Obviously calling any recipe “picture perfect” is an invitation for arguments and counter-challenges. This true story is a quintessential example. A controversial secret technique for a picture perfect recipe for authentic Spanish paella was passed on to me by a formidable family cook at a magnificent estate near Segovia, a few hours’ drive from bustling Madrid.
Like beauty, perfection is in the eye of the beholder. Or editor.
In the early days of my somewhat checkered career I managed the PR efforts for Marqués de Riscal wines. House Beautiful magazine was lured into photographing the homes of the winery’s directors for a big splashy feature on authentic Spanish cuisine. BTW, another meal we did included lamb chops — House Beautiful has a great recipe for them.
I booked the flights, hotels, cars and drivers. Confirmed with the photographer and signed off on assistants and rental expenses. Met with the editor and planned out the trip and locations for the shoot. So off we flew on Iberian Airlines (business class!) to capture the real Spanish lifestyle for House Beautiful’s American readers.
The morning mists were still burning off the damp fields as we arrived at the dark, quiet compound. It took an uncomfortable amount of knocking to have someone come to the door, that someone being the lone person in the large home, the aforementioned family cook.
Seems someone had neglected to tell her about the grand plan for the day. She was understandably flustered by the American magazine crew expecting to photograph her cooking for the greater glory of her employer and their internationally celebrated winery.
She had been planning a roast beef with potatoes crisped in the drippings for lunch that day, which would have been lovely, I’m certain, but after a flurry of phone calls the new menu was decreed: Paella!
First we set off on a harried round of the local markets where we got the stink eye from the various merchants and grocers,. Next everyone pitched in to style the house for the photo shoot while the now fiercely determined woman put all her talent and faith into making what would most likely be the most important paella of her life.
The moment of truth arrived. The paella came out of the oven, the large pan tightly encased in a smooth dome of industrial-grade aluminum foil.
She peeled the foil off and the paella was dazzling. The foil had been applied so expertly that the perfectly smoothed bulge of saffron-scented rice, fish, meat and vegetables was as substantial and domineering as the dome on the Royal Palace in Madrid. .
Our heroine took a step back, her arms folded across the spotless white apron spanning her chest. No words were actually spoken but we all heard her clearly: “And that is how it’s done.”
Except maybe not, because in 1990 magazine readers wanted rice dishes to be colorful and light and fluffy. Food pics called for texture and depth and light and shadow.
So as her masterpiece was shamelessly dismantled in a flurry of forks and pokes and fingers, this dignified, saintly cook quietly took her leave of the scene.
The regal Lobster Paella recipe shown here employs the tight-foil technique.
Review all of SpecD’s 10 Rules for Spectacular Paella.
Click here for the master Spectacularly Delicious Paella Recipe.
Looking for drama? Black Paella Negra.
For a French twist on try this monkfish paella in this Roast Lotte Paella recipe.