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Boonville Hotel's new chef shares the secret to perfect paella

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It’s a warm July evening at the Boonville Hotel, and Perry Hoffman is carefully calibrating the heat in a wood fire pit as part of his weekly ritual of cooking paella for 60.

The 35-year-old Napa native, who got his start at his grandmother’s knee in the kitchen of the French Laundry and went on to become the youngest American chef to win a Michelin star while working at Domaine Chandon’s restaurant, joined the Boonville Hotel as chef/partner in January. Now that summer is in full swing, the restaurant is open for dinner Thursday through Monday, including a Sunday prix fixe meal of paella, salad and dessert through mid-October. The dinners draw locals as well as families from Sonoma County who come for a quick getaway, a delicious meal and an overnight at the hotel.

“The whole town loves it,” Hoffman said of the paella feast, “But it’s a lot of pressure. There’s no Plan B if it goes bad. It’s all about the fire, and that’s a wild card.”

Hoffman is sweating as he carefully adds and moves around the ash-covered logs to create an even, steady heat. Once he puts the paella pan on top of the fire ring, he can no longer adjust the heat, but he can tuck in small towels to keep the large paella pan level.

“A wood fire is hotter, and it tastes better,” Hoffman said of the time-tested method of cooking the ancient rice dish, which has roots in Spain, Italy and the Arab world. “If I were cooking on gas, I would be bored.”

Boredom has never been a problem for Hoffman, who has been gradually migrating westward in his 30s. He signed on as the culinary director of the award-winning Healdsburg Shed in 2015, then after searching for a more balanced family life, he landed at the storied Boonville Hotel earlier this year. He and his wife, Kristen, who live in Healdsburg, have two children younger than 2: a daughter Charlie, 1½ years; and son Teddy, just 3 months.

Hanging his chef’s apron at the Boonville Hotel not only brought him full circle — he worked in his teens as the sous chef there — but drew him closer to his family, including his uncle Johnny Schmitt, who purchased the hotel in 1987 and turned it into a destination with plans for 17 rooms (expected to be finished by the end of this summer.)

He’s also in close proximity to his grandmother, Sally Schmitt, who lives with her daughter and family at The Apple Farm just up the road in Philo, where Hoffman and his wife plan to build a home. (Hoffman currently stays one night a week in a trailer there).

Rice stars in paella

Like Milanese risotto and the Persian rice dish known as Tah Dig, paella is a rice dish first, with other ingredients playing a supporting role.

“The traditional paella is snails and rabbit,” Hoffman said. “The key is to make sure the rice is done — not underdone or overdone.”

The Boonville Hotel paella varies from week to week — this particular week it’s a verde-style paella with tomatillos and herbs rather than tomatoes, and Hoffman studs the Spanish Calasparra rice with housemade chorizo and rock cod, topped with a dollop of saffron-scented aioli.

For the verde-style paella, Hoffman lightly greases the pan and sautés chunks of loose chorizo sausage until they caramelize, then pulls them out of the pan. Then he sautés the rice, and adds the soffrito — an aromatic mixture of herbs, onions and spices — and the fish stock, letting those comingle and cook down for about 20 minutes.

While the rice simmers for an additional 30 minutes, he gently dips a wooden spatula into spots where it is bubbling up, to make sure it settles down and creates the much coveted soccaret, a dark, crunchy crust on the bottom of the thin pan.

To finish the dish, he pours the chorizo and its flavorful fat back into the pan, adds a sauce made with onions, garlic, white wine, tomatillos, basil and cilantro, and places the oven-baked rock cod on top.

Locally grown spices

Instead of using imported saffron and piment d’espelette from Europe, Hoffman sources his spices from local farmers.

Peace & Plenty Farm in Kelseyville grows and produces aromatic saffron from crocus bulbs (corms), and the Bucket Ranch in Boonville, which grows a red Basque pepper from seed, then dries and grinds them into a powder known as Piment d’Ville. (see sidebar on the two niche farms)

Inside his sunny, open kitchen, Hoffman often cooks over a small wood grill next to the commercial oven. Outside in the garden, there’s a wood-fired pizza oven for Monday’s a la carte menu, which offers casual fare like pizza, burgers and fisherman’s stew.

