Mr. Smith Comes to Dinner

I started dating soon -- too soon -- after my ex and I split. There were lots of reasons for it, in retrospect, other than the sheer madness that I know is pretty typical of the post-breakup phase. I will list them very methodically here, so it seems that my insanity from those first months after my world collapsed was in fact much more rational than it looked from the outside; square brackets around the numbers will emphasize the almost scientific nature of my analysis:

[1] I had never dated before, first off. My ex was my first boyfriend, my first real relationship. Novelty factor.

[2] I was about to turn forty -- I would be hitting my expiration date soon, I feared.

[3] I wasn't in my regular town, which was just depressing when it came to available men, given that it was basically the Appalachians -- but for the next six months I was in Berkeley! I figured that the pickings would be riper and I should take advantage in the time I had left.

[4] I needed an ego boost; I needed people to tell me I was attractive, that I was worth loving, after being told in the most painful way that I just wasn't.

[5] The trauma of the breakup resulted in weight loss, so I was looking better than usual and wanted to leverage some of that attractiveness before I turned to depression eating.

[6] And -- and this most -- I was terrified. I was terrified, after seventeen years with someone, of what it would mean to be alone.

Of course, this list itself may inadvertently serve to demonstrate why this whole dating thing was such a disaster.

I went on blind dates, lots of them. It was always a strange experience to confront someone for the first time -- that's what it felt like, a confrontation, each one of us prepared for the worst. That first look was the crucial moment. So often I saw faces crumpling when they got a glimpse of me; sometimes, more rarely, a huge smile that contained a measure of relief. It didn't matter how quickly the crumplers recovered, or how pleasant the rest of the evening was. It was impossible to erase that first look from my mind. Of course, the loveliest people I met, the beautiful poet-slash-astrophysicist, for example, stood no chance because I wasn't ready for anything beyond a few dates before I ran away faster than they could catch me. But that's a different story. I'm still a bit elusive, three years later.

There was a painter who asked me out; let's call him John Smith, in part because that was his name. I insisted on seeing pictures of his paintings before I would agree to meet for an afternoon at SFMOMA. I can be friends with terrible artists (not great friends, I guess, but friendly), but I can't imagine what it would be like to date someone whose art I hated. What would there be to talk about? How uncomfortable would it be to know he needed affirmation and I couldn't give it honestly? Why go down that road?

I liked Mr. Smith's paintings. I agreed to coffee.

This could turn out to be a long story, but no need for that: we were emotionally and intellectually totally in sync, we genuinely enjoyed each other's company and humor, we found warmth and connection with each other, but our first and only kiss was a bust. He said that there was no chemistry; I had had plenty of passion in my marriage, but no kindness, so the kiss seemed less important to me than it probably should have been -- the chemistry, in my view, was in the other stuff. We became friends anyway. I was getting something from him that I had missed for so many years. Empathy, maybe. Generosity. A sort of love. But, to be clear: this isn't a tale of romance.

The friendship was intense, and we spent endless time talking and texting and emailing, which didn't help my confusion; I couldn't imagine communicating with someone so often unless I was a little in love with him, so Mr. Smith's propensity to spend so much time on me seemed strange, a sign he was denying what I was convinced were his true feelings. Our friends -- his friends in California and my friends in New York -- thought we were disingenuous for not just admitting we were a couple; we looked to each other for approval the way couples did, and finished each other's sentences. We had an intimate way of talking and joking. They must not have noticed the way we recoiled at the slightest brush against each other, as if we knew that the only thing that made this a friendship was the inches of space we kept between us.

He met my daughter; theirs was a true love. Even after years, my kid tells me that she will never allow me to marry anyone else, which makes me quite lonely.

We talked to our shrinks about each other; my therapist, a elfish old man with a David Crosby ponytail and Bronx accent, thought Mr. Smith was crazy for not being in love with me, and scared, too, but that was mostly because my therapist had a crush on me so thought that any man who didn't jump at the chance to have me was a little bit insane. I asked my shrink, once, whether he thought I was overdoing it by dating so soon. He said to me "You know less about men than any woman I've ever met. All the stuff you should have been learning in your twenties you need to learn in your forties. Damned right you should be dating now."

