I’m still weak in the knees.
This isn’t sated, or full, or even satisfied or happy – this is one of those moments where you’ve spent hours with your eyes glued to the back of your skull and your jaw slack from what you’ve just felt – and all of your favorite smells and tastes have just shouted to you in a mysterious language you only at this moment understand. And you realize, right then, when you’re done sitting in the dark corner licking the unctuous charred bits from the edge of your plate or trying to fish those last grains of rice from the tines of your fork even though you’ve already finished dessert – that THIS this is the meal against which all future versions will be Judged and Found Wanting.
I spend a lot of energy around a certain construct – that high quality fresh food, simply yet thoughtfully prepared, is central to a wise and happy life. Sometimes this simplicity is an unfortunate byproduct of my gluttony-prone bachelorhood, or maybe my tendency to worship Mark Bittman as a culinary false idol.
But paella this past Saturday kind of squeezed everything inside out…
For those of you who don’t know, Paella is a traditional rice dish from the Eastern Mediterranean coast of Spain. It marries the peculiar local varieties of rice with scraps of whatever meat is on hand, and it almost always includes the regional specialty, saffron. It’s one of those fortunate dishes that hails from a geography of agricultural abundance but relative poverty, where a simple working-people dish can evolve into something even celebratory.
And it has this… texture. It is not creamy like risotto but is not fluffy like pilaf, despite the fact that the cooking method echoes both dishes. The rice is infused with highly flavorful liquid and the grains barelycling to one another. There is a prized crispy layer (called the “soccorat”) that adds texture. And there is meat. Typically, a LOT of meat.
I guess my whole point is that simplicity does not mean a lack of knowledge or technique. Indeed, COOKING paella is really simple. There are several ingredients and there is a good amount of shopping and it really does help if you have a special pan. But it’s no more complex than, say, beef stew or chicken and dumplings.
Which is not to say that good paella, even great paella is difficult. It is not. It’s just that no matter how hard you are willing to work and how much time you may have, and no matter how much you pour over the recipe as if it were some sort of Culinary Zapruder-Film, most of the work is already done by time time the gas on your stove flips on. So a recipe, in my opinion, is completely useless unless you already have an idea of how to do a couple of things.
First, you have to know how to shop for rice. You should keep basmati around for general use as well as a jasmine rice if you like stir-fries and fried rice, and maybe a short grain if you like to make risotto or rice pudding. You should know that basmati is fluffy (and smells beautiful), arborio is creamy… and your paella rice… should be neither.
There are two rice options for paella, both reasonably easy to find if you are motivated to do so. They are short grain rices, but do not release as much starch as risotto rices. Also, quite importantly, they tend to absorb a lot of liquid. Valencia is a good option I’ve used several times. It’s not that expensive, good grocery stores tend to carry it, and it doesn’t really demand that you stand and watch it. However, Bomba rice is even better.
Bomba is actually pretty interesting stuff, and a couple of things about it make it the perfect paella rice. It’s an extremely hearty grain grown on the hills outside of Valencia. Not only does it have a low-yield, it also has a two-year harvest cycle due to its unusually long stalk. This explains why it’s a bit more expensive than many premium rices.
BUT. It’s an extremely thirsty grain. It can hold about 3 times it’s volume in water without going mushy, which means that you can infuse the rice with a great deal of flavor and your end product will taste amazing if you “feed” the grain sufficiently. Also, there is a certain balance to the starches of the rice that mean that some, but not too much free starch is released during cooking, which means that the dish will just hold together without being either soupy or grainy or undercooked.
Okay. You’ve chosen the right rice. You have to be comfortable cooking both a risotto and a rice pilaf, and knowing why you are doing what you are doing. Both these dishes begin by sauteeing rice in a bit of fat, along with onions and garlic. Risotto involves the continual stirring, while pilaf involves the addition of liquid and a slow, even finish in the oven.
Paella is sort of a hybrid of the two. We want to make sure we feed enough liquid to the rice, but we also want to make sure we allow the right amount of steam to evaporate. So we add liquid slowly, then finish in the oven to allow the bottom of the pan to crisp up.
Also, dumb, stupid luck is helpful. Big once-a-year seafood sale at IGA. ;)
Anyway, please forgive me if I’ve overcomplicated this. Recipe as follows:
I medium onion, chopped
1 large red pepper, seeds and membraine removed, cut into slivers
8 cloves of garlic. Don’t freak out.
1 14 ounce can of chopped tomato
2 cups Bomba rice (Valencia is also good, arborio will do in a pinch. Other rices will yield a tasty final product that wont ‘feel’ quite as good.
4 cups good quality chicken broth
1 cup white wine (I used a Torrontes on Saturday and it worked nicely)
as much good saffron you care to spare steeped in 1/4 cup of boiling water.
8 oz of boneless chicken thigh meat, cubed and salted
4 ounces Spanish Chorizo
4 ounces unshelled yet deveigned shrimp
4 large sea scallops
two lobster tails (or a little bit more of the other meat) steamed, cooled, cracked and shukked.
1/2 cup frozen peas
2 t pimenton
1 lemon, wedged
1 handful of parsley, minced
Olive Oil, salt, and pepper
Note: a 9-12 inch paella pan with sloping sides and ring-style handles is ideal, but any large cooking vessel or sautee pan will work.
Oven to 375.
Season the chicken with salt and pepper. set asisde.
Peel the shrimp, keeping the sheels in a small bowl. When done peeling, add hot water to the shells to cover.
Quarter the scallops.
Heat your pan with a layer of olive oil, and add the chicken. Cook for a few minutes until barely cooked. Set aside.
Cook your chorizo (add extra fat if needed), remove and set aside.
Sweat the onions in the pan, on medium heat, along with the garlic. Add the peppers, and cook for another two minutes. Add the rice, slowly, stirring as needed so that all the rice gets coated in fat. Cook on low heat for a minute or two, or until you can smell the nuttyness from the rice as it’s sugars begin to carmelize.
Add the chopped tomatoes, and cook for another two
Add a cup of chicken broth, along with the wine and saffon water and “Shrimp stock.” bring to a boil, stirring constantly. When the pan looks dry, continue adding a bit more chicken broth until the rice is al dente. When the rice finally softens, add just a bit more liquid, along with the meat.
Cover the pan with aluminum foil, tightly. Place in the oven for ten minutes. Remove, allow to rest, and serve.
(serves about 6-8 ppl)
Again, I was unbelievably happy and proud of how this turned out, and I felt really privileged this past Friday to have a group of good friends to share it with. They were willing to ignore the fact that I had never made sangria before and that my ice cream cookies…
… were a valliant effort but lacked the appropriate bun/payload ratio and were too frozen to bite through.
What a great meal.