Paella – Everything you need to know
Paella, is a Valencian rice dish that originated in its modern form in the mid-19th century near lake Albufera, a lagoon in Valencia, on the east coast of Spain. Many non-Spaniards view paella as Spain’s national dish, but most Spaniards consider it to be a regional Valencian dish. Valencians, in turn, regard paella as one of their identifying symbols.
There are three widely known types of paella: Valencian paella (Spanish: paella valenciana), seafood paella (Spanish: paella de marisco) and mixed paella (Spanish: paella mixta), but there are many others as well, including Vegetarian Paella and Cheese based paellas. Valencian paella consists of white rice, green vegetables, meat (rabbit, chicken, duck), land snails, beans and seasoning. Seafood paella replaces meat and snails with seafood and omits beans and green vegetables. Mixed paella is a free-style combination of meat, seafood, vegetables, and sometimes beans. Most paella chefs use calasparra or bomba rices for this dish. Other key ingredients include saffron and olive oil.
Gastronomically speaking, nothing says Spain better than a paella. It is perhaps fitting that paella stands as the culinary head of Spain; it is fusion cooking at its finest, with influences down the centuries from the Romans and the Moors. Reflecting a nation made up of many cultures, the modern paella is an amalgamation of rice and tasty morsels of seafood, meats, and vegetables that makes an exotic, full-flavored dish, inspired and influenced by so many invasions. The Romans introduced the shallow pan, later used to cook paella, to the Iberian peninsula. The very word paella is derived from the Latin name for a shallow pan, patelIa. The Moors, for their part, introduced rice and saffron to Valencia in the eighth century, without which none of this would be possible.
In the centuries that followed, the peasants of Valencia used the flat Roman pan to cook rice with any ingredients the countryside had to offer: land snails, chicken, rabbit, and seasonal vegetables all found their way into the paella pan. The dish began as a poor man’s meal prepared over an open outdoor fire. They would sit in a circle around the fire and eat the rice directly from the pan. The communal nature of this dish thus harks back to its very origins. Little by little, paella gained a reputation outside Valencia and, by the nineteenth century, paella valenciana was a countrywide phenomenon.
Nearly every region of Spain and, indeed, practically every household, now has its own version of paella. In fact, it has even been said that the only constant in a good Spanish paella is the rice. Some food critics have scoffed at the regions’ disparate and inconsistent treatment of paella, complaining that such varying preparations dilute the dish’s purity, But such regional variations of the dish create a delightful exploration for the chef and connoisseur alike. Instead of paella growing stagnant or, worse, being swept under the rug as mere “tourist food,” it has been embraced by Spanish provinces and families who have altered the dish to make it distinctly their own. The classic Valencian paella is nonetheless a reliable and steady staple for Spaniards and visitors alike. Surprisingly, this most famous version of paella contains no seafood at all. An authentic Valencian paella does not mix meat with fish or shellfish, and typically consists of rice, chicken, rabbit or pork, beans, olive oil, tomatoes, saffron, and land snails. A taste of this classic paella, prepared outdoors over a crackling fire of citrus trimmings, will transport the diner back through the centuries, when the Valencian shepherds threw what ingredients they could find into the pan, creating a nourishing and delicious dish to sustain them through their labours.
A successful paella depends on many factors. Plump and flavourful rice is a must. lt is crucial that the paella’s other ingredients do not suffocate the rice, but rather infuse it with subtle flavour. A good paella rice will absorb the exact amount of liquid in which it is cooked, leaving each grain of rice delicately flavoured, yet separate. As such, a short-grain rice that absorbs the flavours of the accompanying ingredients is ideal. It is also important not to over season the rice with salt. lf the broth is sufficiently salty, it may not be necessary to add any salt to the dish at all. Proper use of the paella pan is another decisive factor.
