With lots of people finding themselves with more free time on their hands than they’re accustomed to, the internet seems to have sprouted an almost overnight re-acquaintance with cooking and baking as a relaxing, fruitful and enjoyable way to spend the time.
As a foodie, I’ve found myself dealing with the disappointment over my final semester of college cut being short with a frying pan, an arsenal of recipes to be found online and a determination to recreate some of my most fond culinary memories.
Weddings, funerals, proms and graduations have been cancelled among other events in light of the rapid spread of COVID-19. One of the lost experiences I feel most sympathetic towards is the semester cut short of studying abroad for many college students.
My semester studying in Madrid one year ago influenced who I’ve grown to be as a person, gave me invaluable intercultural competencies and was one of the most happy, adventurous times of my life.
In setting out to leverage my love of food with an abundance of free time, I decided to honor my valued experience abroad with an ode — in meal form, because that’s the best kind of ode there is — to the students whose semester abroad was cut short.
Having inherited both a travel bug and an unconditional love of food from my parents, the idea struck me one night when we were talking about the travel and food we’re grateful to have experienced outside of this unprecedented time marked with uncertainty.
One of the recipes I’ve always been intimidated to recreate, for fear of doing the dish a disservice, is a traditional seafood dish — paella. Traditional Spanish paella is as comforting in texture as it is complex in flavor. A long cooking time not only requires a patient chef, but promises a layered, rich blend of flavors that result in the hallmark taste of the dish that quite literally defines Spanish gastronomic culture.
Saffron is the not-so-secret spice that any paella enthusiast seeks when taking their first smoking bite right out of the pan. Its rich profile is complemented and emboldened by the addition of smoked Spanish paprika, turmeric, kosher salt and high-quality Spanish olive oil.
The entire process took a little over an hour, which my parents and I diligently filled with animated conversation and ample amounts of sangria — another defining element of Spanish cuisine.
A glass of sangria in hand, my parents and I listened to Spanish guitar music softly float in from the speaker and had a Spanish-style charcuterie complete with Manchego cheese, prosciutto and grapes while prepping the ingredients.
While the shrimp quickly sautéed, our conversation flitted between talks about love, travel, adventure and gratitude. I asked my parents to tell me about the worst dates they had ever been on, and then about their favorite decades of their lives thus far. We laughed and I listened while washing off the sea from the exterior of the wild caught New Zealand mussels.
The result of our efforts was one of the most impressive and delicious dishes I’m proud to say I have made. The paella’s luscious texture made the bites of seafood on each forkful stand out not only for the mouthwatering flavors they added to the comforting dish, but also made for a texturally exciting eating experience. Complemented with a full-bodied Rioja Spanish wine, I was in memory and culinary heaven.
It occurred to me while cooking that these special moments my parents and I shared would not have occurred if we weren’t placed in our present scenario. Real and organic opportunities to connect with family are far and few to come by in our hurried, busy lives. In the recreation of some of my favorite travel and food memories, I reminisced on the past and made memories I hadn’t even considered would be a part of the process with my parents.
While this is an uncertain time that is sure to define our generation, I’m grateful that a Saturday night spent cooking could be as emotionally meaningful as it was flavorfully powerful.
While this time in quarantine has looked different for everyone — the use of puzzles and adult coloring books are on the rise, #Procrastibaking is most definitely a thing and it seems like there’s more people out “getting their steps in” than ever before — I challenge you to unearth some culinary memories through recreation. You never know what you might find.