PAELLA FOR PERFECTIONISTS

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It ain’t what you add, it’s the way that you add it. In his latest Stove Notes column, Simon Hopkinson sets out his rules for a dish his father loved ...

From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, Summer 2011

The first time I ate paella was on a Costa Brava campsite in the early 1960s, when I was nine. We were hard by the Mediterranean, so it featured mussels, prawns and squid, as well as pieces of chicken. There were some vegetables, too: I definitely remember peas scattered among the fragrant yellow rice. How I loved the taste! My father enjoyed it, too, so much so that he took home a paella pan large enough to feed all four of us. He used it regularly, with much pride, and it became his Saturday-night party dish.

Depending on the season, a paella may include any of the following, though not necessarily all at the same time: rice, obviously; saffron; powdered pimentón; chopped chorizo; some poultry or rabbit; shellfish and/or clams and mussels; snails; squid; garlic; chicken stock or water; fino sherry; a green vegetable such as peas or thinly cut runner beans; cooked beans such as haricots or chickpeas; chopped tomatoes; and sliced red peppers from a jar or tin—Spanish piquillo peppers are my favourite. I have rarely seen a recipe for paella that includes onions, which I think is rather good news; to start a savoury dish with no chopped onion makes a pleasant change.

Paella is, in essence, all about the rice. And the right rice, too: bomba, a tight, slightly rounded medium-short grain, similar in shape to what the British call “pudding” rice, but able to soak up about three times its weight in liquid without losing its firmness. Rice pudding and paella have some similarities: both cook via a combination of absorption and evaporation. And though a paella is—unlike rice pud—never cooked in the oven, once put together they are both happy to tootle away undisturbed until ready.

And this is the vital point: after the rice has been added to the pan and stirred in, it mustn’t be moved again. In paella, the rice grains are meant to stay separated and intact. The more you fiddle about while it’s cooking, the more the rice will release its starch, and the more soupy and glutinous the final texture. Constant stirring also reduces the chance of rice at the bottom catching on the hot pan, making the much-loved burnt bits known as “socarrat” by paella aficionados. As the rice is almost always one of the last items to be added, this hands-off policy shouldn’t be too hard to enforce, even when adding the shellfish: you only need to pop the clams, mussels, prawns or whatever just beneath the surface of the paella when the dish is still a touch sloppy. But more about that later. 

So, here’s the way I have always made it. For a paella that will feed about six people, start by heating around two tablespoons of good (but not too expensive) virgin olive oil per person in a paella pan. Chop some chorizo and fry it in the oil until it’s browned, then remove it and allow smallish pieces of seasoned chicken, or rabbit legs, to fry in the chorizo-flavoured oil until golden—you’re looking for a total weight of meat hovering around the 1kg mark. Then add about half that weight in sliced green beans, shelled peas or a mixture of both, and tip in some roughly chopped, skinned tomatoes together with a small handful of crushed and chopped garlic cloves. This should simmer quietly for about 25 minutes, until the chicken or rabbit is almost cooked through. 

At this point, pour in a litre and a half of hot chicken stock or water, together with a scattering of saffron stamens steeped in a couple of generous glugs of warmed sherry. Bring everything up to a healthy simmer and then thoroughly stir in about 500g of rice. Do not stir again, but leave to cook quietly for 20 minutes, then scatter the surface with mussels or small clams and cover with a loose, large lid or foil. Turn the heat down very low for five minutes, to allow the mussels or clams to steam open. Once they’re gaping, turn off the heat and cover with a tea towel; this helps the final swelling of the rice and will also absorb excess steam. Serve immediately, scraping the pan as you go to lift off those delicious clusters of scorched rice. Far from being the bottom of the barrel, they are the best bit. 

SHOPPING LIST

Paella pan  Shallower than a frying pan, with a handle on each side. Should have a dimpled base, like the surface of a golf ball, to help the liquid trickle beneath the rice and steam it from below. Garcima s.l. is the brand favoured by Spaniards. 

Bomba rice  The tiny bomba rice crop produced by the village of Calasparra in south-eastern Spain is the one to buy. Irrigated via a system installed by the Romans, it ensures a continuous flow of fresh mountain water to the paddies.

Saffron  Each yolky strand of saffron is the stigma of a crocus that has been harvested by hand, hence the hefty prices. The grade (determined by how well it stains) is more important than the producer. Look for “coupe”, the highest grade, or “mancha”, the next best.

Piquillo peppers  These are indigenous to Spain, with an intense, smoky flavour. Look for DOP (Denominación de Origen Protegida) piquillos; those from Navarrico are particularly good.

Chorizo  Essentially a pork sausage that contains paprika. The best for paella is a cooking chorizo. Brindisa (www.brindisa.com) has a decent one, or, if you can find it, try the chorizo produced by Embutidos Alejandro in Spain. 

 

Simon Hopkinson is the author of "Roast Chicken and Other Stories" and "The Vegetarian Option", and former chef at Bibendum. His last Stove Notes column was about the full English breakfast. Illustration: Cath Riley