Paella pans must be wide, round, and shallow to ensure that the rice is cooked in a thin layer. It is important to spread the rice out over the entire base of the pan, as this is where most of the dish`s flavour resides. Many paella cooks prefer iron pans to stainless steel ones, though both work quite well. If you do not wish to invest in an expensive pan, a shallow casserole should also be effective.
Readers favouring the traditional iron pans must be careful to avoid the iron’s inevitable rusting. To avoid this, boil a sprinkling of vinegar and water in the pan before it is first used, then rub the pan`s surface with olive oil after it dries.
It is also important to use the proper-sized pan. A I2-inch (30-cm) pan will contain enough rice to serve from two to three people; a 16-inch (40-cm) pan will accommodate from four to five people; a 20-inch (50-cm) pan is suitable for six to eight people; and for those serving from eight to fifteen people, a 26-inch (65-cm) pan works best. Larger paella pans also exist – some, made for festivals, are as wide as I3 feet (39 m), and can feed hundreds of ravenous festival-goers!
Genuine saffron is also necessary for successful, authentic paella. Although substitutes for saffron, such as paprika, suffice as replacements for the paellas rich yellow colour, such substitutes cannot replicate the unique taste that only saffron provides. Saffron is undoubtedly expensive, but a little bit does go a long way, and if it is stored in a dry place away from light, it will keep for up to three years.
Although paellas were traditionally prepared outdoors over an open fire, those preparing paella in modern kitchens can still achieve delectable results. But there are a couple of points to bear in mind. First, an indoor cook will need to use a heat source as large as the paella pan itself. lf the largest burner on your stove is too small, straddle the pan over two burners, rotating it regularly to distribute the heat evenly. lf need be, the paella may even be cooked outside on a large gas or charcoal barbecue. If, however, the only heat source available is smaller than the pan, stir the rice at least three times during the first 15 to 20 minutes of cooking, then leave it undisturbed for the remaining cooking time.
Second, to create a paella that tastes of the outdoors, one must simulate the socarrat, which is one of the most delightful results of cooking paella over an open fire. One taste of socarrat, the crisp, golden rice that sticks to the base and sides of the pan, and one will achieve paella nirvana!
Although socarrat naturally results only when the paella is cooked over an outdoor flame, indoor cooks can create this delicacy by turning up the heat in the final minutes of cooking until the rice lining the bottom of the pan turns crisp.
Paella should not be served in individual dishes but, as the Spanish still do—straight from the pan. The prepared dish, still steaming, is set in the middle of the table, and diners eat communally from the pan. In Spain, what you eat is only secondary to the people with whom you eat. No meal is complete without convivial company and conversation, and a paella, shared with friends, is the perfect dish for this.
The people of Moorish Spain often made casseroles of rice, fish and spices for family gatherings and religious feasts, thus establishing the custom of eating rice in Spain. This led to rice becoming a staple by the 15th century when Spanish Catholics expelled the Muslims. Afterwards, it became customary for cooks to combine rice with vegetables, beans and dry cod, providing an acceptable meal for Lent. Fish always predominated with rice along Spain’s eastern coast.
On special occasions, 18th century Valencians used paelleras to cook rice in the open air of their orchards near lake Albufera. Water vole meat was one of the main ingredients of early paellas, along with eel and butter beans. Novelist Vicente Blasco Ibáñez described the Valencian custom of eating water voles in Cañas y Barro (1902), a realistic novel about life among the fishermen and peasants near lake Albufera.
Living standards rose with the sociological changes of the late 19th century in Spain, giving rise to reunions and outings in the countryside. This led to a change of paella’s ingredients as well, these being rabbit, chicken, duck and sometimes snails. This dish became so popular that in 1840 a local Spanish newspaper first used the word paella to refer to the recipe rather than the pan.
