So there we were, relaxing at the water’s edge under the shade of a thatched umbrella — our own private beach by the Adriatic, along with guests from the other five rooms at our hotel (who seldom made an appearance.)
Our hotel room – in a 15th century converted stone church – even included the bonus of a rose window, along with the balconied doors opening to a vista of the sea. It was a quiet, idyllic spot, and the perfect way to beat the heat or catch up on some sketching and painting.
So what could lure us to leave this gorgeous location, even for a few hours?
Drumroll for Facebook, and a private message from a former classmate at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, who had seen some photos I posted on the social media site while in Croatia.
“Where in Croatia are you?” queried Mellissa, whom I hadn’t seen in 21 years. “We have a vacation house on Korcula island. Please come visit if you’re anywhere near us.
The New York Times had just listed Korcula as one of the “52 places to visit in 2016.”
Moreover, Korcula town, a charming fortified town and popular tourist destination on the island, was only a 15 minute ferry ride from Orebic, the town on the Peljesac peninsula where we were staying.
It’s also where Marco Polo was supposedly born, although Venetians vehemently dispute that!
Any one of those reasons was enticement enough to visit.
But the idea of reconnecting with my former classmate and her husband Paul on a beautiful Croatian island was even more delicious.
We had no idea just how delicious a trip it would be until we arrived at their lovely, spacious house along the Adriatic. It was difficult to tear ourselves away from this gorgeous view.
But we didn’t have to, since Melissa served drinks and this savory mushroom cheese tart on the terrace overlooking the sea.
Mellissa outdid herself on the main course – this exquisite dish of paella with fideos, – a short thin pasta that took the place of the more commonly used rice. A Spanish friend introduced me to fideos decades ago, and in fact they’re typically found in Catalan cuisine, and are generally toasted in hot oil, then cooked with a simmering liquid, similar to risotto. If you can’t find fideos, use angel hair pasta, but first break it into short pieces.
Mellissa’s paella was outstanding, and included these gigantic shrimp-like crustaceans.
The key to a really flavorful dish is to use a broth made from the fish heads, Mellissa said. If your market doesn’t sell shrimp with heads, remove the shells from the carcass and boil those in some water.
Meanwhile at their outdoor oven/grill, Mellissa’s husband Paul prepared the chicken that would get layered into the paella. He used the bottom of a peka to cook the meat, the name of a domed, iron vessel and a signature dish of Croatia. Peka is typically cooked for long, slow periods of time at an outdoor fire, and can made with chicken, octopus, lamb, vegetables, or whatever you like.
Mellissa finished cooking the dish at the kitchen stove, adding chorizo sausage and peas. She served it with a couple of side salads. It’s a filling dish, and we nearly ate the whole thing!
Nonetheless, we found enough room for a slice of this outstanding fruit tart she made.
We finished off a perfect evening walking to the water’s edge to watch the sunset from their “back yard.” How would you like to gaze at that nightly, with a glass of wine in hand?
Thank you Mellissa and Paul, for giving us the opportunity.
Mellissa’s recipe for paella with fideos is below, but first, a few photos from Korcula town, starting with the gate at the entrance to the old city:
An old cannon at the fortress, overlooking the harbor
St. Mark’s cathedral
St. Michael’s church
glittering mosaics in a Catholic church
Check out my Instagram page here to see more of what I’m cooking up each day.
Paella with fideos
250 grams or 8 ounces fideos (thin noodles)
1 onion, chopped
½ large red pepper, chopped
2 chorizo sausages, sliced into 1-inch pieces
1 tsp smoked paprika
1 ½ tsp kosher salt
1 tsp fresh ground pepper
pinch of saffron
1 cup dry white wine
4-5 cups fish or shellfish stock *
6 chicken thighs, skin on and bone-in
1 pound large head-on prawns (deveined and heads removed from half of them) *
good olive oil
For the stock:
Heads of half of the prawns
¼ cup vermouth
1 onion, roughly chopped
1 carrot, roughly chopped
1 bay leaf
1 tsp whole peppercorns
8 cups water
Heat 1 TBSP olive oil in a large pot until not quite smoking. Add the prawn heads and get a good heat on them for about 1-2 minutes. You want them to sear and brown a little. Add a large pinch of salt. Deglaze the whole works with the vermouth. Turn the heat down to medium and add the onion, carrot, bay leaf, and peppercorns. Stir for a couple minutes until the vegetables start to soften and the onions start getting translucent.
Then add about 8 cups of water and bring to a boil. Turn the heat down and simmer until you have about 6 cups of stock.
Strain and set aside.
For the paella:
Pour the reserved stock into a saucepan and add the saffron threads. Bring to a gentle simmer and keep hot.
Salt and pepper the chicken thighs generously. Heat 2 TBSP of olive oil in a paella pan over high heat and add the thighs skin-side down. Sea for about 3 minutes on each side and remove from pan. Turn the heat to medium and add chopped onions and red pepper. Cook until they start to soften, then add the noodles and turn the heat up to high and brown for a minute. Add the smoked paprika, salt, and pepper. Stir for a minute to combine, then add the chorizo and stir again. Deglaze with the white wine and stir until it is reduced.
Add the noodles back in and stir to mix. Then nestle the chicken thighs into the noodles, skin-side up.
Start adding the stock, like you would when cooking risotto, allowing the noodles to absorb the liquid ladle by ladle. Depending on the noodles, you may or may not need all the stock, but judge for yourself how al dente you like them.
Meanwhile, salt and pepper the rest of the shrimp. If you have a grill pan or a barbeque, grill them on high heat a couple minutes on each side, until they turn pink. If not, throw them into a pan with a splosh of olive oil on high heat.
Arrange the shrimp over the noodles and sprinkle with parsley and a good drizzle of olive oil before serving.