I’m essentially useless in the kitchen. Sure, I can do enough to keep myself alive, but it’s far from impressive. Unless you want a killer over easy egg, I am not the girl you should call up for food. I always feel like I should be better then I am though. I’m a real live adult who has to fend for myself, plus my mom has always been fantastic cook. Not to mention, while I don’t have cable anymore, when I did I spent all of my time watching the Food Network (…and HGTV…). Yet no matter who I was learning from, my family or the television, none of the lessons ever stuck.
Unfortunately, it looks like Jose Andres can’t get through to me either. So I’m not surprised that days after my paella cooking class at the Jaleo in Bethesda, I’m a little fuzzy on the details. Of course, I can (and will) blame the sangria for some of my memory lapses. As soon as I walked through the door, I was greeted with a glass of the red. Unlike most places, Jaleo treats their sangria with the reverence of an old fashioned. Instead of copious amounts of fruit and ice, you get one solid block and a single orange wheel. It goes down like the best fruit juice you’ve ever had. Six year olds could get happily wrecked on Jaleo’s sangria and since I am the size of one, my fate was practically sealed.
After finishing our sangria, we were whisked away deep into the back of Jaleo’s kitchen where chef Robbie Meltzer was waiting for us. As was more sangria, a crisp and refreshing white this time. After donning an apron and washing our hands, we were finally ready to learn the ancient art of paella. Chef Robbie, who was made to be on the goddamn Food Network, was full of bad jokes, but the man knew what he was talking about when it comes to paella. I don’t know what kind of ritual sacrifice he had to do to become this good of a cook, but it clearly worked. He quickly walked us through the basics of cutting vegetables, and had us chopping and slicing away. Except me. I shucked English peas because, as I at the very beginning of this, I am useless.
This isn’t to say I didn’t learn nothing from the delightful and talented chef Robbie. I learned that when you’re adding rice to a paella pan you start from the outside in. I learned that you need to season as you go and focus on building layers of flavor. I learned that the paella will whisper to you (whatever that means!), but most importantly I learned it’s four parts liquid, one part dry. If you look at your paella and think there’s too much liquid then you’re probably doing it right.
After a forty five-ish minutes in the pan, our vegetarian paella was practically complete and we were lead out of the kitchen into the main dining room. I’ve worked in restaurants before, but considering my skill set, the dining room is my safe place. I may be an incredibly lame cook, but I can eat with the best of them. Our veggie paella came out with a portion of chicken paella and a smear of aioli.
All mixed together it was a slice of heaven. The peas providing a satisfying crunch to counteract the softness of the chicken, while the aioli added a silkiness to the dish. Eventually a velvety flan came out with mounds of soft whipped cream, but that were secondary. The real star of the show was the paella. I may not be able to cook my way out of a paper bag, but I’m damn good at shucking peas.