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Quarantine Cuisine: Paella

Back when the pandemic was just starting, I noticed that our old reliable supplier of fresh seafood, Fulton Fish Market, was offering a seafood "bundle" of shrimp, clams, mussels, and squid as a "paella dinner box."

Paella comes from the Valencia region of eastern Spain; the word itself means "frying pan," and has come to refer to the specific type of pan used to make the dish as well as the dish itself. In the 10th century, the Moors brought rice cultivation to Spain, and paella became a staple of Valencian peasant cuisine. These days, it is probably the most famous Spanish dish, yet is so ingrained in Valencian culture that despite its popularity, it is often widely misunderstood and, frankly, bastardized as it has become exported, much to the chagrin of the Spanish.

In coastal Valencia, locals had more access to seafood than things like chickens and rabbits, which are traditional proteins in the original, inland Valencian paella. As a result, they used things like shellfish to make their paella. Today, this style of seafood paella is the most popular outside Valencia, followed by "Baroque" paellas that one might call "surf and turf," combining things like chicken and shellfish.

I have had paella before (I think...) but I'd never tried my hand at cooking it. The thing that stopped me from buying one of Fulton's paella "dinner boxes" was primarily that paella, to be done correctly, should be cooked over an open fire, since the smoke provides so much of the distinct flavor of the dish, and I was certain I didn't have a (safe) way of creating an open fire pit in my backyard. One afternoon, however, I stumbled on a YouTube video of paella being cooked over an open fire in a pit barrel cooker, which y'all know I have. I bought the 18-inch paella pan, some traditional Spanish "bomba" rice, and Fulton's paella dinner box, and started to do some research about how the paella masters of the world prepare this icon of Spanish cuisine.

José Andrés is a rockstar Spanish chef with acclaimed outposts of Spanish and avant-garde dining all over the country. He is perhaps most notable these days, however, for his work with World Central Kitchen, his own organization that provides meals to those who need them in times of crisis. They were very active during recent hurricane recoveries in places like North Carolina and Puerto Rico, but during the COVID-19 pandemic, they've been all over the place preparing meals. He is a wonderful chef and incredible person, and I trust him wholeheartedly with Spanish cuisine, so I used his recipe as a baseline for my try at paella, and read a few articles with José and other paella masters discussing the technique and ingredients.

There are a lot of garbage recipes for paella floating around on the internet, and you have to know what to look for. The dish has so many potential variations that you can really make it your own, as long as you stay within a few pretty key guidelines:

1) You need the right rice. Ultimately, this is a rice dish, and the correct type of rice is what gives the dish its essence. Long grain rices, such as jasmine or basmati, will not do––they cook too quickly and have limited ability to absorb the broth and flavors in the pan. Arborio rice, which you use for risotto, is also not correct––it is too starchy and does not absorb as well as the traditional Spanish rice varieties. The best rice to use is called bomba rice, which is a short-grain rice grown in Valencia, and has a staggering ability to absorb all the glorious flavors in the cooking liquid. You can find it at Whole Foods or other specialty food stores, or you can find it on Amazon, like I did!

2) You need the right pan. While I didn't really want to buy a new piece of cookware for one dish, the conclusion I reached from my research is "it's not paella if you don't use a paella pan." José himself writes in his cookbook that his dream is that every household in America might have a paella pan in their pantry, so I bit the bullet and moved his dream one household closer to reality. A modern paella pan is usually made of carbon steel and is wide and shallow with two handles. This is critical because it allows you to spread the rice in a thin layer and cook evenly in the liquid, and also a good paella pan completes the plating component since the traditional way to serve this dish is in the pan, family style!

3) There are some ingredients you can't sub. Many paella recipes floating around the internet from decidedly non-authentic sources promote alternatives to some critical ingredients. Saffron is the biggest one. Yes, I know saffron is not cheap, but you do not need much of it, and it is a crucial component of this dish, and should not be substituted with or supplemented by turmeric to give the rice a yellow color. By the same token, it's really important to use good cooking stock for this recipe; Swanson broth won't cut it. I really like Kitchen Basics as a supplier of high-quality cooking stock you can get pretty much anywhere, and they have a solid seafood stock that can be used for this recipe.

