Paella is the first dish many people think of when preparing a meal for a family celebration. | R.D.
The amazing thing about Spain’s mixed paella, the country’s most famous international dish, isn’t that it exists but that it works so well. The mixed paella is the one made with chicken and pork and shellfish that can include mussels, clams (almejas), squid or cuttlefish, langostinos or gambas as well as veggies such as peas, green beans and red peppers. Few of us would opt for a meal that consisted of steamed mussels, followed by grilled gambas, then some fried chicken — all served on the same plate and eaten with the same knife and fork.But a traditional mixed paella is that and much more — all of those somewhat disparate ingredients are actually cooked together in the same pan.
On paper, a paella simply shouldn’t work. But in practice it is one of most charismatic and best loved dishes in Spanish regional cooking.
Paella isn’t the only dish that is made with fish, shellfish and meat. You’ll find recipes in many cuisines in which fish and shellfish are cooked or served with poultry or red meat.
This style of cooking even has its own name. In Spanish it’s called mar y montaña (sea and mountain) and the Italians give it the same name: mare e monte.
The Americans have surf ‘n’ turf, a steak and lobster grilled separately but served on the same plate. In England we combine oysters and steak and put them into a pot pie topped with flaky pastry. The Australians do something similar: they slit an elongated fillet steak to give it a pocket which they fill with raw oysters. It is sewn up and then grilled.
In the 19th century, when the great majority of people were very poor, housewives combined small amounts of shellfish (often collected for free) with a little chicken or rabbit (often stolen or poached) to make a dish with a higher protein content. This protein was then added to lots of rice, pasta, beans, potatoes or other root veggies to provide a meal that would feed several people. And that’s what a paella originally was: a way of filling many bellies with minimal quantities of protein.
But nowadays paella is possibly the most popular dish in the country, the first dish many people think of when preparing a meal for a family celebration. So before we get diverted along other culinary paths, let’s do a mixed paella.
As with most dishes in Spanish regional cooking, there is no set recipe, but there are general guidelines which I’ve been giving for the past couple of weeks, plus popular ingredients that can include those given here.
For five to seven people, depending on individual appetites, you will need: 2 chicken legs with bone chopped into bite-size pieces, 300 grs chopped pork (ask for carne magra), 250 grs onion (although in Valencia, home of the paella, they don’t use onion), two biggish tomatoes, 150 grs parboiled green beans, 150 grs parboiled peas, 1 roasted red peppers or from a jar, 2 finely chopped garlic cloves (or to taste), 6 tbsps olive oil, several saffron threads, 1 tbsps finely chopped parsley, 1 kilo mussels, 2 good sized langostinos per person, 250 grs squid rings, 100-125 grs Spanish round rice (arroz redondo) per person (or according to individual appetites).
Wash and scrub the mussels and put them into a large saucepan with only the water that is clinging to the shells. Steam them over a high heat for five to six minutes with the lid on, shaking the saucepan vigorously from time to time. Strain the liquid into a deep plate, discard the empty half shell and put the other half, shell flesh down, under the liquid to keep them moist.
Heat the saffron threads very gently in a small frying pan and leave them for a couple of minutes to cool down and become crispy. Crush them in a cup with the back of a small spoon and leave until needed.
Sauté the langostinos in the paella pan with a little olive oil, for 90 seconds on each side. Transfer to a plate. Heat three tablespoons of olive oil in the paella pan and sauté the chopped pork over a medium heat for 15 minutes, stirring from time to time. Transfer to a plate when it is nicely browned. Sauté the chicken pieces in the same oil for about 10 minutes, or until of a nice golden colour. Transfer to the same plate as the pork.
Add the finely chopped onion to the paella pan, using a little extra oil if necessary, and sauté over a gentle heat for 15 minutes, stirring from time to time. Stir in the peeled and finely chopped tomatoes and cook for another 10 minutes over a medium heat before adding the pork and chicken (and any juices) and stirring for another five minutes until the pork and chicken are well covered with the sofrito mixture.
Measure the volume of the rice in a cup or glass and prepare that amount of stock and the strained mussels liquid. If you don’t have any stock, use the liquid in which the peas and green beans were parboiled.
Bring this liquid to the boil and add it immediately to the paella pan over a high heat, mixing it with the other ingredients. Add the green beans and the peas. Stir over the high heat, sprinkle in the rice and stir with a wooden fork to spread the rice over the base of the pan. Add salt to taste. Stir in the crushed saffron threads and also the finely chopped garlic and the parsley.
When the paella pan and the rice and other ingredients have been on a highish heat for about eight minutes, gently stir in the squid rings and lower the heat.
Lay the strips of roasted red peppers on top of the rice in an attractive pattern and then place the langostinos on top, pressing them gently into the rice. Stick the mussels, pointed end down, into the rice around the entire perimeter of the paella pan. Make a floral pattern in the centre with any leftover mussels.
Continue cooking over a lowish medium heat for another eight minutes or so, moving the paella pan over the heat so that the edges come into direct contact with the heat most of the time.
