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Every cuisine has one – a one-pot meal, a peasant dish that is the quintessential definition of that place and people. Louisiana has jambalaya. Chile has the cazuela. There’s Irish Stew and Pad Thai. And the Spanish? Well they have paella.
The roots of paella reach back to Valencia. The original Valencian dish was a mixture of meat, snails, beans and green vegetables. There two basic variations on the original. Seafood paella, as the name suggests, eliminates the meat in favour of all seafood, a popular meal for Friday observance. Mixed paellas are more akin to the original but usually include chicken instead of the traditional rabbit, and shellfish instead of snails. Perhaps, the most distinctive characteristic of any paella is the bright yellow rice, all thanks to a generous dose of saffron, or should I say azafrán? At its core, paella is a meal that makes use of what is at hand – local, fresh and available.
A successful paella is all about layering flavours. I start mine by browning some dry cured chorizo. The fat that renders out of the sausage is full of paprika and garlic and adds great flavour to the dish. After the chorizo, it’s time to brown off the chicken, (or rabbit, or pork). All those brown bits that come off the chicken add another layer of complexity to the final product. The fat left behind is the perfect medium for sweating the onions and garlic. Once done, it’s important to toast the rice which further deepens the flavour. I like to add my paprika at this point to toast the spice a bit as well. Then it’s time for the liquid. Wine is not essential, unless you want a really good paella. A cup of wine goes a long way to boosting the flavour quotient. For the stock, you can use chicken, shrimp, lobster or a combination of them. I prefer plain old chicken stock but it really is just a personal preference. Remember, you should be able to taste everything – nothing should overwhelm, nothing should fade away. When it comes to vegetables I keep it simple – peas and sweet peppers. The part that always changes in my paella is the shellfish. It all depends on what looks good at the market that day. Today it was clams, mussels and prawns. I was very tempted by the Dungeness crab, but there were only two of us eating tonight and it doesn’t reheat very well. For maximum flavour, leave your prawns whole – shell and head on. My husband prefers them peeled, despite the flavour loss, so you’ll see that ours are ready to eat straight out of the pot.
Once you’ve established the mixture of meat and fish you want in your paella, the only challenge is timing it right to make sure the rice is cooked and the shellfish are still tender and sweet. The chorizo will be cooked through after you’ve browned it, but it won’t deteriorate when it’s in the cooking liquid. The chicken requires a little more thought. I prefer thighs for paella because they are less prone to drying out during cooking. Let your rice cook for about three minutes before you put the chicken in and you’ll be fine. Add the peas, peppers and prawns after about 14 minutes. Let the rice cook for another 2 minutes before adding the shellfish. Add your shellfish to the pot with a splash of stock to create some extra steam. Cover the pot and leave it for 3 minutes. Your mussels and clams will open, your prawns will be bright pink and the rice tender.
The traditional recipe suggests you let the bottom of the rice brown to create a crust on the bottom. I don’t care for the crusty part, so I don’t do that. But again, it’s all a matter of personal preference. In my opinion, the perfect paella is the one you like best.
• 1 ½ cups Arborio or other short grain rice
• 4 cups chicken stock
• 1 cup white wine
• 1 large white onion, diced
• 4 cloves garlic, diced
• zest of one lemon
• ¼ pound chorizo, sliced in 1/4” rounds
• 6 chicken thighs, skin on
• 1 tsp smoked paprika
• 1 tsp crushed saffron
• 2 cups fresh or frozen peas
• 2 red peppers, thick julienne
• 1 pound prawns
• 1 pound mussels
• 1 pound clams
• juice of one lemon
• parsley, chopped
1. In a large sautee pan with tight fitting lid or paella pan, cook chorizo on medium heat until browned on both sides and fat has rendered off. Remove from pot and set aside.
2. Add chicken to the pan. Cook until deep brown colour on both sides. Remove from pan and set aside.
3. Add onions and sautee until translucent.
4. Add garlic, paprika and lemon zest and cook for another minute.
5. Add rice. Stir to coat rice with oil and toast for about 2 minutes.
6. Add white wine to deglaze pan, scraping off brown bits from the bottom.
7. When wine has almost been absorbed add 3 ½ cups stock and saffron. Let stock come to boil and reduce heat to simmer. Cook for 3 minutes.
8. Bury chicken and chorizo in the rice/stock mixture. Cover and cook for 12 minutes.
9. Add peas, peppers and prawns. Cover and cook for another 2 minutes.
10. Add clams, mussels and remaining ½ cup of stock. Cover and cook for 3 minutes.
11. Remove lid. If shellfish haven’t opened, replace lid and let cook for another minute.
12. Squeeze lemon over paella and sprinkle with parsley.