I have been fortunate to get to know, slightly, the writer Thomas Rayfiel, who, as it turns out, has long been the chief cook in his household. My good fortune was recently multiplied when he agreed to share a bit of his culinary experience—and a recipe—with me for this blog. Before I get to that, though, let me more properly introduce him. Or rather, I’ll leave the honor to The New Yorker’s Mark Singer, who wrote a charming Talk of the Town story about him three years ago, when his novel “In Pinelight” came out:
Thomas Rayfiel [is] a quietly industrious Park Sloper who describes his imaginative methodology as ”getting as far away from what I know as possible.” The narrator of “Colony Girl,” Rayfiel’s second and best-known book, is a fifteen-year-old aching to escape from a religious cult in rural Iowa. “In Pinelight” presents the monologue of an elderly retired deliveryman in upstate New York, a soul-shriving stream of consciousness that flows the length of a book punctuated by periods, question marks, and line breaks but not a single comma.
Rayfiel is a singular talent. I encourage you to read his books. He’s currently at work on his seventh novel, “Genius,” which he says is “the story of a philosophy prodigy whose studies at Columbia are derailed when she is diagnosed with cancer and must return to live with her mother and brother in the small town of Witch's Falls, Arkansas.” It’s due in the spring of 2016.
In the meantime, he had the following bit of wisdom to share about cooking for his family. I like it because it reinforces my thinking that every hungry family is alike—and all well-fed families are well-fed in their own way. Enjoy:
Your blog made me reflect on my own experiences cooking for the family, though I more often felt like Man Who Got Panned, as I zigged and zagged my way through the minefield of two children's evolving, often irrational preferences. I finally realized that a dish from which they themselves could make choices, a medley of main courses, sides, and rice, all heaped together on one central platter, would give them the illusion of free will, allowing them to craft individual helpings and transform the usual chorus of complaint to, "This is great, Dad!"
After much trial and error, I came up with what we now call Family Paella, though people who have actually been to Spain (everyone but myself, apparently) assure me it bears only a distant relation to the real thing. It is more a sort of pilaf, I suppose. But it does the trick, and now that we are all older comes with an additional flavor, that most haunting of all spices: culinary nostalgia.
Rayfiel Family Paella
- 4 Tbsp. olive oil
- 1 lb. Italian or chorizo sausage
- 4 cups fish stock or clam juice
- 1 dozen Little Neck clams
- 1 cup dry white wine
- 1 ½ cups onion, chopped
- 4 garlic cloves, chopped
- 1 colored pepper (I like orange) sliced
- 2 cups arborio rice
- 2 bay leaves
- 1 ½ tsp. smoked paprika
- ¾ tsp. saffron
- ¼ tsp. dried crushed red pepper
- 2 Tbsp. capers
- handful of fresh or frozen peas
- ¼ cup Manzanilla olives
- ½ lb. shrimp (peeled)
- 3 hard boiled eggs, cut in half (crinkle cut, if you're feeling artistic)
In a heavy pot or Dutch oven, heat half of the olive oil (2T) over medium heat. Prick sausage and brown on all sides (about five minutes).
Remove sausage, let cool, slice.
Warm fish stock.
Rinse clams (soak first, if you like) and put in a smaller pot along with ¼ cup white wine.
Heat remaining olive oil (2T) in the large pot used for the sausage, over medium-high heat.
Add onions, garlic, pepper, and sausage, sauté about seven minutes.
Add rice and spices, stir two minutes more.
Pour in the remaining white wine. Boil until wine evaporates.
Add the capers, olives, and peas, followed by the stock or clam juice, bring to boil, cover, and let cook until rice is almost tender, about 20 minutes.
Towards the end of the cooking time, turn heat under clams and wine to high and cover.
After a few minutes, wine will boil and clams will begin to open.
(By now the rice should be done.)
As each clam opens, remove it with slotted spoon and put in with the rice mixture. (Removing the clams immediately prevents overcooking.) Cover the clam pot each time to maintain pressure.
When all the clams have opened, pour remaining clam juice and wine over the rice mixture. Add shrimp and stir. The heat of the paella should turn them pink and cook them in a minute or so.
Turn paella out onto a large platter.
Spread evenly and stud the surface with hard boiled egg halves.
Put in the center of the table with large serving spoons and have each family member create his or her own portion.
Pour yourself a drink. You've earned it.