Monday, October 23, 2017

Cuisine: In Pursuit of the Perfect Paella

If I asked you all to name the first dish that brings Spain to mind, I know what 90% of those answers would be. And it’s no surprise why, as I’ve learned over the last several months. Nearly every culture has its signature rice-based comfort meal  that satisfies the senses as much as it satiates the stomach – from American jambalaya to African jollof, Latin American arroz to Middle Eastern mansaf, and South Asian biryani to Far Eastern fried rice. The combinations of ingredients, flavors, and emotions centering around a simple white grain are as astounding as they are seemingly limitless.

After spending nearly all of 2016 in an Italian food frenzy with my fratelli, Luca and Federico,  my cross-cultural adventures within the Euro sphere continued to migrate westward towards another peninsula – Iberia. If 2016 could be called the Year of Prosciutto, then 2017 was certainly destined to become the Year of – you already guessed it - Paella. Being accepted into the Catalan community of Southern California granted me not only some of the most amicable and generous friends I’ve ever made, but also the accompanying benefits of Catalan culture and connection. Before long, I found myself spinning in a cloud of red and yellow… and I don’t only mean from wine and cigarette smoke. 

Catalan Family comes over for one of many dinners

Catalan Family hits up a toga pool party

Catalan Family goes on a ski trip

Catalan Family goes to the beach

Paella is often recognized by the majority of the world as Spain’s national dish. But what many aren’t as familiar with is how Spain’s cuisine derives from the distinct ethnic diversity within its own borders, which is anything but homogenous or solely Spanish-speaking. Originating in the region of Valencia, the word paella refers to the unique steel pan in which this savory saffron-spiced rice dish is prepared, traditionally over an open flame. Over centuries, the dish has become an iconic centerpiece of kitchen tables in the greater Catalan ethno-linguistic realm of Eastern Spain, as well as a symbol of fierce cultural pride that spares no room for bastardization.

My love affair with paella began as a pre-teen wandering the back alleys of Barcelona on a summer’s eve in search of a one-night stand with something delicious. Surely, Miss Paella did not disappoint. But this was also nearly two decades ago, resulting in a separation that had rendered me incapable of even recalling how a true paella should taste. It wasn’t until I met dear Pol, with his claim to possessing a superb family recipe, that my fire for this past love was rekindled. As with all of my global culinary cravings, I desired to make it, as close to authentic as possible, and entirely from scratch. My only obstacle was Pol’s slightly lackadaisical “surfer-dude” failure of commitment to recipes exceeding an hour of his attention, of which paella most certainly is one. At the suggestion of Octavi, another Catalan friend, I realized that if I truly wanted paella, I’d have to take matters into my own hands and do my own extensive research. At least, Pol was gracious enough to bring me two kilos of pure Bomba rice from Spain!

Learning from an amazing surfer

I want to preface this post with the notion that paella is not merely one, but rather many dishes with regional variations and preparations that are as diverse as the sculptures of La Sagrada Familia. The recipe for seafood paella that I provide is merely one of many I’ve researched that closely adheres to a correct preparation, also taking into consideration advice on taste, texture, and color from several Catalan friends. Despite the multitude of styles and toppings, the unifying factor among them all is its core ingredient; a good paella is only as good as its rice - there is no substitute nor room for error concerning it.  

Paella Protocol Overview:

Cooking a paella can be broken down into three separate parts: the sofrito (a thick sauce of fried tomato and onion), the caldo (a saffron infused seafood broth), and the arroz (the rice). Each part will have its own set of ingredients and steps, before coming together in the end to finalize the dish. The first two components can be prepared in advance if necessary, however once you begin the rice step, there’s no turning back and it must be served hot. Large seafood toppings like prawns and mussels are generally cooked separately in the pan before beginning the other steps, to be added back to the final dish toward the end. Smaller toppings like clams, shrimp, and calamari are usually cooked during the rice step.

This recipe is suitable for a 34 cm diameter pan that comfortably serves 4 portions.

Seafood Topping Preparation:

The quantity and type of toppings are based on preference. I've used the following in various combinations:

6-8 large prawns, shells intact
15-20 clams
8-10 mussels, half shell
0.25 lb of shrimp, shells removed
0.5 lb of squid, sliced into small strips 

  • In olive oil, fry the prawns until red and crispy, as well as the calamari until light purple and firm. Steam or lightly simmer the mussels until their shells open.

Frying various seafood toppings prior to the sofrito

The Sofrito:

1-2 large tomatoes
1 medium onion
1 green pepper (Anaheim chili or bell pepper works well)
5-6 garlic cloves
1 Tbsp salt
1 Tbsp sugar
generous pinch smoked paprika 
0.25 cup olive oil

  • Using a food processor, individually blend the tomatoes and onions into separate purees. Finely dice the green peppers and garlic, then set aside. If you lack the necessary equipment, a cheese grater can also be used to finely grate the tomatoes and onion.
  • In a well-oiled paella pan over medium-high heat, add the onion puree and garlic. Lightly brown them for about 8-10 minutes, stirring frequently to not scorch. Add the tomato puree and minced peppers to the mix and fry for an additional 10 minutes.
  • As the mixed vegetable puree becomes more like a paste, lower the heat and allow to simmer for another 20-30 minutes, stirring occasionally to prevent burning. Add more olive oil as needed. The longer a sofrito cooks, the volume of its ingredients will be halved and its flavors will become richer.
  • Should slight burning occur, de-glaze the pan by adding a little broth and scraping with a spatula to incorporate the caramelized liquid into the rest of sofrito. Cook until the color transitions from a light red to a dark red-brown with a rich toasty aroma.
  • While the sofrito gently cooks, prepare the caldo (see next).

