Do you have a signature dish?
For me, things usually start slowly, with little notice. I split some kindling and start a modest fire outside, overlooking the lake, in one of those large, low Weber kettles that usually serve as a mobile fire pit. While the fire warms up, I slice and dice garlic, onions, peppers and more.
By the time the fire is going well, I have brought out ingredients — usually 25-30 in all — onto a table a few feet from the fire. This is when my two main helpers, Matt and Paul, start saying “mis en place” — it is the only French I have ever heard them utter, but they are happy to explain to other guests that it means getting all the ingredients for a dish prepared and measured in advance.
By the time The Guys, as we call Matt and Paul, are speaking French, other guests have started wandering up from the lake, drawn by the spectacle that starts with olive oil sizzling in a concave-shaped, shallow pan, 28 inches wide. They are curious.
“What’s going on here?” We’re making dinner.
“What on earth are you making?”
“Gosh, I was just expecting the usual hamburgers and hot dogs.” You’re welcome.
Over the years, paella over an open wood fire has become something of a tradition for summer holidays at our little Hudson Valley lake house, where we typically host two dozen or more guests for Memorial Day, the Fourth of July and Labor Day weekends.
Paella is our house’s signature dish. Or one of them. Certainly it’s the one we’re best known for during summer, when old friends are not shy about asking if they can come up again and oh, by the way, are you making paella?
The whole signature dish thing kind of emerged over the years as we made it again and again — with good reason. Paella is not an everyday meal. It makes a gathering special, an occasion. Special. It’s entertaining to watch it be created — involved and involving. And it tastes damn good. Put all that together, and it’s a lot of fun. And that’s reason enough for every country house to have a signature dish, right?
Through the 2-3 hours of our prep and cooking, pretty much every guest leans over the pan for a look and a sniff or three as the textures, colors and aromas change with new ingredients. Some guests offer advice — even those who have never made paella. Most know what paella is (and how to pronounce pie-A-ah), but some want an explanation. We’re happy to talk about paella’s roots in Spain and then Argentina as a rice-based communal dish, whether for big weddings in Valencia or hungry cowboys out on the Pampas. And how its key ingredient, whenever possible, is a healthy dose of saffron — one of the most costly flavorings in the world (literally worth its weight in gold).
Some guests have eaten paella. A few have even attempted to make it once or twice. Almost nobody has seen it made over an open wood fire, except at our place.
“I’ve made it in my kitchen, but I’d never do it outside, or with a crowd watching,” one guy told me. “Too much can go wrong.”
Indeed, what is French for “high wire act”?
I used to be the solo cook for the paella but The Guys, thirtysomething longtime family friends, gradually began helping and eventually took over the actual cooking once I did the prep work.
And there are plenty of other helpers every time we make paella.
“Ooh, can I dump those scallops in?” Sure, knock yourself out.
“Can I just pour my white wine on?” OK, but if it’s really good wine, hand it to me and pour my cheap wine on instead.
“Do you have another one of those big wooden spoons? I want to help stir.” OK, but don’t stir so vigorously that you destroy the soccarat, the thin, crunchy flavorful layer of lightly scorched rice on the bottom of the pan.
We know people with a wide range of signature dishes at their weekend houses. Pizza from the oven out on the patio. Rotisserie chicken or leg of lamb. Grilled fish that was swimming in the ocean that morning. Big salads made entirely from whatever was at the farmers market or in the CSA allotment. Mussels from the local market served in the shell, with a generous amount of the mussel “liquor” from the pot as a chaser.
I’m convinced the signature dish is a worldwide phenomenon, from guest-caught rainbow trout in a Colorado cabin or garlicky string beans from mom’s garden behind the New England salt box to an updated version of babushka’s borscht in a Ukraine dacha or home-cured herring at a Scandinavian summer house next to the sauna. Lobster followed by blueberry pie are often the Maine event at the camps Down East.
Dr. J, a prominent Manhattan chiropractor who moonlights as a talented amateur chef with a huge following thanks to his blog and regular network TV appearances, has a unique purpose for his signature dish. The night before he heads to the Hamptons with that week’s lucky guests, he makes a giant lasagna and then puts it in the fridge to take along the next day.
At his beach house, the first thing he does is put the lasagna in the oven. By the time everybody has unpacked, settled in and had a glass of good chianti — presto, here’s a heaping dinner of maybe the best lasagna you’ve ever had. “It’s a great way to start the weekend,” Dr. J says.
Hamburgers and hot dogs can be signature dishes, too, of course, along with sides, salads and desserts. One of my journalism pals, Susan, had to drop her Famous Ricotta Cheesecake because return guests were turning it down. “Too rich,” they said. “Too many extra pounds.” Now she serves her Famous Roast Tomato Soup followed by her Famous Hungarian Chicken Paprikash and her Famous Blueberry Crumble.
We serve a lot of desserts, too, thanks to my wife and her two dozen or more pies, cakes, tarts and crumbles every year. (Yes, I am a lucky man.) And we have a few other “house” dishes that aren’t quite signature dishes that we often serve to guests, including grilled swordfish and chicken sliders.
Back to the paella. Most people are impressed, and some are excited, that we don’t have a set recipe. “Are those scallops really going to cook? And shrimp? And mussels?” Yep.
“Ooh, the saffron makes it so golden it almost glows.” Yep.
“The red, orange and yellow peppers just pop, don’t they, along with the big black olives and the peas.” Yep.
The paella is different every time. Some people are mystified, some are excited, some get caught up and impulsively offer random stuff — different favorite sauces, off-brand alcohol, vegetables they brought along. All the participation adds to the fun. Paella days inevitably offer the most laughs per mouthful, hands down.
When The Guys have stopped tossing random stuff into the paella and decided it’s finished — Matt is usually the final arbiter — they take it off the fire and let it rest on a big tree stump for a few minutes.
By the time Paul announces, “Let’s eat,” the crowd is usually loosely lined up, pressing forward with plate and fork in hand, like a scene from a chain-gang movie at grub time. Matt ladles out the servings, and things get pretty quiet for the next 20 minutes or so, with a lot of murmured approvals.
Below I’ve listed our most common ingredients. Sorry, I don’t have exact measurements or step-by-step timing; it always depends on how things look and smell to Matt and Paul (and sometimes me, as a tiebreaker).
Meantime, what’s your weekend house’s signature dish? Or something that went badly and you’ll never try again? We’d be really curious about what you put in your paella. I’ve never used rabbit, but some Andalusians say it’s not real paella without chunks of rabbit. Give us your tips and tricks. Let us know here (bonus if you send photos) and we will share it in next week’s newsletter.
Paella ingredients, mostly optional, in very rough order, for Lake House Signature Paella
Sausage (chorizo or Italian sweet)
Rice (arborio or bomba)
Saffron in boiled water
Seafood broth or vegetable broth or water
Peppers (red, green, orange)
Shrimp (and/or calamari, monkfish)
(Occasional additions, to taste, include rosemary, cumin, turmeric and hot sauces)