If revenge is a dish best served cold, then paella is a dish best served … not in a restaurant. Yes, if it’s good paella you seek, you are well advised to start inquiring among your friends as to which of them has a paella pan and might be prevailed upon to use it, perhaps at a summertime party. For paella could be summer’s ultimate party dish: Not only is it one of those rare preparations in which the home cook has a distinct advantage over commercial short-order kitchens, but it is also easy to make in party quantities, and it affords considerable spectacle if made the traditional way, over an open fire.
Last week my intrepid brother entered the party-paella sweepstakes, the party being the graduation from high school of his stepdaughter and the paella suggestion being mine, since I like paella and have a good recipe for it (adapted from Pierre Franey’s invaluable 60-Minute Gourmet) and have made it successfully over an open fire, though not for 80 people, many of them overexcited teenagers stoked on mojitos. My pan is just 14 inches across; the one he procured for the party was three feet across. It looked like something that had fallen from a jet passing overhead.
My thoughts went out to him, across two time zones, on the evening of the party: Now he must be laying the fire in the steel drum, now he must be softening his onions and peppers. We had discussed ingredients, quantities, shortcuts, possible problems, and remedies beforehand — too much fire and too little fluid were paramount in my mind — but in the end, he was there, he was the wielder of the long-handled spatula, and he would have to pull it off. I would only hear about it, for better or worse, the day after. And, the day after, I did hear, and he did pull it off, and the crowd cheered, then accepted leftovers.
Other graduation parties, he told me, offered cocktail wieners or burritos ordered in en masse from Chipotle’s — the latter being, perhaps and sadly, the way things are done now in affluent exurbia: Write a check and let somebody else do the work. I’m sure the graduates enjoyed their burritos, but I’m even more sure they will never forget their first sight and taste of a dish made for centuries in the centuries-old way of making it, by someone skilled and interested enough to make it for them.