Ingredients for the sofrito at the beginning of the cook time
Ingredients for the sofrito after an hour of slow gentle cooking

The Caldo:

3 cups clam juice
1.5 cups beef broth or meat stock
half wedge of onion 
4 cloves garlic, smashed
1-2 Tbsp salt
generous pinch toasted saffron

  • Mix the clam juice and beef broth in a large pot and bring to a light boil over medium-high heat.
  • Add the onion wedge, smashed garlic, and salt to impart their flavors. A sufficiently salted caldo should taste like a savory soup on its own. Reserve one cup of the broth in a separate bowl. Cover and lower the heat to induce a very light simmer.
  • Over a low flame or burner, lightly toast the pinch of saffron for a few seconds in either foil or a metal spoon, taking care not to burn the highly delicate threads. Grind the threads into a fine powder using a mortar-pestle, or with the back of a spoon in a small bowl. Add the saffron powder to the cup of reserved broth and allow to steep for 10-15 minutes.
  • Finally add the cup of saffron-infused broth to the caldo pot and allow to simmer and additional 5 minutes before removing the heat. The color should become a golden brown. Keep the broth covered and warm until the sofrito is finished.

The Arroz:

The general ratio of cups liquid to cups Bomba rice is 3:1. Do not be alarmed by the amount of liquid, which will initially seem excessive, as it will eventually be absorbed by the short grains. For this recipe, I average about 0.25 - 0.3 cups of rice per person. One of the key elements of a proper paella is achieving a thin crispy caramelized layer on the bottom of the pan known as socarrat. Tips on creating this can also be found below. 

1.25 cups Bomba rice
the sofrito
4 cups of the caldo 
the selected seafood toppings
  • To the cooked sofrito on medium heat, add the rice and mix well, evenly incorporating the grains into the dark brown paste. Add and mix the calamari pieces and cook for 1-2 minutes, stirring frequently.
  • Spread the rice mixture over the area of the pan and then add the hot caldo, carefully shaking the pan side-to-side to evenly distribute its contents. Allow the paella to cook on medium heat for 10 minutes with rigorous bubbling.
  • After 10 -12 minutes, the rice should start to pop up above the surface of the liquid. Lower the heat to a gentle bubbling simmer.
  • Add the clams by pushing them down into the simmering rice, spreading and arranging them throughout the pan.
  • Allow the rice to cook until all of the clams have naturally popped open. This may range anywhere from 25 - 30 minutes depending on the size of the clams and the heat intensity. After an initial 10 min, you may also push shrimp into the mixture to start cooking.
      • Check the rice frequently by sight and taste to find which parts are cooked versus under-cooked. For better heat distribution, the pan may need to be shifted on the burner or a second burner may need to be lit to reach areas around the pan's edges.
      • Stick a metal spoon into the rice and gently rub the bottom of the pan. If no resistance is felt, continue cooking the rice. If there is resistance, this is a sign that the socarrat is forming. Check in other areas of the pan before proceeding to the finishing step.
      • If the rice is properly cooked, but the socarrat has not completely formed, the process can be sped up at the end by raising the heat to high to essentially "scorch" the bottom of the pan. Allow this until a crackling sound can be heard, usually only for several minutes and with caution as to not completely burn the dish.
  • When the rice has finished, add the prawns and/or mussels to the top of the dish, turn off the heat, and then cover the pan with either a lid or aluminum foil. Allow the rice to "rest" and steam for a final 10 minutes before serving.

Initial 10 minutes of cooking, as the rice begins to rise from the caldo
Arrangement of the seafood toppings prior to the final steaming

Having never prepared a paella before, and furthermore without remembering how it should taste or look, my next biggest challenge was serving it to an actual Catalan. To my great surprise, it was genuinely well-received, with wonderfully positive feedback on the rich flavor, proper brown color (one should be very skeptical of bright yellow paellas), and achievement of the prized socarrat. Naturally, I was ecstatic and anxious to practice it again. As we say in the sciences, an experiment is only meaningful if it's reproducible.

The judges on my paella's debut night

My wish to cook paella with Pol eventually did become a reality, catching him between waves on a delightfully laid-back Southern Californian Sunday at the beach house. There was far more on fire that afternoon than simply the seafood, with Pol's comedic kitchen antics and gustatory passion swirling the rice to the sway of reggae. And as the paella itself gradually came together, so did our other Spanish friends, reminding me of the beautiful sanctity food possesses as a unifying force that transcends cultures and languages.   

The long awaited "Paella con Pol" showcase on a perfect Sunday afternoon
Even a player from the Real Madrid soccer team came for a taste

"Salud" to many more shared meals!

I'd like to extend my gratitude to Pol Riera, Octavi Obiols, and Alejandro JN for their contributions in the development of this culinary project. Els meus germans catalans - Moltes Gràcies!