EUGENE, Ore. -- The wedding was charming, the bride was beautiful and the groom handsome. The band was cool and the families and guests were congenial. But the Friday night rehearsal dinner was the event that rocked when some 16 friends of the couple set up and cooked a paella feast on the banks of the McKenzie River. It was their gift to the newlyweds: dinner for 100 guests and a practice run for the Northwest Paella Fest, an annual party in Eugene that benefits the local food bank.
That Friday afternoon, cars piled onto the parking area at Eagle Rock Lodge, east of Eugene. Long tables were carted past the main building down to the wide lower lawn where they were set up in a wide V-formation. A wine station was set up at the center. Supplies were unloaded: paella pans the size of satellite dishes, propane-powered gas cooking rings, and huge coolers filled with seafood, meats, produce and homemade broth, herbs, pre-prepped concoctions and secret ingredients. Baskets and bins held pantry items: saffron, short-grain rice, canned tomatoes, fresh vegetables, breads and many more secret ingredients. Each paella would serve either 12 normal plates or lots of tastings.
Then the show began.
All the cooks showed up in some tie-dye outfit. Why? In a gang email sent the week before the wedding, the bride requested that the wedding not be a tie-dye affair. But, because Eugene is universe-central for tie-dye culture, none of her pals paid any attention to her plea.
The aroma of cooking onions, garlic and sofrito wafted up to the lodge's deck, where guests were gathering. Soon, most everyone headed toward the river to watch the production. Each paella producer set out in front of his or her work station a tapa for snacking -- plates of cured meats, breadsticks and maybe a little cheese. Wine-sipping guests were encouraged to watch and kibbitz. Competition was hot, with good-natured trash talk, showing off and bragging de rigueur among the cooks.
Every paella was different, with only two classics: one with seafood, another with chicken. There was a Texas paella with beans and rice, beef, tomatoes, chilies and a topping of avocado slices and a sprinkling of cilantro. Another featured orange flavors and scallops on top. Others included a rainbow-colored veggie paella, and one made with fidua, a Spanish pasta.
The first to disappear was the pizza paella, a smart and delicious riff on America's favorite nosh. Tomato and herb-scented rice stood in for pizza crust and was topped with pepperoni, pesto and plenty of cheese. The designer-cook of this one has won numerous awards for his creative pizzas over the years.
In late July, the seventh-annual Northwest Paella Fest was held right beside the Mackenzie River. Two dozen paellas were cooked outdoors and shared by more than 100 people, raising $3,600 for the local food bank.
Nobody is Spanish, and nobody has been to Spain, yet all paella cooks are overachievers in the Spanish art of rice cooked in broth with classic and curious toppings. How could this happen in Eugene, Ore., of all places?
Don McElroy, a high school biology teacher, is the founder of the paella fest. "My sister DeeDee gets the credit. Or maybe I should say the blame," he says with a laugh. "She is a symphony musician and was married to a man from Valencia, Spain. Her Spanish mother-in-law schooled her in the nuances of making classic paellas. Rabbit, game, vegetables, seafood. During the summer recess for the symphony, DeeDee would come home to Oregon and make the dishes for the family. I watched and helped and caught the passion. The first few years, we did it the old-fashioned way -- dug a pit, surrounded it with stones and cooked over a hardwood fire. Believe me, fire management is a real science."
Don was soon a promoter of the art of paella. His sister would bring two or three paella pans with her every summer. Don and his wife, Charlene Decker, hosted paella parties and passed out the pans as gifts. A core group of five couples has been cooking together for 20 years.
Their parties have been held at campsites, backyards, in meadows and, once, in Yellowstone Park when a park ranger pal was host. Guests had to Sno-Cat in, dig a pit in frozen turf and carve benches into the 5-foot snow pack. They even draped strings of twinkle lights over snow drifts. The stuff of legend, that paella.
Then, one year DeeDee brought home a gas ring. A big, modern, propane-fueled gas ring with precise heat control. Ta-DAH! Everything changed.
But hold that thought.
About that time, Don was looking for a way to interact with the Eugene community. "I would see friends 'giving back' by volunteering to be Santa at the holidays or maybe mentoring kids, doing stuff around town," he says. "I wanted to give back, too, but I wanted to combine whatever I chose with something I really liked to do." Easy peasy, he thought. He would make paellas, collect some money and donate it to a good cause. Win-win.
The first Northwest Paella Fest was staged in 2005. Maureen Smith and Eric Gunderson hosted the party at their home just outside of Eugene, and invitation was by word of mouth. It was decided that each cook would consult the cookbook "Paella" by Penelope Casas as the text for recipes and procedures. The couples who had a gas ring each invited 10 guests, or enough friends to eat the equivalent of their paella. The result was a critical mass of fun and celebration with everyone sharing tastes of their creations. A Mason jar was set out for contributions. The take was enough for a small donation to benefit Food for Lane County, a non-profit that provides food for the disadvantaged.
