Christmas dinner an important ritual for Vancouver family

By Stover E. Harger III, Columbian staff writer




Serves: About 6.

From Kim Mahan, Class Cooking, 110 E. 15th St., Vancouver.

½ cup olive oil

1 onion, chopped

2 cloves garlic, minced

½ cup Spanish ­chorizo, diced

6 to 8 chicken thighs, trim excess fat, brown skin side

1½ cups short grain rice

5 cups chicken broth, kept warm

1 cup dry white wine

1 teaspoon saffron

½ teaspoon cayenne pepper

1 teaspoon smoked sweet paprika

Shrimp, two per person

Clams or mussels, one or two per person

1 roasted red pepper, sliced

1 cup frozen peas

¼ cup parsley, chopped

Lemon wedges

Salt and pepper

Directions: Heat oil in large paella or frying pan. Add garlic and onions. Sauté until onions are translucent. Add rice; stir until coated with oil. Add browned chicken, skin side up, and chorizo. Add seasoning to the wine and pour over rice and chicken. Don’t stir. Add 1 cup of warm broth and bring to a boil. Add 1 cup of broth at a time until each is absorbed. Before adding final cup, add shrimp and peas. Cook until liquid is absorbed and rice is nearly done. Distribute clams, mussels and peppers evenly over rice. Add more broth if needed and cover pan. Cook until shells have opened. Uncover. Cook until rice on the sides of the pan is crispy. Garnish with parsley and lemon wedges.

She built the paella piece by piece as the mouthwatering smell of a family tradition wafted through her downtown Vancouver kitchen.

First went in the aromatics, chopped onion and garlic that sizzled when Kim Mahan tipped them into the hot oiled pan. She stirred in the pearl rice until it glistened in the olive oil, before adding Spanish chorizo and chicken. Then came the saffron, smoked paprika, wine, shrimp, clams and so much more.

Mahan fine-tuned each step of the Spanish dish over the years, since perfecting techniques she picked up in the mid-1990s while living with her husband and daughter in Barcelona. After moving back to Vancouver, Mahan's paella became a part of her family's Christmas routine. She said it's a reminder of their fantastic time together in Spain, "something to remember our adventure there."

"It's become a tradition in our family on Christmas Day," she said after finishing a colorful pan of paella on Dec. 9 at her Class Cooking school, where she teaches that recipe and other gourmet dishes.

When her adult daughter, Emilee, is visiting for the holidays, she'll usually lend a hand. The mother and daughter will prepare Christmas dinner side-by-side before sitting down with father Mark and Emilee's significant other for their ritual of giving each other cozy Christmas socks. The night before, they'll munch on clam dip made from a recipe that came from Mark's late mother.

"She's great in the kitchen," Mahan said of her daughter. "We are very symbiotic … She kind of knows what I'm thinking. We work like one person."

For Mahan — as with others who have held onto an old annotated family cookbook or a handwritten recipe passed down to them — food is much more than sustenance. It's an expression of love.

Dinnertime is a way for families to bond and a home-cooked meal is a way to show someone you care. A heartfelt dish has a way of sticking in your memory long after the last bite. Whether it's grandma's snickerdoodle cookies or dad's crispy hash browns, some of our most cherished foods were likely once stirred by a loving hand.

And that love is kept alive when those revered recipes are passed from generation to generation, as many have down Mahan's family tree.

"It's giving them a part of you," she said about family recipes. "It's like a little bit of your DNA, so to speak."

Mahan, who is the caterer for Burnt Bridge Cellars winery that she also co-owns, began to learn the joys of cooking while growing up in a home devoid of much more than boxed foods, dry meat and soggy vegetables.

One of her mom's infamous meals was pizza made with a Bisquick crust, simple tomato sauce, cheddar cheese and hot dogs.

"Our joke to this day is, 'She cooked everything at 350 for an hour,'" she said. "Everything was well done and dried out and not appetizing."

So Mahan began to teach herself cooking as a "survival skill." She learned more later in her childhood while living with her aunt and uncle in the 1960s. Their interest in culinary arts exposed her to foods she'd never known. Her uncle owned a wok and she'd never even heard of such a thing.

"I ate my first raw mushrooms, I didn't know they existed outside of cans," she said.

Mahan was also inspired to pursue cooking by her maternal grandmother, whose knack for Midwest flavors was a counterpoint to her mom's disregard for taste.

"Grandma was a good cook," Mahan said. "They raised all kinds of vegetables, blueberries, rhubarb. She would put out pies, cookies and roasts. (There was) lots of gravy, but it was good gravy."

Mahan's parents and grandparents are now gone, as are her husband's, but part of them lives on in the form of recipes. In her house are boxes of handwritten step-by-step directions from family members that she collected when they died.

When her daughter graduated from high school, Mahan gave her a one-of-a-kind gift: a homemade cookbook full of Emilee's all-time favorite meals. She had asked family and close friends of her daughter to write out recipes for her, along with a meaningful note about each dish.

"Several of those people are no longer with us, so that's even nicer," Mahan said.

Seven years later, the memento has a prominent place in Emilee’s kitchen.

“It’s one of the things that will definitely be on my bookshelf forever, and hopefully grow over the years,” Emilee said.

When the Mahans gather around the dining room table to eat paella together on Wednesday, with their fresh Christmas socks, it'll be more than a meal. Mahan said it's a way to share a bit of herself with those closest to her; a special meal for special people.

With love in each bite.

Paella for Christmas