Pan-Perfect Paella

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A visit to Valencia, a port city on the eastern coast of Spain, would not be complete without enjoying a pan of paella. The hearty rice dish, filled with ingredients ranging from assorted seafood to chicken, meat, and vegetables, was born in the region of Valencia, which shares the name of its capital city.

For locals, gathering on weekends and holidays to share a paella is an afternoon tradition that can stretch into the early evening hours. The dish is always served family-style and usually enjoyed with a dark cherry red wine made from the local Bobal grape. Dessert might be a flan de naranja, a traditional Spanish custard that incorporates Valencia oranges into the caramel sauce; or bunyols, sugary donut holes, another local specialty.

Humble Origins

Though recognized as a traditional Spanish dish, paella also has roots in North Africa. Servants working for aristocrats would take home leftover scraps from banquets and cook them with rice in a large pan over an open flame to feed their families. The name “paella” may have been derived from the Arabic word “baqiyah,” meaning “leftovers;” a more phonetic association may come from “patera,” the Arabic word for pan. The shallow, round, two-handled pan used to cook the dish is called “la paella.”

When the Moors, a nomadic group from North Africa, invaded the Iberian Peninsula in 711 A.D., they brought their culture and customs with them. This included ingredients essential to making paella such as rice and saffron, as well as coriander, cumin, and artichokes. The Spanish word for rice, “arroz,” stems from Arabic, as does the word for saffron, “azafran.”

Valencia, being a major port city, was where many migrants entered and settled. Rice fields were planted, and the grain is still an important industry for the region.

Paella was also considered a lunchtime dish for rice field laborers because it was cheap to make, nutritious, and filling. Cooks would forage local field ingredients, such as green beans, peas, and snails, to add to the rice and simmer it all in a stock of onions, garlic, and chopped vegetables—called sofrito—over an open flame. When available, small chunks of cooked rabbit, duck, and chicken were added. Saffron, used for seasoning, turned the rice a golden color and added a sweet, musky flavor.

True “paella de Valencia” is still made this way. Seafood paella came later, thanks to Valencia’s location on the Mediterranean Sea, and usually includes shrimp, mussels, clams, and slices of calamari with lemon wedges placed on top of the rice. Local residents I dined with in Spain simply called these varieties with fish a “seafood rice dish,” saving the word “paella” for the authentic Valencian version.

The vegetables used depend on what’s in season and available. On a recent trip to Valencia, an artichoke paella I tasted during artichoke season was one of the most memorable versions I enjoyed.

paella valenciana with lemon and peas
Elaborate versions of paella now abound, but the original paella Valenciana is a simple dish, made with seasonal vegetables and meats like chicken, rabbit, and duck. (Shutterstock)

Rules of the Pan

One of the biggest tests for the perfect paella is the socarrat (pronounced soh-ku-rraht), the savory, caramelized rice crust that forms at the bottom of the pan. Scraping out the socarrat is like eating the crunchy-moist crust of a fresh-baked pie, or the crisped edges of a chewy brownie. Digging into a paella pan and not finding any socarrat feels like missing out on the prize at the bottom of the Cracker Jack box.

Though it sounds simple, there is a technique to making paella correctly. I turned to a paella master for tips.

Lolo Manso is the owner of Socarrat Paella Bar, with three locations in New York City. Socarrat offers many versions of paella as well as its culinary cousin, fideua, which is made with vermicelli noodles instead of rice. Manso said his restaurant has probably served more than a million paellas since opening 10 years ago.

To make paella, you need a paella pan, a round, shallow dish with two handles that make it easy to carry from stove to table. Manso explained that paella is intended to be a thin layer of rice, not a deep-dish casserole, one reason the pan is shallow. The flat bottom helps the rice to cook evenly and makes it easier to balance over an open flame, which is how field workers prepared the dish.

On Rice and Saffron

Manso stressed the importance of cooking the rice properly: “You must have the right proportion of rice to cooking broth: one-half cup rice to two cups water.”

The most commonly used paella rice is short-grained rice called bomba, which absorbs more of the liquid and flavors used in cooking while remaining firm. Bomba rice cooks uniformly, puffs up without becoming soggy, and doesn’t stick to the pan, which is ideal for scraping out the socarrat.

An alternative to bomba rice is the Spanish variety called “Calasparra,” which is named after the village close to where the rice is harvested. If neither is available, Manso suggested using another short-grain rice, like arborio, which is used to make risotto in Italy. 

Aside from the sofrito of chopped garlic, onions, tomatoes, and a touch of salt and pepper, the main seasoning for paella is saffron, which adds a buttery golden hue and a musky flavor to the rice. It’s also expensive; high-quality saffron can cost $50 an ounce. That’s because the spice is labor-intensive to harvest.

Saffron comes from the stigma of the saffron crocus flower, which has a short blooming period of two weeks. Each crocus only produces three deep red, threadlike strands, which must be hand-harvested to protect the delicate stigma.

