For years I travelled to Nice with Julene or by myself and watched diners at outdoor tables enjoy a paella over my steak. As I’m not a great fan of seafood including mollusks, I was never much tempted.
However, after a trip to Valencia by Marc Bittmann and because of the presence at my table on Sundays of our niece, Sarah, and her Spanish husband, Alvaro, I thought it might make a pretty fun dinner option. So I ordered a couple of paelleras and gave it a try.
The first time was a disaster: mostly underdone rice, bland flavor, uninteresting textures. Knowing that Alvaro’s mother would come a few weeks later for his graduation from university, I resolved to get her to teach me. In the end, she summoned an amateur Spanish chef living in Salt Lake City and in a very crowded kitchen we made what seemed to be pretty good paella.
Bittmann’s Valenciano chef asserted that real paella is made of chicken, rabbit and snails, that anything else (like seafood) just made it paella con cosas. However, as we don’ eat rabbit and snails in this country, adding shrimp, mussels and other things not only makes paella interesting, but gives it great flavor that it would not otherwise have with just chicken. I think that without seafood, the best you can do isn’t paella, but chicken pilaf.
Wikipedia makes three classifications of paellas:
All history and conflict aside, the important thing about paella is the sofrito ingredients. This is a ubiquitous and fundamental preparation in Latin cooking. A paella isn’t just chicken or even seafood; those are garnishes. The actual flavor comes from the sofrito. This is why it’s so hard to make good paella in the United States (particularly in Utah): authentic spices aren’t available.
My consultant told me that in Spain, she just buys a packet of spices at the store. We didn’t have that luxury, so we made our own aromates. This recipe is the result of our efforts.
Go to www.hotpaella.com for equipment and recipes, in particular, I recommend the restaurant-quality paelleras rather than the cheap, polished steel or the very expensive stainless steel. Click here for their illustrated recipe.
About 10 servings per 16" paellera, this recipe. You may have trouble keeping this all in one pan depending on extra ingredients you add (more chicken, more mussels, etc.), so shuttle some of the pieces off to a side dish during cooking to cope with that. Add them back on just before serving.
|10-20||shrimp, shelled with tails on|
|10-20||mussels, fresh, unopened|
|10||clams, fresh, unopened (hard to find here, so optional)|
|10-20 pieces||chicken thighs, wings and/or drumsticks|
|1 large||white onion|
|head||fresh garlic, minced or finely chopped|
|1 can||tomate frito (tomato sauce or purée)|
|6||ripe tomatoes (Romas work well)|
|2||green bell peppers|
|1||red bell pepper|
|1 lb||green petit peas|
|2 cups||string beans (replaces Spanish Romano beans)|
|1 small can||chick peas (garbonzo beans)|
|2 cans||chicken stock|
|2 tsp||saffron threads (hard to get, so optional)|
1. Prepare the entire mise en place:
2. In the paellera (paella pan), sauté the chicken and pork pieces 5-10 minutes in olive oil on medium-high.
3. Add the tomate frito, diced onion, tomatoes, peppers and garlic. Cook for 2-3 minutes. Season with pepper (not salt).
4. Add rice and sauté to pearl it just a bit. Added beans, peas, saffron. Stir for one minute.
At this point, some recipes say to add the seafood. I think it’s okay to add the mussels and clams, but I don’t like rubbery shrimp, so I wait until just before serving because shrimp only take a minute to cook (or less depending on size). Add the shrimp just before the lemon wedges below.
5. Drop the heat to very low. Heat to near boiling all the liquids produced in the mise en place, plus the chicken stock and, if possible, some water. Keep more water ready to go hot in a pot on the side.
Fuss with the pan until the rice is cooked, banking it around the edges where the pan is hotter, anywhere from 15-30 minutes. Graps the paellera's handles and shuffle the pan circularly, as if it the big steering wheel of a bus trying to avoid slower cars, to redistribute the rice and ingredients periodically. Add hot water as the liquid evaporates, but the rice is not yet soft enough to serve. You will need a lot more water than you can imagine: normal water-to-rice ratios do not apply here.
This is the step that makes or breaks your paella. You don’t want to serve the rice still crunchy, but neither do you want to over-cook everything else. One solution is to pull seafood off for 5 minutes then put it back. If you’ve chosen chicken white meat instead of the dark recommended here, take it off and reserve until just before serving. Wait to add peas and peppers a little longer. Etc. However, the less time things spend cooking with the rice, the less flavor the rice will have in the end.
6. Season to taste with salt. As seafood tends to release salt during cooking, you waited until now so that the dish would not be too salty.
7. Add shrimp and less cook for a minute, then pull all the pieces of chicken, mussels, clams and shrimp up to the top, arrange them geometrically on the rice, then top with lemon wedges. Serve directly in paellera perched on a stand if possible in the center of your table.Remember banking the rice and twisting the pan back and forth over the fire to keep the rice from sticking add hot water as water evaporates from the paellera--a lot more water than you think (about 3 cups water to every cup rice or more if your cooking conditions are bad).