Hydra — Inspiration in the Aegean

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I’m planning another trip to Greece with friends and this awesome little island is definitely on the itinerary. Have you been? I just love the place.

Hydra is one of my favorites among all of the Greek islands — and I’m not alone. Artists, writers, musicians, intellectuals, and free spirits have all sought solitude, solace, or inspiration there. It’s a magical, sun-soaked spot surrounded by the all-entrancing, blue waters of the Aegean Sea.

Henry Miller spent time there. Along with Laurence Durrell of Alexandria Quartet fame and the flamboyant, Greek intellectual, called Katsimbalis. Reknowned travel writer, war hero and adventurer, Patrick Lee Fermor lived on the island. Nobel Prize-winning poet George Seferis did too — and he sang Hydra’s praises in verse. It was also home to one of modern Greece’s most influential artists, Nikos Hadjikyriakos-Gikas.

If you are a Leonard Cohen afficiando, you might know that he bought a house there. So did minamalist artist Brice Marden, who still lives on the island. As do many other artists, musicians, and wealthy Athenians.

Lately, Hydra’s been the haunt of billionaire Greek art collector and benefactor, Dakis Joannou who is making the island a gathering place for important artists, dealers and collectors from all over the world.

But Hydra’s still unspoiled. An ideal place to chill for a week or two — or for just a long weekend, the captivating little island is only two hours or so by fast boat from the frenetic port of Piraeus, just outside of Athens.

OK. I know what you’re thinking: refugee crisis! Is the island affected? No, it’s not. Hydra is located southwest of mainland Greece — not in the eastern Mediterranean, close to Tukey, where islands like Kos, Leros, Lesvos, Samos and Symi are experiencing problems you see in the news.

So, what makes Hydra so appealing? One of the most beautiful harbors in all of Greece. A feeling that time has stopped still or, at the very least, slowed down considerably. Unbelievable charm. And no motor vehicles.

Some years ago, I spent a week on Hydra doing nothing more than soaking up the rhythms of the island, savouring its freshly-caught, grilled fish and walking the meandering, herb-scented paths, all the while being seduced by the ever-present, sparkling, Grecean-blue, Aegean Sea. My wife Trulee was there with me to share in the experience — and to paint.

A watercolor she did of the view from the patio of our little, white-washed house, built into the rocky hillside high above the harbor, captures the magic of our lazy afternoons there. I looked at it this morning, as I do every morning — and like the island itself, it always enchants me.

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The Perfect Paella

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Ever since I tasted the Paella Valenciana at a traditional,”old-school” Spanish restaurant in downtown Washington, DC, more than a few years ago — my fondness for the distinctive flavors of this beautifully festive dish became somewhat of an obsession. One that’s still with me today.

Smoked paprika. Onions. Garlic. Tomatoes. Chorizo. Saffron. When combined properly, they conspire to transform what could have been just another, ordinary, rustic rice dish into something so much more thrilling.

But finding a recipe to make that happen has been no easy task. There are so many. And to complicate things even more, I wanted one that would recreate the experience I had back in DC. Or at least get close.

I haven’t had much luck. That is, until a few weeks ago when I found a recipe for a “paella mixta” with seafood, chorizo (dried, smoked, ready-to-eat pork sausage,) and chicken. It sounded like it might be the one.

And it was! In fact, after a little improvisation, the recipe became the basis for our family Christmas dinner. Everyone loved it — so it will most definitely be on the holiday table again next year. But I won’t wait until then for another taste. I’ll be serving this paella throughout the year.

The original recipe came from San Francisco chef and culinary writer Christine Gallary, who says “the key to the dish is the crusty, caramelized layer of rice, called socarrat, that forms on the bottom of the pan.”

I couldn’t agree more. That socarrat adds a characteristic layer of smoky flavor and a bit of crunch to the paella. It’s actually the soul of the dish.

Why don’t you give this paella a try! It’s not that difficult. It’s great for a party. And I’m certain your guests will love it. This recipe serves 6 to 8.

Paella Mixta

In addition to a 15″ paella pan, here’s what you’ll need:

2 medium ripe tomatoes
16 large shrimp, peeled and deveined
1 teaspoon smoked Spanish paprika (pimenton dulce)
Freshly ground black pepper
1 pound boneless, skinless chicken thighs, cut into 1″ pieces
8 ounces Spanish chorizo, cut into 1/4″ thick rounds
1 to 2 tablespoons olive oil, as needed
1 medium onion, cut into small dice
2 medium garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 large pinch saffron threads
2 cups paella rice (bomba or Valencia)
1 tespoon kosher salt, plus more for seasoning shrimp and chicken
4 cups low-sodium chicken broth
16 clams, well scrubbed
1/2 cup frozen peas
2 tablespoons coarsely chopped Italian parsley leaves
2 medium lemons, cut into 8 wedges for serving
Aluminum foil, enough to cover paella pan

The preparation:

Core and halve the tomatoes. Grate the flesh side of each half on the large hole of a box grater over a medium bowl, discarding the skin. You should have about 3/4 cup of pulp and juice; set aside.

Place the shrimp in a medium bowl, add 1/4 teaspoon of the paprika, and season with salt and pepper. Toss to combine and refrigerate.

Place chicken in a bowl, generously salt and pepper; set aside.

Place the paella pan over two burners, heat until hot, about 2 minutes. Add the chorizo, stirring occasionally, until it starts to brown, about 2 to 3 minutes. Transfer the chorizo to a large bowl; set aside.

There should be a thin layer of fat in the pan. It not, add some olive oil, then add the chicken, stiring occasionally, until the pieces are golden brown, about 6 minutes total. (Rotate the pan from time to time to evenly dsidribute the heat.) Transfer chicken to the bowl with chorizo; set aside.

Add the onion to the pan, season with salt and pepper, stirring occasionally, until softened, about 5 minutes, adjusting the heat as needed so that onions don’t burn. Add garlic, remaining 3/4 teaspoon paprika, and saffron, stir to combine, and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds.

Add the tomato pulp and juice, cook until mixture has slightly darkened in color, scrapping up browned bits from the bottom of the pan, about 3 minutes. Add the rice, teaspoon salt, and stir to coat rice in the mixture.

Add the broth and stir to combine. Arrange the rice mixture in an even layer. Distribute the chorizo and chicken over the rice, adding any juices from the bowl. (Don’t stir the rice from this point on.)

Bring mixture to a lively simmer. Continue to cook until rice grains have expanded, most of the liquid has been absorbed, and rice begins to make a cracking sound, about 12 minutes. (Rotate pan occasionally to evenly distribute heat, adjusting heat as needed to maintian lively simmer.)

Arrange shrimp and clams (hinge-side down) in rice. Sprinkle in peas, cover pan with foil, and cook until clams have opened, shrimp are cooked through and rice is tender but al dente, about 10 to 12 minutes.

Remove pan from heat, let stand 5 minutes. Remove foil, discard unopened clams, and sprinkle with parsley. Serve with lemon wedges.

Round out the meal with a simple romaine salad, topped with manchego cheese and some grilled, crusty bread, drizzled with your best oilve oil.

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