Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Perfect Paella

There's no cuisine quite as summery as Spanish food, packed with spice and summer vegetables such as peppers, green beans and tomatoes, and in my recent - and ongoing - efforts to feel summery no matter what the damn weather's doing, I've been cooking quite a lot of Spanish food lately. I've long been a fan of tapas, but one thing I'd never tried to make before was paella, so I gave it a try.

This is my first attempt. Meat and veggies plus short-grain rice, cooked in stock, with smoked paprika and chilli. What could be wrong? It was nice, but... it wasn't exciting. It was lacking something and I couldn't put my finger on what. So I made it my mission to find out a bit more about making the perfect paella... And three or four paellas later, I think I've cracked it!

The Pan
Paella must be cooked in a wide, flat pan, to make sure the rice cooks in a shallow layer and the stock reduces effectively. But if you don't have a proper paella pan, another large flat pan will do just fine - I made the recipe below in a 28cm saute pan (though a few cm larger would have made life a bit easier).

The Rice
Authentic paella rices are Spanish and include Bomba (the best!), Bahia or Calasparra, but you can use any short grain rice and Arborio - the Italian rice commonly used for risottos - is a pretty good option. (In fact, I preferred Arborio to Sainsbury's 'Paella Rice', the variety of which is unspecified.) These types of rice hold their shape by remaining firm in the middle, whereas long-grain rice goes soft throughout, and they absorb a great deal of flavour as they cook, increasing drastically in size.

The Sofrito
This is simply a paste of chopped onions and tomatoes, cooked down to a dark, rich reduction. It adds so much to the flavour and really transforms the dish - paella isn't paella without it.

The Saffron
I've never been much of a believer in buying massively expensive foodstuffs that don't last very long or go very far... But I was really glad I bought saffron for my paella - there isn't really a substitute for the subtle richness and aroma it adds. (And I hope to be growing my own saffron in the garden starting this autumn - woohoo!) Use it.

The Soccarat
Now here's something I really didn't know, and which many of the recipes you'll find online don't seem to know either; you mustn't stir paella after adding the rice and stock. This is for two reasons. First, stirring encourages rice to release starch, go gooey and lose its shape, and in paella you want each grain to keep its shape. And second, you want the bottom to brown lightly; the crispy browned layer of toasted rice on the bottom is called the soccarat and is considered the best part of the dish - and trust me, it really is good. To get a good soccarat, add the right quantity of liquid (just over one-and-a-half times the volume of the rice) and turn the heat up high for a few minutes after most of the liquid has been absorbed, until you hear a light crackling at the bottom of the pan. After this, the paella should be covered and allowed to rest for five minutes, to allow the rice to soak up the last of the liquid.

The 'Fillings'
A traditional Valencian paella is made with chicken, rabbit, butter beans and green beans, with a seafood mix replacing both meat and veg in coastal towns. But mixed paellas using virtually whatever ingredients are handy have become popular across Spain, and across the world, so while many Spaniards will scoff at the addition of, say, chorizo, if you fancy it I say chuck it in! However, paella is primarily (traditionally) a rice dish, so try not to go so overboard with additions that the rice fades to insignificance! As well as meat, I like to have a green vegetable and a 'meaty' vegetable, such as butter beans or artichoke hearts, plus peppers for that summery sweet flavour. Or of course you could go for a veggie paella with peppers, a variety of beans, peas, fresh tomatoes, aubergines, artichokes, and even some olives. (If you're not going to use chorizo in your paella, I'd recommend adding more garlic, chilli and paprika than in the recipe below, as chorizo adds sso much of these flavours by itself.)

Nome's Perfect Paella
(serves 5-6)
  • Heat a little oil in your pan and add 2 or 3 diced chicken breasts. Cook until they're just lightly sealed all over, and stir in 225g chorizo, diced or sliced, and a green and a red pepper, diced. Cook over a high heat for a couple of minutes until the oil starts coming out of the chorizo, then push it all to the outside of the pan or, if you don't have room, remove from the pan and set aside for a few minutes.
  • Add a large onion, finely chopped, to the pan, cook a couple of minutes until translucent, then add a 400g can chopped tomatoes, keeping a little of the liquid back. Keep stirring and cooking until it reduces and darkens, but don't let it burn. This is the sofrito and adds loads of flavour to your paella.
  • To the sofrito, add 2-3 cloves chopped garlic, 1 tsp mild chilli powder and 1 tsp smoked sweet paprika and stir in. Then stir the chicken/chorizo/pepper mix back in to the pan.
  • Add 300g short grain rice (see 'The rice' above) and stir quickly through the contents of the pan. Now put that spoon away - you're not going to be doing any more stirring.
  • Add 250ml dry white wine, 500ml light, quality chicken/fish/veg stock and about 1/2 teaspoon saffron threads, soaked in a little hot water. Sprinkle on 200g frozen/fresh peas or chopped green beans. Give the pan a little shake to even things out, and bring to the boil.
  • Taste the stock to check the flavour, spice and seasoning. Adjust if necessary, but try not to disturb the rice too much. 
  • Reduce to a simmer and leave uncovered to cook. It should take around 20 minutes for all the liquid to absorb/reduce - check at around the 15 minute mark and if it's still very wet, raise the heat, or if it's dry already but the rice isn't tender add a little more stock. 
  • When the rice is tender and almost all the liquid is absorbed, arrange 225g cooked king prawns and a can of artichoke hearts or butter beans (or 100g dried butter beans, soaked overnight then simmered 40-60 minutes until tender) on the top of the paella to heat through.
  • Raise the heat to brown the bottom. When you hear popping and crackling it's happening - stick a fork down there and keep an eye on it as you want a good layer of brown but no black! When it's done, turn the heat off.
  • Cover the pan with a lid, foil or a clean towel, and let the dish rest for five minutes.
  • Sprinkle the juice of half a lemon and a couple of good handfuls of chopped fresh parsley over the paella, and serve, remembering to scrape the lovely soccarat off the bottom!

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