For home cooks in search of the perfect paella, Hoffman created a seafood version that feeds six instead of 60 and can be cooked on the stovetop in a 16-inch pan. Although the recipe is labor-intensive, he suggests prepping the stock and making the sofrito in advance to help save time during the actual cooking process.

As for those morning-after leftovers, the chef always has a favorite recipe in mind: Heat some olive oil in a pan on high, add the leftover paella and cook for 3 to 6 minutes without stirring, so a crust forms.

“Fill warm corn tortillas with paella and top with a fried egg,” Hoffman said. “Then douse with some of your favorite hot sauce and enjoy.”

_____

The following recipe is from chef Perry Hoffman of The Boonville Hotel. The Piment d’Ville can be found at Oakville Grocery in Oakville and Healdsburg or ordered at pimentdville.com or chefswarehouse.com. The Peace & Plenty saffron is available online at peaceplentyfarm.com or at their farmstand in Kelseyville. Both are sold at the Boonville Hotel.

Seafood Paella

Makes 6 servings

For Sofrito

3 tablespoons olive oil

1 cup yellow onion, diced

5 large garlic cloves, minced

2 bay leaves, fresh

2 sprigs rosemary

2 cups white wine

1 teaspoon Piment d’Ville

2 tablespoons salt

3 cups good canned whole tomatoes, grated with juices

For the Shellfish Saffron Stock

1 tablespoon olive oil

9 cups water

— Shrimp shells from shrimp (below)

1 large yellow onion

2 cloves of garlic

1 leek

1 carrot

2 bay leaves

½ gram Peace & Plenty saffron (bloomed in 200 degree water for 15 minutes)

1 cup white wine

For the Saffron Aioli

4 garlic cloves

— Salt to taste

2 egg yolks

1 tablespoon lemon juice

1 tablespoon Dijon

1 tablespoon saffron water (see above)

2 cups good extra virgin olive oil

For the Paella

1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil

6 ounces Spanish-style chorizo, diced

4 large shallots, minced

3 cups Spanish Bomba or Calasparra Rice

1 pound shrimp of choice, peeled and shells reserved for stock

1½ pounds Manila clams

1 lemon, sliced into wedges

— olive oil, sea salt and Piment d’Ville on hand

For toppers

— large handful of summer pole beans, trimmed and used raw if they are sweet

— handful of basil and cilantro leaves

— saffron aioli (see above)

For sofrito: In a stainless steel pot, over medium heat, add olive oil and sweat garlic and onions with bay and rosemary until translucent. Add the Piment d’Ville and cook for 1 minute. Add white wine and reduce by 75%. Add tomatoes and cook over low heat until reduced by 50%. Set aside or place in the refrigerator if you’ve made it ahead.

For shellfish stock: In a small stock pot, add olive oil and sweet onions, leeks and carrots with the garlic and bay until translucent. Add shrimp shells and sauté. Add water and bring to a simmer for at least 2 hours. Add saffron water and strain. Stock can be prepped in advance.

For saffron aioli: In a mortar and pestle, crush the garlic with the salt. Add all the other ingredients except for oil. Drizzle in oil very slowly while emulsifying. (This can also be made in a blender or food processor.)

For paella: In a 16-inch paella pan over medium heat, add in the oil. Add the chorizo and shallots. Cook for 3 minutes, until shallots are opaque.

Add in rice and stir for one minute. Add in sofrito and stir for 1 minute. Add in stock and stir for 30 seconds.

Let cook for 15 to 18 minutes.

Add clams while there is still a little liquid that hasn’t been absorbed yet. Place shrimp on top to steam. Cook for another 10 to 13 minutes.

Add beans into the rice and drizzle a little olive oil and sprinkle Piment d’Ville and salt into pan.

To top, add basil and cilantro leaves and serve with the lemon wedges and saffron aioli.

You can reach Staff Writer Diane Peterson at 707-521-5287 or diane.peterson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @dianepete56.

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