#14: Make an authentic paella
In her book, Paella!: Spectacular Rice Dishes from Spain, Penelope Casas tries to re-educate American readers about the heart and soul of an authentic paella dish. The tome was loaned to me by a foodie friend who is very particular about the way things should be done in the kitchen (especially the outdoor kitchen) and so I was intimidated from the start. Casas tried to ease my mind by explaining that paella-making is neither a complicated nor overly laborious process; it is as easy and quick as making any other dish from fresh ingredients, she writes. Sounds good, right? Well, I think she’s wrong. But the dish I made turned out to be scrumptious and I’d do it again if I had the time and the proper equipment on hand.
Every at-home chef knows that making a recipe for the first time lengthens the total prepping and cooking duration. You have to keep checking the recipe: When does this ingredient go in? What am I looking for (e.g., browning, softening, evaporating)? And what level of that action is appropriate for not making the thing a mushy, burnt, or unattractive mess? While it can be invigorating, smelling all of those new aromas and creating something you’ve never made before, it can also be a bit stressful—what if I totally screw this up or go through all of this effort and am disappointed in the mediocre end result?
I was able to avoid most of this anxiety because I knew I was at a real advantage for a paella-making virgin. I was able to cook alongside an experienced paella-maker (the aforementioned foodie friend) who also happened to offer his kitchen, his authentic paellera (the shallow, wide, round pan that gives paella its name), and his paella grill (basically a large round burner connected to a propane tank). He even threw in some saffron, Spanish smoked paprika, and some really tasty olive oil. (When packing up the ingredients I had chopped and assembled the night before, I forgot to throw in a bottle of oil and it is probably a big reason the dish was so yummy—his oil was much more earthy and fruity than the stuff I buy in bulk at Costco.) I had settled on a recipe for “Spinach, Chickpea, and Pine Nut Paella,” which fit the authentic recipe test but I was a bit concerned that my teacher scoff at the lack of pork or other meat products.
So, with only mild trepidation, I began the process: heating oil in the pan (he lit the thing because the open blue flame resting casually on a brick wall in his backyard scared the bejesus out of me); browning the pine nuts; softening the onion, red pepper, and 16 (sixteen!!) cloves of garlic; adding in the Arborio rice (an Italian substitute, typically used in risotto—I couldn’t find authentic Spanish bomba rice in the stores); pouring in the stock (the homemade stock I made with the leftover parts of last weekend’s roasted chicken experiment!); and stirring when I was supposed to (in the middle, to coat the rice in oil and savory flavors) and fighting back the urge to stir when I wasn’t supposed to (at the end, when the socarrat, a caramelized crust on the bottom, is forming).
It was a mild evening outdoors and the cooking went much like stir frying does—a whole lot of prep and then a whole lot hurrying up to throw things in while avoiding burning anything in the hot pan. When the stock had reduced enough, we shut off the burner and covered the paella in newspaper, letting it cool and perfect itself for 10 minutes or so. I already felt a small sense of accomplishment and I was happy that this was the kind of meal that gives you some breathing room to clean up before it is served, so that all those dirty dishes aren’t hanging over you, menacing and begging for attention.
The paella itself, I found out, was enough to feed probably 8 or 10 people (there were only 4 of us plus a munchkin eating) but, back in the kitchen, my husband was busily preparing a savory appetizer of chorizo in puff pastry, deep fried to golden goodness. We munched on those (heaven!) and I was relieved that my foodie friend wouldn’t kill me for making an entire meal without meat. The troops gathered and I posed for glamor shots as I set the steaming pan down in the center of the table.
The result? As Rachel Ray would say in her husky, grating voice: Yum-o! Each of us scooped up respectable heaps of the rice and came back at least once for more—including the resident toddler who didn’t care much for the spicy chorizo (“hot!” she said adorably over and over, pointing to her tongue) but seemed to love the paella. I thoroughly enjoyed my meal and, of course, the fantastic company.
I shouldn’t tell you this because a certain experienced paella maker might be watching but I can’t help myself: after the meal, my foodie friend’s wife took me aside and whispered, “That’s the best paella I’ve ever had! Don’t tell.” I’m sorry for breaking my promise but I think her comment was a testament not to my cooking but to her husband’s passion for food and patience in teaching me the importance of doing things a certain way (the “right way,” he would say). I tried to do as much of the work as I could but he took over in key spots (e.g., when I couldn’t lift the huge and hot saucepan of stock with one hand) and advised me throughout the process (e.g., “You need to stir more, the pine nuts are turning black!” and “Stop stirring! You have to let the crust form at the bottom!”) So thanks to you, my foodie friend and his wonderful family, for inviting me to test the paella waters with your guidance. And, while others have their criticisms about Casas’ text (inaccurate cooking times and temperatures, they claim, or too many similar recipes), I felt like I was being mentored by an experienced and passionate guide . . . and who doesn’t love a cookbook with an exclamation point in the title, anyway?
Lesson learned: You don’t need meat to make a mean paella (and certainly not a combo of chicken, and sausage, and seafood as the “touristy” American version of paella goes). No, you need a great teacher and a little bit of elbow grease.