It’s at this stage I prefer to use a Chinese wok ring to keep the base of the pan away from the direct flame. Give the paella pan an occasional stiff jerky shake so that surface liquid seeps to the bottom to help keep the rice from sticking and burning. After a total cooking time of 15-17 minutes, turn off the heat and leave the paella undisturbed for an other five minutes before serving. If the paella looks a little too moist, some people cover the pan with an opened newspaper for the five minutes resting period.
Some cooks deliberately have a little excess liquid at the end so the contents of the pan can be vigorously stirred into it, thus producing an especially succulent kind of grain. If this volume of liquid produces rice that is too moist for your taste, reduce it to two-and-a-half times the volume of rice the next time you make a paella. By adjusting up or down from there, you will soon work out the volume of liquid that is best for your personal taste and the brand of rice you use.
And to finish off this in-depth look at how to make a paella, we now come to perhaps the most important aspect of achieving success: how to buy, season and care for a paella pan. Like all kitchen equipment, paella pans have to be looked after carefully to get the best results from them. And unlike most frying pans nowadays, they have to be seasoned before use.
Paella pans are mostly made of cheap metal and new ones comes with a film of industrial oil smeared all over so they won’t rust while on display in shops and supermarkets. Your first little chore is to clean off this oil. One efficient way of doing this is to put the pan on the heat, with the label stuck to the base, add some sunflower oil and slowly sauté a large chopped onion and half a dozen plump cloves of thinly sliced garlic.
Stir frequently until the onions and garlic are of a deep golden colour. The heat will quickly loosen the paper label and it can be discarded. When the onions are cooked through, bin everything and wash the pan with hot water and a little liquid detergent. Rinse and dry it on a high gas. Add more sunflower oil, chopped onion and sliced garlic and repeat the process. But after discarding the onion and garlic, this time wash only with hot water. Rinse well, dry on a high heat and the pan is ready for use. At this point I like to take the seasoning to another stage.
I sauté a chopped onion and more sliced garlic than before over a low heat until golden. Then I add a cup of rice and three of water and let it simmer for 15 minutes. Everything in the paella pan is left for several hours and then thrown out. This process seasons the pan to absolute perfection.
After that first use of liquid detergent to wash off the industrial oil, you should never use it again. And scouring the pan with Vim or Brillo pads, or anything similar, is absolutely taboo.
If some of the rice burns and sticks to the bottom of the pan, let it soak in water for a few hours and you can remove it with a rubber spatula.
As soon as the pan is washed, put it on a high heat to dry off the inside and the outside. Then smear the inside of the pan with a little sunflower oil using a piece of kitchen paper.
When the pan has cooled down, dab off any excess oil and hang it up somewhere. When you use the pan again it will be completely free of rust patches.
But even if you use it the following week the oil will be stale and you must wash it gain before using it — and with hot water, not detergent. Always use of wooden spatulas, spoons and forks on your paella pan, because you don’t want to scratch the surface with metallic utensils. If you take good care of the pan it will eventually go black on the inside and will have a satin-like patina that ensures better paellas.
Another essential step in the making of a successful paella is choosing the rice. For those of us who live here the choice is easy: every Spanish round rice (arroz redondo) is suitable, although some are better than others. If you can’t get Spanish rice in Britain you could try an Italian risotto rice such as arborio or carnaroli. They are plump, highly absorbent and work well in paellas. You must never use long grain rice. It will split and end up as a messy fudge.
A rice called ‘vaporizado’ is advertised as being ideal for paella as it never overcooks. This rice is parboiled while still in the husk, meaning that some of the nutrients are absorbed by the rice kernels, which is good.
It is true that this rice seldom overcooks or sticks to the bottom of the pan but it is a poor choice when making a paella. This rice absorbs a taste from being boiled in the husk and it gets in the way when making any rice dish, not only paella. It’s a flavour we don’t associate with rice, especially paella. I don’t know of a single Spanish household that uses it. One of the beauties of paella is seeing it on a white plate: the mound of glistening yellow rice grains looks so attractive, warm and inviting. A paella that doesn’t have a nice yellow colour always looks somewhat anaemic.
There are three ways of achieving that colour: with saffron, an artificial colouring powder, or with a mixture of the two. Most restaurants use only a colouring powder (and sometimes far too much of it) and the majority of housewives do the same.
Saffron is expensive and because of that most cooks avoid it. But we use such small amounts that one gram is enough for several dishes. The perfume saffron imparts to any dish is well worth its price. Perfume is the key word here. We don’t add it to a dish t give it a deep yellow colour, we want its rich fragrant aroma. A by-product is that the saffron gives the rice to a pale yellow colour.
If we were to use enough saffron to give a paella a deep yellow colour, it wouldn’t be a good one because the overwhelming taste of the saffron would spoil it. A tiny amount of saffron works wonders but if we go over the top the taste is so strong it can actually be unpleasant. It’s a pale yellow colour you want for a paella, risotto or any other dish.
The most efficient way of getting the perfume out of threads of saffron is to gently heat them for a few seconds and when the filaments cool down they are easily crushed with the back of a teaspoon and stirred into the paella.
This is the last of three articles on paella. If you follow these instructions there’s no reason why your paellas shouldn’t be as good (or better) than Jamie Oliver’s.
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