Color, aroma, and taste indicate quality saffron. The dried stigma should have a deep red stem with lighter orange-yellow tips, rather than being solid red. The aroma and flavor should be slightly earthy, with light floral essences. When immersed in water, saffron will retain its deep golden color and essence. If the water tastes bitter or turns a reddish color, this may indicate dye was used to boost the color, a sign of lesser quality saffron.

Most of the world’s saffron—about 90 percent—comes from Iran, but Spain is also a producer. That’s why tourists snap up small packets of saffron at local markets in Spain to bring back to the United States as gifts for friends who cook.

saffron
Saffron gives paella its golden hue and earthy, honeyed flavor. Look for deep red stems with lighter orange-yellow tips; a solid red color is a sign of lower-quality saffron that has been dyed. (Shutterstock)

Cooking Tips

Paella is a simple one-dish recipe: rice cooked in a savory broth with meat and vegetables over a stove, stirring to achieve the right consistency.

Manso recommended adding seafood, such as peeled shrimp and chunks of fish, after the other ingredients have been prepared to avoid overcooking the fish. A tip is to place the seafood on top of the cooked rice and heat the dish in an oven until the fish is cooked. The dry oven will also help the socarrat form.

Simple indeed, but I found achieving the right crispness for the socarrat a little challenging. Manso said it takes practice and suggested, “If the socarrat has not formed in the oven, place the pan over a stovetop for a few minutes so the bottom of the pan heats without overcooking the rest of the dish, but be careful not to burn the rice.”

Another tip to achieve a deeper shade of gold is to first steep the saffron in warm water or stock for 15–20 minutes to release the color, and then add this “tea” to the rice.

While Socarrat offers six different types of paella, including a savory seafood version made with “arroz negro” (rice tinted with black squid ink) piled with shrimp, calamari, scallops, and chunks of white fish, Manso underscored that traditional paella is very simple: “There’s a thin layer of rice and just a few pieces of the fish or chicken.”

Paella may be a simple dish of the working people, but digging into a pan and scooping up the socarrat with your friends can be a very decadent experience.

Simple Paella for Two

simple paella for two recipe photo
(David Ransom)

Serves 2

For the sofrito:

  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1/4 cup chopped fresh tomatoes
  • 1/4 cup chopped raw onion
  • 1 clove garlic, chopped
  • Salt and pepper, to taste

For the paella:

  • 1/2 cup chopped green beans, fava beans, or peas (see Note)
  • 6 ounces chopped chicken
  • 1 cup bomba rice (also known as “paella rice” or “Valencia rice”)  
  • 2 cups chicken or vegetable broth (for seafood paella, use seafood broth)
  • 2 pinches of saffron, steeped in warm water or stock for 15–20 minutes
  • 10–12 medium shrimp, peeled
  • 10–12 mussels or small clams, in shell
  • Salt and pepper, to taste
  • One lemon, quartered lengthwise

Make the sofrito: In a 24-inch round paella pan (measures 12 inches on the bottom), combine olive oil, tomatoes, onion, garlic, and a pinch of salt and pepper. Sauté over low to medium heat until mixture reaches a smooth consistency. Continue simmering over low heat for 10 minutes.

Preheat oven to 500 degrees F. Add vegetables and chopped chicken and any other meat into the pan of sofrito and sauté until cooked. Remove from pan, leaving most of the sofrito behind, and set aside.

Add rice, broth, and saffron to heated pan. Stir lightly at first with a fork to incorporate flavors, and then let simmer for 8 minutes over medium heat without stirring to allow the rice to settle in the pan and absorb the liquid.

Reduce heat and continue cooking rice to absorb the broth. When broth is almost completely gone, place seafood on top of rice mixture.

Place pan with seafood on top in preheated oven. Let cook for 5–7 minutes until seafood is cooked, but not overcooked.

Remove dish from oven. Add cooked meat and vegetables.

If crust has not formed on sides of the pan, place briefly over a heated stove-top burner over low heat and cook for 5–6 minutes, slowly rotating the pan until the rice caramelizes and forms a crust on the bottom and sides of the pan. The crust should be light brown but not burned. Test with a fork.

Remove pan from heat and let the dish sit for 3–5 minutes to enhance the flavors.

Top with sliced lemon wedges and serve family-style.

Note: Use whatever vegetables are in season. Other vegetables could include 1/2 cup halved artichoke hearts or 1/2 cup chopped piquillo peppers. If using more than one kind, you may want to reduce amounts to 1/3 cup each.

To Drink: A succulent medium-body red wine, such as the local Bobal from the Utiel-Requena region, where Valencia is located.

Recipe adapted from Lolo Manso, Socarrat Paella Bar.

A longtime wine and food industry professional, Melanie Young hosts The Connected Table LIVE! (iHeart), a weekly radio show and podcast featuring conversations with global thought leaders in wine, food, and hospitality. Twitter @connectedtable



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