Episode 3 and we’re cooking with Pepi. It’s been a while since I have known this awfully humble and kind lady. Pepi is one of the quieter women of the town of Vejer de la Frontera that you will typically meet. She has a soft and very warm approach and I was fascinated by her from the first time we met.
Why Pepi in particular? Well, I first met her whilst a student on a week long cooking course at Annie B’s Spanish Kitchen, the very reason why I first found myself in the stunning hilltop town. Pepi was, and still works as Annie’s kitchen assistant. A petite woman with rich brunette hair and wide eyes, she is quite a model as she prepares ingredients quietly in the background for the class ahead while Annie takes you on a gastronomical journey (literally through the markets and sherry bodegas) but also at her home where she endlessly produces maps, herbs, spices and indeed wine to explain the background of the dishes to be cooked over the day. I can’t remember a time when I have seen Pepi without heels on; which trust me, is a crazy prospect if you are to ever visit and walk around the steep hills of Vejer.
I naturally gravitated to Pepi because she speaks little to no English - this was a chance for me to whack out some of the lingo I (hopefully) had learnt during my degree. Returning to Vejer in 2016 allowed me to get to know Pepi and her family. Her husband Ignacio is the well-known local barber whose barber shop is designed like a 70s living room. Furnished with plenty of wooden panels, there is a continuous stench of tobacco from his regular breaks smoking outside the front door of the shop (except not really outside). A proud, slightly macho entertainer with an impressively low-voice, I enjoyed paying Ignacio a visit. It’s safe to say I always looked very ‘local’ whenever I stepped out of Ignacio’s barbers.
I always appreciated Annie taking on a local Vejeriega from the town to assist her. Pepi loves her job and despite born, raised and still living in Vejer, she has been exposed to a host of different cultures and people through her job. And of course, who better is there to teach you an authentic Andalucían paella which features on the course. The memory I had from preparing and eating this paella gave me no choice but to cook it again for my series, but this time in Pepi’s own kitchen. In fact Pepi was delighted when I asked her, which delighted me because I was desperate to share the recipe.
Paella is a staple across the entire eastern and southern coast of Spain (from the Costa Brava in Cataluña to the Costa de la Luz in Cádiz). Unlike, for example, a Valencian paella that typically features meat (rabbit, chicken, even snails) with green beans, an Andalucían paella celebrates fish and notably shellfish. What fascinated me most about cooking this dish was that Pepi would regularly mix the rice. I was so used to leaving the dish once adding the rice because of paella rice's sensitive structure. My evening cooking with Pepi was not just a run through of a typical paella and salmorejo for starters, but a lesson in Andalucían cookery (aka a dream). My tip here is to prepare your own stock with the heads and shells of the prawns you will use and to not hold back on the saffron.
Paella de Pepi
Serves 6 - 8
You will need 3 pans for this marathon dish and a visit to the fish market is a must. A paella pan is not essential
This paella is an effort, but I can promise you now it’s completely worth it. Again, prepare your own stock…
Onion - 1 large
Red Pepper - 1
Green Pepper - 1
Tomatoes - 4
Fresh Mussels - 1kg
Cuttlefish - 700g (calamari a good alternative)
Gambas - 500g (reserve heads & shells for stock, leaving some in their shells for decoration)
Clams - 500g
Bomba Rice - 2 cups
Stock - 6 cups
Saffron - 1/4 cup (refer to video)
Monkfish - 1 fillet (filleted)
Lemon - 1
Fresh Parsley - handful
Prepare everything - chop your veg, peel and deseed your tomatoes, clean your mussels and clams, slice your fish and fillet if required, behead and skin your prawns (reserving some for decoration) - be ready
Sofrito - heat a good glug of olive oil in your pan on a medium heat and begin by frying your chopped onion and red pepper. After a couple of minutes add the chopped green pepper and then your roughly chopped tomatoes
Mussels - boil in another pan with plenty of water for just a few minutes until they begin to open. Drain and discard any whose shells are still closed. Once cool enough to handle, remove the meat from the shells (reserving a few in their shells for decoration)
Cuttlefish - add to the main pan and coat in the sofrito. Pepi suggests adding the fish once the water from the sofrito has evaporated
Prawn heads & shells - add olive oil to the same pan used to boil your mussels on a medium heat and fry the heads and shells of the prawns. After a few minutes add 600ml to the pan and bring to the boil. Once boiling, turn the heat down and simmer gently for at least 20 minutes
Clams - drain the stock water into another pan and discard the heads & shells of the prawns. Bring the stock back to the boil and add the clams. Boil until the shells begin to open then drain from the pan and keep for later, reserving the stock water as well. (Once cool you can remove the clam meat from their shells if you wish. I prefer to keep them intact)
Rice - add 2 cups to the main pan and coat well in the juices
Stock & Saffron - add 6 cups of stock to the pan with a really good pinch of saffron dissolved. Pepi suggests that you add 3 cups of stock for every cup of rice
Salt - season well with sea salt and give the dish a good stir
Monkfish - once the stock soon starts to bubble, add the monkfish
Prawns, Mussels, Clams - once the rice is almost cooked (after approx. 15 minutes) stir in the raw prawns with the cooked mussels and clams. Mix again. When the prawns have turned pink, turn the heat off and leave to rest. Pepi says there should still be some liquid left at this point
Add olive oil to a separate pan and fry the reserved prawns in their shells on a high heat until pink
Decorate the dish with the prawns and muscles in their shells, lemon wedges and fresh parsley