The most widely used, complete ingredient list of this era was as follows: short-grain white rice, chicken, rabbit, snails (optional), duck (optional), butter beans, great northern beans, runner beans, artichoke (a substitute for runner beans in the winter), tomatoes, fresh rosemary, sweet paprika, saffron, garlic (optional), salt, olive oil and water. (Poorer Valencians, however, sometimes used nothing more than snails for meat.) Valencians insist that only these ingredients go into making modern Valencian paella.
Seafood and mixed paella
On the Mediterranean coast, Valencians used seafood instead of meat and beans to make paella. Valencians regard this recipe as authentic as well. Later, however, Spaniards living outside of Valencia combined these two recipes and mixed paella was born.
During the 20th century, paella’s popularity spread past Spain’s borders. As other cultures set out to make paella, the dish invariably acquired regional influences. Consequently, paella recipes went from being relatively simple to including a wide variety of seafood, meat, sausage, (even chorizo) vegetables and many different seasonings. However, the most globally popular recipe is seafood paella.
In Spain, but not in Valencia, mixed paella is very popular. Some restaurants in Spain (and many in the United States) that serve this mixed version, refer to it as Valencian paella. However, Valencians insist only the original two Valencian recipes are authentic. They generally view all others as inferior, not genuine or even grotesque.
Traditional Valencian cuisine offers recipes similar to paella valenciana and paella de marisco such as arròs negre, arròs al forn, arròs a banda and arròs amb fesols i naps. Fideuà is a noodle dish variation of the paella cooked in a similar fashion, though it may be served with allioli sauce.
BASIC RECIPIES FOR PAELLA
According to tradition in Valencia, paella is cooked by men over an open fire, fueled by orange and pine branches along with pine cones. This produces an aromatic smoke which infuses the paella. Also, dinner guests traditionally eat directly out of the paellera.
This recipe is standardized because Valencians consider it traditional and very much part of their culture. Rice in Valencian paella is never braised in oil, as pilau, though the paella made further southwest of Valencia often is.
Heat oil in a paellera.
Sauté meat after seasoning with salt.
Add green vegetables and sauté until soft.
Add garlic (optional), grated tomatoes, beans and sauté.
Add paprika and sauté.
Add water, saffron (and/or food colouring), snails and rosemary.
Boil to make broth and allow it to reduce by half.
Add rice and simmer until rice is cooked.
Garnish with more fresh rosemary.
Recipes for this dish vary somewhat, even in Valencia. Below is a recipe by Juanry Segui, a prominent Valencian chef. Make a seafood broth from shrimp heads, onions, garlic and bay leaves.
Heat oil in a paellera.
Add mussels. Cook until they open and then remove.
Sauté Norway lobster and whole, deep-water rose shrimp. Then remove both the lobster and shrimp.
Add chopped cuttlefish and sauté.
Add shrimp tails and sauté.
Add garlic and sauté.
Add grated tomato and sauté.
Add rice and braise in sofrito.
Add paprika and sauté.
Add seafood broth and then saffron (and/or food coloring).
Add salt to taste.
Replace the deep-water rose shrimp, mussels and Norway lobster.
Simmer until rice is cooked.
There are countless mixed paella recipes. The following method is common to most of these. Seasoning depends greatly on individual preferences and regional influences. However, salt, saffron and garlic are almost always included.
Make a broth from seafood, chicken, onions, garlic, bell peppers and bay leaf.
Heat oil in a paellera.
Sear red bell pepper strips and set aside.
Sear crustaceans and set aside.
Season meat lightly with salt and sauté meat until golden brown.
Add onions, garlic and bell peppers. Sauté until vegetables are tender.
Add grated tomatoes and sauté.
Add dry seasonings except for salt.
Braise rice until covered with sofrito.
Add salt to taste.
Add saffron (and/or food coloring) and mix well.
Simmer until rice is almost cooked.
Continue simmering until rice and crustaceans are finished cooking.
Garnish with seared red bell pepper strips.
The following is a list of other similar rice dishes from around the world:
Arroz a la valenciana
Arroz con pollo