snap beans evenly on top as well. Taste and adjust seasoning to the rice as necessary, but if the broth is seasoned appropriately, there should be no reason to add more salt.

Continue cooking for another 10 to 20 minutes, adding a little more stock or water if the rice is not cooking evenly and part of it is drying out. For the last 5 minutes, increase the heat of the burner to further toast the rice at the bottom of the pan developing what is calledsocarrat” (the crispy fried rice portion that you must scrape the bottom of the pan for). The rice is ready when it is toothsome and not raw.

Let the paella rest for up to 20 minutes depending on size. Sprinkle with parsley and serve.

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Sofrito

12 tomatoes, halved
1 cup extra virgin olive oil
3 thyme sprigs
3 red bell pepper, minced
3 onions, minced
6 garlic cloves, minced
3 bay leaves
1/2 tablespoon pimenton de la vera, or smoked paprika
1 pinch saffron
Salt and pepper, to taste

Place the halved tomatoes on a sheet tray and season liberally with extra virgin olive oil, thyme, salt, and pepper. Turn them cut side up and cook in a 350° oven for 1 hour.

Meanwhile, sweat the bell pepper and onion in olive oil until translucent. Add the rest of the ingredients and cook over medium heat until all of the liquid has evaporated, the vegetables are soft, and a tomato paste like texture is achieved. Readjust seasoning with salt and pepper and cool.

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