Celebrating a Birthday with Paella and Heartburn

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Recently we celebrated a family birthday, which was a real treat. Now that we are all vaccinated against COVID-19, our families feel more comfortable gathering, especially when potentially vulnerable seniors are some of the guests.

The birthday guest of honor had long been requesting that we make a particular paella recipe for her. Dinner Table Doctor and I took a pre-COVID cooking class where we learned how to make this delectable Spanish dish, and after bragging about how delicious it was for over a year, the time had come to prove we could recreate it for others to enjoy.

The celebration was an intimate gathering in our backyard. It was also on a weekday, so DTD had office hours, which meant that I was in charge of the meal. I had not made paella since that class, which was in fact the only time I had ever made paella. The class was a group effort lead by a wonderful instructor, so I was a little nervous creating the dish on my own. But our guests were all close family members who I knew would be forgiving, even if it was a disaster. Such a situation is truly ideal for attempting to cook something new.

I am proud to say the recipe (which follows) turned out well. The weather was lovely and DTD picked the perfect wine to compliment the meal. All and all it was a fabulous evening, aside from the fact that we had to sit through a soliloquy on heartburn. As you know, someone in my family always comes up with a medical question when DTD is around, and he LOVES to thoroughly explain his answer. The question was, “how can I avoid heartburn?” and DTD was more than happy to clarify in great detail. The entire time I was just hoping that the power of suggestion didn’t result in guests with bad cases of heartburn, ruining all my hard work and the paella birthday party.

Heartburn is very common and is actually a symptom, not a condition on it’s own. Usually when you have heartburn it’s a result of gastroesophageal reflux. Doctors often prefer not to use the term heartburn anymore because it connotes chest pain, which can be caused by many things, including serious conditions like a heart attack. Patients sometimes say heartburn when they actually mean chest pain. So for the purposes of this discussion, we are talking about acid reflux, which is a common cause of heartburn.

Acid reflux occurs when your stomach contents back up into the esophagus and/or mouth. Your tummy is full of acid, so it’s not pleasant when that acid makes a trip back where it doesn’t belong. There are quite a few common triggers of reflux, including:

  • Caffeine – This irritates your stomach lining, causing a backup.
  • Carbonation – Same as above
  • Greasy and Spicy Foods – Same as above
  • Alcohol – This also irritates your stomach lining, plus relaxes your muscles so the valve that normally keeps acid down doesn’t work properly.
  • Overeating – Your tummy is literally too full and acid backs up as a result.
  • Weight gain – When you’re overweight, particularly in the abdominal area, the extra fat puts pressure on your tummy and causes acid reflux.
  • Laying Down – When you recline within 2 hours of overeating, simple gravity can cause reflux.
  • Stress – Being under stress makes you more sensitive to the symptoms when other triggers are present.
  • Any combination of the above

Basically the typical American way of life makes us prone to reflux. Occasional reflux in otherwise healthy adults and even kids is normal and usually no cause for alarm. Gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD is a condition in which the symptoms of reflux are bothersome or damage the esophagus. This definitely requires a visit to your doctor.

GERD symptoms include:

  • Bad breath
  • Heartburn
  • Chronic, low-grade cough
  • Recurrent sore throat
  • Hoarseness
  • Occasional ear aches
  • Runny nose

DTD has seen patients who complain of coughing for several months, which is often a sign of GERD. If you get reflux persistently, have trouble swallowing, or need medications more than once every few weeks -certainly more than once a week regularly – you should see your doctor. There are treatments for GERD, so you don’t want to ignore it and continue to self-medicate, especially because reflux is sometimes associated with esophageal cancer.

To lower your risk of reflux, you want to avoid all the things listed above and add regular exercise to your routine. I know what you’re thinking. It seems like EVERY topic I write about includes DTD’s recommendation to exercise regularly. Even a broken record can speak the truth and as annoying as it seems, clearly exercise is a very good thing. Regular exercise speeds up the process of emptying that tummy, helping you avoid reflux.

Occasionally, you may still experience reflux even when you follow all of DTD’s advice, because certain people are more prone to it. This is usually not something to worry about. If you have reflux too often or are experiencing the symptoms of GERD, make an appointment with your doctor.

Enough about reflux! Let’s talk paella! This Spanish rice dish gets its name from the traditional wide frying pan used to make it. There are many variations, and you can find a variety of recipes online. We got our recipe from Chef Catherine St. John at the Western Reserve School of Cooking. DTD and I took a class with some friends and had a blast. I highly recommend cooking classes in your area if you’re looking for entertainment that’s fun and different. You learn a skill, meet some friendly folks, and get to reap the rewards of your labor by sharing a meal at the end. Unfortunately the WRSC is now closed, but Chef St. John is still in town. She is a wonderful teacher, which is why I was able to recreate the paella on my own without a hitch.

I used the oven method and I added some sausage to the dish. I actually made the paella to be served immediately after cooking, but then had an unexpected delay. I kept it in the oven on warm (170 degrees) for almost an hour and was very afraid that it would dry out, making the shrimp and mussels rubbery. Luckily the paella was still hot and yummy and the seafood was cooked perfectly.

My parents have a paella pan and they live across the street, so I was able to borrow it for the evening. Yum! If you don’t have a paella pan, you can get one here: Seasoned steel paella pan

The wine, carefully selected by DTD, was a fabulous Rioja (American pronunciation is like ree-Oh-huh). This is a wine grown in the Rioja region of North Central Spain and a blend of grape varieties with Tempranillo being the most dominant. DTD had a hard time selecting the right wine, because our dish included meat and seafood. We could have easily gone with a white wine or even a Rosé but I’m so glad we didn’t. This particular Rioja is rated highly. Robert Parker gave it a 94 and Wine Spectator a 91. It’s a blend of 4 grapes and has a nice complexity and a strong note of cherries, which made it an ideal pair with the mixed paella.

To my knowledge, my paella did not give anyone heartburn. However, all of the guests now know a good amount of information about the topic, so I consider it a win/win. If you try this paella recipe, let me know how it goes. Also, please subscribe so you never miss a post, and find me on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram! Soon I will be posting about our polenta party, so you don’t want to miss that!

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