Monday, November 26, 2007

Paella Deconstructed

Let me confess up front that I am new to paella and that the sum total of my knowledge comes from the two books on Spanish cooking in my collection: Delicioso!, by Penelope Casas, and My Kitchen in Spain, by Janet Mendel.

Paella is a dish I have always wanted to become more familiar with but was simply intimidated. I'm not a rice cooker by habit, and I don't have a Paella pan. I kept putting thoughts of paella aside, figuring some day I would bite the bullet and actually purchase an authentic paella pan and master the technique.

Sometimes fate intervenes. A catering friend recently called with an urgent request: she had a dinner for 20 to cater three days hence. Paella was the centerpiece of the buffet, and her chef was stuck in New York. Could we possibly intervene?

So I gave myself a crash course in paella making using the above references and here is what they said:

* Paella was a farmer's or field hand's dish, made of several different ingredients--but always rice--in a single, wide pan over an open fire.

* Paella originates from the area around Valencia and traditionally did not contain seafood but earthy meats such as rabbit, pork, sausage, snails and chicken.

* A short- to medium-grain Spanish rice is preferred for making paella, but similar rice from other sources, such as Arborio rice, can be substituted.

* Paella is a festive dish, usually reserved for gatherings of friends and family, much like a barbecue.

* Paella should have a bright yellow color, some from the addition of saffron, but largely as a result of yellow food coloring.

* The traditional pan for cooking paella is wide--17 or 18 inches--and shallow, and ideally used over a wood fire.

* As at a family barbecue, the paella is cooked for the guests with great fanfare, then served immediately.

Given that we had neither the paella pan nor the open wood fire, our challenge was to approximate as closely as possible a genuine paella in a catering situation where it would have to be transported to another location and reheated.

I genuinely like the idea of one-pot cooking over an open fire. One of my most vivid food memories is picking grapes in the champagne region of France where breafast consisted of the pickers and the owners gathering around a fire and eating bread and sausage and quafing generous quantities of wine. But I was not confident that I could make a one-pot dish of paella--especially for 20 people--without overcooking the meat or having the rice come out either undercooked or mushy.

So we kept the idea of using one pot, where all the flavors could meld together, but cooked the different ingredients separately, catering style.

To serve six persons, start with a heavy pot with a coating of extra-virgin olive oil at the bottom over moderately-high heat. Add 6 ounces of andouille or Kielbasa sausage, sliced. Brown the sausage, then add the meat from four chicken thighs, cut into chunks, season with salt and pepper and cook until the chicken is cooked through. Remove the sausage and chicken and set aside.

If necessary, add more olive oil to the pot, then add one green bell pepper, cut into medium dice, and cook until the pepper begins to soften. Lower heat and add 1 or 2 finely-minced garlic cloves. Continue cooking until garlic is cooked through. Remove pepper and garlic (add to sausage and chicken) and set aside.

In the same pot, add 1 cup short-grain Spanish or Arborio rice, along with 2 cups chicken stock, a generous pinch of saffron, about 4 drops yellow food coloring and 1 bay leaf. Season with salt to taste. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer, covered, until rice has absorbed most, but not all, of the liquid. Add 1/2 can diced tomatoes, drained, and about 2 tablespoons pimentos. Stir into rice. Place 1/2 pound large shrimp, peeled with tails left intact, on top of rice. Replace cover and continue cooking until shrimp are just cooked through. Remove them (add to sausage, chicken and other cooked ingredients) and set aside. Add about 2 dozen cleaned and de-bearded mussels to the top of the rice, replace cover, and continue cooking until the mussels have cooked through. Remove mussels and set aside separately as garnish. (The juices from the mussels will permeate the rice.)

Lastly, stir about 1/2 cup frozen peas into the rice.

When the rice is cooked through, the paella can be served immediately, seasoning with salt and freshly ground black pepper and mixing with the other reserved ingredients in a large bowl. Garnish with cooked mussles.

Or, if serving the paella later in the day (or the following day), allow the rice to cool before mixing in the other ingrediens and simply re-heat it. Refrigerate the cooked mussles in a sealed container. Alternatively, refrigerate the rice and other ingredients separately, then reheat them separately before mixing.


Robert Walton said...

Interesting. I've never made paella for a catering/professional affair, and so it's likely a different beast altogether.

However, I will say that when I'm just making it for friends and family I don't worry quite so much about parts of the dish becoming overcooked. I tend to let most of the dish cook together. I may brown the chicken separately, but that's about it. From there, it's mostly a question of adding ingredients in at the right time - not cooking them and then removing them.

So, for instance, I might brown my chicken and get the onions/garlic/peppers/whatever sweating. Then in goes the rice, perhaps, and some stock/wine/water/broth .... Chicken goes back in, sausage, and later fish/shrimp/mussels.

In a perfect world, the ingredients are all done at about the same time. In my imperfect world of home cooking, no one really cares as long as it's all done....

Traditionally, also, once the ingredients are in the pan is not stirred. A kind of crust may form on the bottom, which is suppoed to be a coveted part of the dish.

None of this is to say your method is at all wrong or anything. Like I said, my own method is imperfect and professional cooking presents its own challenges anyway. But I do love paella because it is festive and familial. I was always intimidated until I just started making it because I loved it.

Ed Bruske said...

Robert, I'm sure paella is one of those dishes where everyone has a favorite technique, and the more you make it, the better you get. And around family, you don't have to worry so much if the chicken's a little overcooked. I guess I'm paranoid about rice. I want it to be just so. And if you are serving strangers and charging for it, you can't afford any screw-ups. Eventually, I will get around to making paella your way.

Robert Walton said...

Hey Ed ... this may be unnecessary, but I wanted to stress that I don't necessarily think my method is "right." Only that it fits with my feel for the nights whe I make paella.

My paella isn't necessarily all that good - but when you get the right people and the right ingredients (saffron, shrimp and mussels come to mind), I feel I have a lot of leeway on process.

Oh, but I agree with you on the rice. The rest of the ingredients for me tend to rotate around the rice as a foundation for the timing. If the rice is underdone, or too overdone, it's not good.

Ed Bruske said...

I understand perfectly, Robert. There's no "right way" to make paella, except that the basic technique seems to be pretty well established. Paella seems to be one of those very individualized dishes the success of which depends on the cook being very familiar with his ingredients, his tools, his heat source and learning over numerous attempts how all of these work together to produce the most pleasing results. Does that mean no two paellas are ever exactly the same? I guess...

Shantanu said...

I got acquainted with the paella only recently during a visit to a Spanish restaurant in the Bay Area, USA. Being Indian, I tend to describe it as a Spanish form of Biryani, another rice and meat based dish I prefer over the paella.

Ed Bruske said...

Shantanu, I have my sights on Indian cuisine. I would love to discover it in a big way...

Food Handler Certification said...

Hey Ed! This is a really great post. I really don't have time to read post and I go straight to the recipe and it's ingredients. But I was amazed that your post give me the crash course on what Paella is. Now I know where it comes from and how to do it. Thanks!