Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Paella - It's Only Rice, Right?

Rice. Many food cultures have their special rice dishes. Others eat rice at literally every meal. There's risotto in Italy. Red beans and rice in New Orleans. Congee in China. Chelo, pilaf and pulao in the Middle East. Sushi rice. Jasmine rice. Red rice and black rice. Thai rice. Sweet rice. Sticky rice. White rice. Brown rice. On and on. And then, in Spain, there's paella.

So, this is a quick post about paella. Specifically, the paella I make at home, the dish I've been trying to master for years. When done well, a thing of beauty - the rice taking on the flavors of the rest of the ingredients, without any one of those flavors overpowering another. Texture is important; gummy or overcooked or undercooked - not good. You also want a bit of socarrat at the bottom of the paella - the wonderful, crusty and crunchy bits that form from cooking paella on an open fire - or, as in my case, on my stove.

So, where to start?  First off, paella is about rice. I've tried a bunch of different rices, all claiming to be "the best" for paella...
Paella rices from Spain
What my experiments have shown me is that the best rice for paella is also the most expensive, coming in at about $15 for a kilo, but hey - you get what you pay for. (Oh, it's the one in the upper left hand corner, Calasaparra Bomba rice). And if you think that's expensive, wait'll you see the price for saffron, the most expensive spice in the world, and that which is necessary in any fine paella.

I also use a traditional paella pan, which can be a pain in the ass, as they're meant to be used over an open fire, or on a specially built paella burner. In my kitchen, there are 2 paella pans - a small one, which is good for 2 or 3 servings (or, for Significant Eater and me), and a larger one, which will easily serve 6. Here's an early attempt, in a 2-serving pan...
Chicken and chorizo paella
Generally, paellas start with a base, called sofrito in Spain. Other than in Catalan areas of Spain, where it's a sofregit, which is like an Italian battuto, which is like a French mirepoix, which is like the holy trinity in New Orleans, which is -   oh, forget it.  You sort of start with sautéing the base, gently and for what can seem like a long time, if you do it right. The base, in this case, is olive oil, tomatoes and onions, with an addition of garlic and maybe some pimenton, which is smoked Spanish paprika. Then you add the liquid, (i.e. stock), which had better be good, otherwise your paella will suck. Unless, of course, you add the rice before you add the stock, into which the saffron has infused (who said this was gonna be easy?!). You'll also add back maybe the chicken, which you've already browned, along with the chorizo, if you're using that, but no one said you have to.

Then it cooks; quickly, at first, and then more slowly, as the liquid reduces. Some people (heathens) and some recipes (meant for heathens), call for cooking paella in the oven, after its initial phase. Bull. It's meant to be cooked over fire. (OK - you can cook it in the oven - it's easier.)  For me, I go the stovetop route, which involves rotating the pan every other minute, so that it's all exposed equally to the heat of the flame. Basically, you're not leaving the kitchen while you're cooking - so make sure your guests already have drinks and other stuff to eat...
Snacks for guests
And make sure you have your booze in the kitchen with you. You probably also want to make sure you've tried your hand at paella a few times before you serve it at a dinner party. But you already knew that - anything you're serving at a dinner party - you should've already tried to prepare once or twice, right? What if it sucks...
Sucky paella - only for me
Paellas can be made from seafood. Or chicken. Or vegetables. Or, I guess, other stuff. But Valencia's traditional paella, called, ummm, paella Valenciana, is made with rabbit, snails, a few kinds of beans, and other stuff. It was a dish prepared by rice farmers, and they used what they found in the fields, hence the rabbit and snails.

So - are you ready to make paella? Are you waiting for a recipe? Well, you're not getting one here - I'm not exactly the Julia Child of paella. I can point you to Despaña, which is where I shop for great Spanish ingredients and cookware. La Tienda's another good resource for the above. To start, you can read a David Rosengarten article in Saveur. And there are plenty of paella cookbooks at Amazon.

Then maybe, just maybe, after you've taken in all the above, bought a paella pan, bought the right rice, saffron, pimenton, etc., and practiced making paella a few times, you can impress your guests - or even just your signifcant other. Because believe me, when done right, paella is one of the world's great rice dishes...
Chicken and seafood paella for 6
¡Buen apetito!

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