The emergency services are called, but the paella gets eaten

Cooking with Conor Pope: Don’t do this at home... my seafood paella threatens to wipe out the entire family

Conor Pope looking pretty pleased with himself after his four-hour  paella marathon, but not for long.

Conor Pope looking pretty pleased with himself after his four-hour paella marathon, but not for long.

 

Each week during November, former Celebrity MasterChef finalist Conor Pope will be undertaking a culinary challenge for Food Month at The Irish Times. In part two, he makes seafood paella.

“Warning. There is carbon monoxide downstairs. The alarm may sound. The alarm is loud.”

As I’m carrying the dish that took me the guts of four hours to make and cost more than €60, the talking smoke and carbon monoxide alarm bursts into life. Its comments stop us all dead.

November is Food Month in The Irish Times. irishtimes.com/foodmonth
November is Food Month in The Irish Times. irishtimes.com/foodmonth

All the Popes are familiar with the smoke alarm going off and we all know the drill. We get the alert and then we race to silence the alarm before its high pitched screeching gives the poor dog an aneurysm.

But this unwelcome reference to carbon monoxide is new and everyone in the room knows it is new. “Dad, what’s carbon monoxide,” one child asks while the others look on anxiously, waiting for my reassuring answer.

“Um. It’s a, um, gas?” The hesitation and the uncertainty in my voice is clear and not at all comforting.

“Can it kill?”

“Um.”

The alarm goes off again.

Several hours earlier I’d set out to make seafood paella. It is something I’ve made many times, but generally speaking I cheat, sometimes shamelessly. I use ready made fish stock. I use friendly fish such as cod and salmon which is, perhaps, more appealing to an Irish child’s (and an adult’s) palate than some of the fierce creatures found in the Med. On occasion, I have even used Uncle Ben’s microwave rice to make it.

But don’t tell anyone Spanish I said that. The terrible thing is I’ve known better for a long time. I learned to love food in Spain and I will always love Spain for that. In the mid-1990s I left my home in rainy Galway and set off for what I imagined was sunny Spain. I spoke no Spanish and knew no-one in Spain, but I’d got a job as an English teacher in a town in the northern province of Asturias, after a crackly telephone interview with a man called Manolo. So away I went.

My new home was in a town called Sama de Langreo in the foothills of an enormous coal mountain and in the shadow of an ugly power plant which belched filthy black dust into an always nuclear orange night sky.

Asturias, as I quickly learned, was the rainy part of Spain, and the most heavily industrialised part. If first impressions had counted for anything I would have gone home immediately. But I didn’t, mainly because I had no money and couldn’t afford a return flight.

I am glad I stayed. As well as the coal mines and pollution, Asturias, a province no bigger than Munster, was also a place of incredibly beauty with towering snow-capped mountain ranges peppered with postcard pretty villages and wide expanses of national parkland. There were - I am told - bears and boars roaming wild and stunning stretches of white sands and frothing waves. The people were lovely too. And I loved being the exotic “professor” from Ireland.

But what Asturias is perhaps most famous - in Spain at least - is la comida, or the food. Even the ugliest, dirtiest looking restaurants in the most grim towns can somehow serve plates of food that the best, most feted restaurants in other parts of the world would struggle to replicate.

The first meal I had in Spain was in the company of another Irish teacher - a friend who by bizarre coincidence had got a job in the very same school as me months earlier. I didn’t know that when I had got the job, as I lived in a world without email and social media. He took care of me on my arrival and introduced me to the notion of the menu del dia in an incredibly grotty looking Sideria (a bar which specialises in the local cider).

The restaurant was near the school and I can still remember what I ate. There was egg noodle soup - sopa de fideo - followed by paella and then flan. There was a bottle of wine included, as well as bread and coffee. It cost the equivalent of £4.50 in the old money. And there was cider.

I ate everything with great suspicion and my fork danced around the shell and eyes-on prawns in my bowl with squeamish horror. But as the weeks turned into months and then years, I grew less squeamish about Spanish food and learned to love it. I will be forever grateful to Asturias for that.

The finished paella grew cold while the emergency services were called.
The finished paella grew cold while the emergency services were called.

Asturias, for its part, would hate me for what I have done to paella in the years since then. But today will be different I tell myself. Today I will do it properly. First are the ingredients. I source my fish - squid, shell- and eye-on prawns, monkfish and mussels in Kish Fish in Dublin 7. I buy my paella rice and saffron in Lilliput Stores.

I make the stock from scratch by boiling the shells of the prawns along with onions, carrots, garlic, tomatoes, star anise, salt and water, as well as a random splash of brandy, for a couple of hours.

Then I get my massive paella pan out. As I reach for it, I feel super smug for having brought it home from a Spanish campsite, back when we were allowed to travel to such places, even though getting it into my hand luggage and on to the Ryanair plane was a nightmare.

I heat several glugs of Spanish olive oil in the massive pan which takes up two rings on my gas hob. I soften the Spanish onions, and brown the monkfish and the squid before taking both out. I add the rice, garlic, paprika, a red pepper cut into strips and €7 worth of saffron. I chuck in the tomatoes, which I have gone to the great bother of skinning myself. And then I start ladling in the homemade fish stock.

As it steams and soaks into the rice I add more and more. It is hypnotic and relaxing. When most of the stock is gone and the rice is al dente, I add the prawns, the pre-cooked fish and the mussels, which I had cooked in a separate pot, and peas. I sprinkle in the parsley and add lemon wedges. It looks amazing, if I say so myself. I walk towards the table and appreciative murmurs from my hungry family.

Then there is this. “Warning. There is carbon monoxide downstairs. The alarm may sound. The alarm is loud.”

I eventually convince my children they are not about to die, sit them at the table and open all the windows in as casual a way as I can manage, while out of earshot, my wife calls the emergency services to find out what you are supposed to do when the carbon monoxide alarm goes off.

They tell us we need to call the gas people immediately. We do. Not more than seven minutes later, there is a man with what looks like a Geiger counter in the living room grilling me in a friendly way about vents and heating appliances and all the rest.

As he talks, the younger members of the Pope’s house eat and watch on with only passing interest. I look sadly at the chilling paella.

The gas fire is grand. The heating system is grand. The cooker is grand. There is no sign of any carbon monoxide leaks anywhere.

Then, with the keen eye of Hercule Poirot, the gas man looks at the table. “Were you cooking with any unusual pot?” he asks.

“Um, well, I have this paella pan you see. I got it in Spain.”

He asks me to bring it back to the stove and to turn on the gas.

As soon as I do, the carbon monoxide levels around me start to spike.

Turns out the stupid pan was interrupting the airflow to the gas and causing significant amounts of carbon monoxide to leak into the house.

The gas man gives me some tips on how I might be able to use the pan in the future and then he’s on his way, leaving me mournfully eating cold seafood paella and wondering what it might have tasted like when it was hot.

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