This is how my shrink described me: "You are water: all liquid and flow and you sort of float through life. You're like the ocean, or a river. You have an ease about you. Unbreakable because you will just flow around the obstacles." He made a wave motion with his hand as he was saying this; I'm not sure I recognized myself in his description. After I moved back to the house that my ex and I had lived in together before the divorce, John Smith would call me every day and check in by text regularly to make sure that I was okay. He would send me mixed tapes (or the 21st century iTunes version); he said he was working on one about water. He made a painting for me -- about me -- about water. He saw my nature as aqueous, too.

Eventually the intensity of the friendship was too much to bear: for me, it was like being in a big-R relationship without the clarity that comes with that. I was his fake girlfriend. He resented me for wanting more. I resented him for not seeing how rare what we had was, for wanting less than that. The end of it was like a marriage disintegrating, for me, maybe because that was my most immediate reference point, but for him it was something different. He had nursed two parents at the end of their lives. On the phone, when we spoke and then stopped speaking and sat in stunned grief on opposite sides of the continent, he said, "Have you ever been in a room when someone has just died? This is what it feels like. The silence."

When I feel a connection with someone, no matter what the connection, I have an overwhelming urge to cook for him or her. Weirdly, it was only after months of knowing each other that I asked Mr. Smith over for dinner. It was June or maybe July in Berkeley when I finally extended an invitation, and we sat on the deck in the Berkeley hills with a stunning view of the bay. My five-year old daughter dressed in her prettiest dress and kept complimenting how nice I looked and how good the food was in a slightly too loud, too enthusiastic voice -- she was trying to convince him to become part of our family, I thought. I think he realized it, too; he was especially kind to her that night. The food -- Spanish tortilla and melon wrapped in prosciutto and a simple paella -- was good. As good as the friendship, maybe.

We traded some text messages recently. Our lives have changed so much. He finally started sending me his water-themed mixed tape, two years after promising it to me, two years after our non-breakup, tracks coming one at a time like the drips from a strangled faucet or Chinese water torture or maybe a well gone dry. I haven't listened to any of the songs.

Embellished Spanish Tortilla

4 oz Spanish chorizo, cut into coins or a dice (you want bite-sized pieces)
4 TB good olive oil, preferably Spanish
3 medium potatoes sliced thin on a mandoline (peeled or not, as you prefer)
kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
1 yellow onion, diced
1 red pepper, diced
1/4 c chopped flat-leaf parsley
8 eggs, beaten
lemon wedges for serving

1. Heat olive oil in a non-stick frying pan (12") over medium-high heat. Add chorizo, and sauté until the fat is rendered and the chorizo is browned. Remove.

2. To the oil in the pan, add the potatoes. Flip the potatoes around to coat them with the oil, and turn to medium-low heat. Season with sea salt. Cook the potatoes, stirring and flipping, for about 5 minutes; avoid browning if you can, and try to keep them relatively intact. Lower the heat if necessary.

3. At this point, add add the onion, pepper, and parsley, along with another pinch of salt. Continue tossing and flipping the potatoes until the vegetables are soft; taste for salt and add pepper. Mix the chorizo back into the mixture.

4. Add the eggs, which you've seasoned with salt and pepper. Shake the pan and stir (without breaking the potatoes, if you can avoid it) so the egg settles around the other ingredients. Continue to cook on medium-low heat, cooking the egg gently.

5. When things seem quite set but still wettish on top, you have two choices: you can either run the pan under a broiler to set the top, or you can flip it. To do the latter, which will make you a kitchen badass, take a large plate or a rimless cookie sheet, set it face down over the frying pan and hold it with your right hand. With your left hand, pick up the frying pan and turn it over. Now you'll have the tortilla wet side down on the plate; slide it back into the pan, wet side down, and finish cooking it.