But friends wanted in. They wanted to cook. Me, too. Me, too.
"Now, we're more organized," says Don. "Steve Davis, whose wife, Lisa, is one of the cooks, is in charge of music, a stage, the mike and amplifiers. We've had cello and trombone duets, klezmer, guitars and ukes. Anything goes. Someone hauls tables and someone else strings colored lights. Breweries donate beer, and there's always lots of local Willamette wine and pitchers of sangria. We set out lawn sprinklers for the kids, and my brother Scott McElroy sets up a grill and makes 'Scott-dogs.' It's very social, and everyone cooks at their own pace, though we shoot for a serving window around suppertime."
Because Oregon is all about recycling and sustainable living, the use of disposable plastic flatware was banned. Don went to a Goodwill store, bought cheapo metal forks and spoons and drilled holes in the ends. A cord threaded through the holes was tied into a lanyard and voila!, each person wore his or her own personal eating utensils. The tradition continues.
But Don, is the paella any good? "Oh, my yes!" Don says. "Classic, fusion, anything and everything works. We've had Thai paella, breakfast paella and pizza paella. Sometimes there are identical dishes, like the time there were two squid ink paellas out of six presented. We like to keep it secret until the fest day, and some even hold cooking rehearsals. Mostly though? We just like to have fun."
Everything you need to know to host your own paella party is here: paellafest.blogspot.com.
I have a gas ring, I have a paella pan. You'll invite me, won't you?
For sizes and prices of paella pans and gas rings, go to:
The Spanish Table: spanishtable.com
La Tienda: tienda.com/aboutus/retailstore.html
PAUL'S PIZZA PAELLA
- 8 tablespoons olive oil, or as needed
- 2 pounds ground beef, not too lean
- 2 cups crimini mushrooms, sliced
- 2 yellow onions, diced
- 6 cloves garlic, minced
- 16 ounces crushed tomatoes
- 1 cup red wine
- 1/3 cup fresh basil, chopped
- 4 cups rice (Bomba, Calasparra or Arborio)
- Beef broth, 14 cups (for Bomba/Calasparra) or 10 cups (for Arborio)
- 2 cups marinara sauce (your own, or high-quality bottled)
- 3 cups grated pizza blend cheese (mozzarella, Parmesan, cheddar)
- 1 cup black olives, sliced
- 2 cups pepperoni, thinly sliced
- 1/2 cup pesto
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Anchovy fillets
- Jalapeno peppers, sliced
- Red pepper flakes
- Parmesan cheese, grated
In a 22-inch paella pan, heat 2 tablespoons of oil on high heat and add the ground beef. Brown the beef, remove and set aside. Lower the heat, if necessary, so ingredients don't scorch. Add 2 more tablespoons of olive oil and brown the mushrooms until just soft (not wilted) and set aside with the ground beef.
Now start the sofrito (the base of the paella) by raising the heat of the pan to high and adding the remaining olive oil. Saute the onions until quite brown and soft. Add the garlic and brown briefly, then add the crushed tomatoes, red wine, basil, and salt and pepper to taste. Reduce the sofrito until it becomes a paste, about 10 minutes.
Add the rice to the pan and coat it thoroughly with the sofrito. Add all but 1 cup of the broth and bring to a boil, using a paella spoon to spread the rice evenly on the bottom of the pan. Add the ground beef, mushrooms and half of the olives, distributing the ingredients evenly.
Bring the paella to a boil and then reduce the heat to medium, so that the broth continues to bubble gently. There's no need to stir the mixture again. Cook about 40 minutes. Add the remaining broth if the rice absorbs all the liquid and is not fully cooked on top.
When most of the liquid is absorbed, and you don't see any bubbles rising between the grains of rice, spread the marinara, cheese, the remaining olives and pepperoni over the top of the paella. Cook 10 to 15 minutes more until the cheese melts and the socarrat (the layer of caramelized rice at the bottom of the pan) has formed. You'll know the socarrat is forming when you hear the rice crackling. Adjust the temperature of the inner and outer rings independently so that the rice does not burn. If you smell burning rice, turn off the burner immediately.
Drizzle pesto over the top. Each person can garnish his portion with the usual pizza toppings and condiments: sliced jalapeno peppers, grated Parmesan cheese, pepper flakes and anchovies.
Serves 12 to 15.
-- Paul Calandrino, of Eugene, Ore.
Marlene Parrish can be reached at 412-481-1620 or email@example.com.