6. Serve in wedges at room temperature, maybe with a little lemon wedge for squeezing.

The Simplest Paella
Makes 6 servings

So. Here is my basic paella recipe, which can be modified in any number of ways. A few lessons I've learned:
  • Although Calasparra rice from the Valencia region is considered the best, and people often suggest Arborio (used mostly for Italian risotto) as an acceptable substitute, a Spanish friend suggested that sushi rice (Calrose, Nishiki, or Kuhuko Rose) works just as well for a fraction of the price, and it's what I tend to use most often. 
  • Most recipes call for chicken stock or broth as the liquid of choice; after years of using these, I finally figured out that I would get better results with just plain water. 
  • A paella pan -- a large, round, shallow pan, most often carbon steel -- is the usual cooking vessel (and, conveniently, traditional ones are "sized" according to the number of cups of rice will fit inside), but I have found that a large non-stick frying pan can be a good option for up to 5 servings (2 cups rice). Much easier to get that delicious bit of crust on the bottom without burning. I tend to use my "real" paella pans for larger crowds.
  • The three key ingredients of paella are rice, saffron, and smoked Spanish paprika (also called pimentòn); you'll also likely want to add Spanish-style chorizo (which is a cured, hard sausage, unlike the Mexican fresh sausage of the same name) -- Palacios is the most commonly-available imported variety, but Columbus (a US outfit) makes a good version, too.
  • The basic method: sauté the aromatics, brown the poultry, add the rice and coat with the oil, add the liquid and other ingredients, simmer but DON'T STIR, add the seafood, and then, when the pan is dry, take off the heat and cover with newspaper for ten minutes or so before serving. This may require that you start subscribing to a newspaper again. Sorry.
1 TB olive oil
3 oz chorizo, cut into bite-sized pieces
4 chicken thighs, bone-in, skin on or off as is your preference (I skin)
1 tsp plus 1 TB smoked paprika
1 medium onion, diced
1 c diced fennel (also called anise), optional
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 seeded, diced tomatoes
1 large pinch of saffron
2 c short-grained rice
1 c flat Romano beans or green beans OR 1 c fresh artichoke hearts cut into chunks (optional) OR 1-1/2 c defrosted green peas
4 c water or low-sodium chicken stock
kosher salt
8 peeled and deveined large shrimp (optional)
1/3 c roasted red pepper strips (use jarred Spanish piquillo peppers if you find them)
1/2 c minced parsley
lemon wedges for serving

1. Heat olive oil in a large frying pan or skillet (12" or 14"). Add chorizo, and let it sauté until browned and the paprika-red fat renders. Remove chorizo. Sprinkle chicken thighs with 1 tsp smoked paprika and salt, and add it to the pan to brown. Remove from pan.

2. Add onion, fennel (if using), and salt to the pan. When softened, add garlic, 1/4 c of the parsley, tomatoes, and 1 TB smoked paprika. Ad the saffron. When the tomatoes are cooked and the oil separates, add rice and mix it around until the rice glistens with the oil and the edges of it look slightly translucent. Add the beans or artichokes OR leave these out for now and add peas later on.

3. Add water or chicken stock and salt (2 tsp of kosher salt or 1 tsp fine salt is probably the right amount unless your chicken stock is pre-salted). Add the chicken and the chorizo back into the pan. Bring to a lively simmer, then turn down the heat to maintain a steady bubble, and let the whole thing cook for 15 minutes. You can shake the pan every once in a while, but don't stir it.

4. At the 15 minute mark, you can add the shrimp, if using; bury the shrimp into the pan, but again, don't stir if you can help it. Cook for another 10 minutes or so; the rice should be tender but not mushy.

5. If you're using peas, add them now now, along with the roasted red pepper strips. Stir! Let the paella sit, covered with a sheet of newspaper if you have it, for 5-10 minutes to finish absorbing the liquid. Serve with a good handful of minced parsley thrown on top and some lemon wedges to squeeze at will.


Anonymous said…
Have you considered submitting this as a "Modern Love" piece?
No, I hadn't. Maybe I should think about it. Thanks for suggesting.
marinagp said…
What a nice, delightful way to spend a Sunday afternoon reading your blog ( while nursing a bad case of sciatica...)I happened on this one, because I clicked on paella, curious about your version, which is classic. I agree with you about the kind of rice that is possible to use, sushi, arborio for risotto. You cook the rice 15 minutes, I do 17 ( same for quinoa and risotto...)I share your interests and political philosophy. I have not seen the new york times for years, but I also thought about the Modern Love column in the Sunday Style section. If they still have it, you should submit it...I had to laugh, when the relationship with Mr. Smith starts to get a bit intense, deteriorates, a half empty dish or pot appears...Please keep in mind that English is not my first language, in case there are mistakes...You are a great writer.
Marinagp, thank you for the lovely comment. Actually, I cook the rice for longer than 15 minutes -- that's just when I put the shrimp in. Closer to 20 or 25, I think. Thank you for noticing the picture -- I put them in, thinking only I will get the joke, but it makes me happy when someone else does, too.
myrab said…
I've never had the guts to try paella, but now, after reading your simple recipe, so lovingly written, I think I shall try it tonight!

myrab, thank you for commenting. Please do try it -- it's much easier than it seems, and is so delicious. Lots of ways to vary it, too.
Unknown said…