4) You really should cook this over a wood-burning fire. It is a trickier prospect and harder to control the heat with a fire, but the smoke is an essential component of the dish. According to José, “The smoke is probably the most important ingredient in a paella. You want this amazing umami that the smoke is giving to the rice.”

* * *

We invited my cousin Ben and his wife Jill, along with their young'ns Wren and Wes, and mom's cousin Karen and her husband Jim to share in our paella night. We were gifted with a gorgeous day after a few days of rain, and spent an evening in the backyard enjoying a few Spanish tapas and sangria.

For tapas, I made one of the best warm-weather Spanish offerings, a traditional gazpacho soup, which I made the night before with tomatoes, cucumber, green pepper, red onion, olive oil, apple cider vinegar, cumin, and breadcrumbs, letting it chill in the fridge overnight so the flavors meld, and serving as "shots" with arugula microgreens from the garden. Gazpacho is a chilled soup and a perfect Spanish tapa for warmer weather.

Piquillo peppers are a wonderful Spanish specialty, and for another delightful tapa, I laid them atop a slice of bread with honey and thyme goat cheese, topped with an olive tapenade. Our last tapa combined two niche Spanish specialties––chorizo and manchego cheese. I placed thinly-sliced chorizo and manchego on little slices of bread, and popped them under the broiler. Another delightful offering for a night of Spanish cuisine. These helped satiate the fam while the paella cooked.

* * *

My new paella pan was heated over the open fire in the pit barrel cooker, and I poured olive oil once the pan was warm and allowed the shrimp and squid to cook for a few minutes, removing them shortly after, to be added at the end of the cooking of the rice. The day before, I made the base for the rice, called "salmorra," a smoky mixture of tomato Spanish ñora chilis, and a crazy amount of garlic.

I heated olive oil and more garlic in the paella pan, and added the salmorra until fragrant. I then added the seafood stock and saffron, stirring so the salmorra absorbed itself into the stock, and letting the stock come to a slow boil before adding the rice, sprinkling to create an even layer, and swirling the pan afterward to even things out.

I made sure to rotate the pan while feeding the fire to make sure the rice cooked evenly. Once you add the rice, unlike with risotto, it is critical that you don't stir the mixture, and instead allow the rice to remain in place while it absorbs the liquid. This allows an even cook and also the development of socarrat, the caramelized, golden brown layer between the pan and rice. José says of socarrat, "It means that the rice loves the paella pan, and the paella pan doesn’t want the rice to leave, and they bond together into one perfectly nice brown color—crispy, beautiful love between the rice and the paella pan." When searching for socarrat, José instructs us to listen to the rice: "Once you start you have to listen to the rice... you have to listen to the ingredients because they have a story to tell you." The bubbling of the rice gets louder as the desired caramelized layer forms, telling you the rice is almost done and the shellfish should be added.

Once the rice was talking to me, I added a handful of clams and mussels to steam gently over the fire until they opened, and then spread the cooked shrimp and and squid over the pan, letting the steam heat them. The last few minutes let the last remnants of stock absorb into the rice, and the seafood was so gently and beautifully cooked, allowing the flavors of each type of shellfish to shine.

Much to my chagrin, but understanding, my dining guests felt that the traditional method of eating from the paella pan was uncouth in the time of coronavirus, so we spooned the rice onto plates with fresh lemon slices. Each piece of shellfish was so delicately cooked and truly expressive, and the very tender squid in particular was a hit, even with many Iowans who were squid virgins and skeptical. The rice was toothsome and delicious, with robust flavor from the salmorra, still bleeding with seafood stock essence. A noble attempt at my first paella!

Wine to cook by: There is no other wine for this meal––R. Lopez de Heredia Viña Tondonia Reserva Tempranillo, 2007. Heredia is the bomb-dot-com in Spanish wine; traditional to its core, exquisitely crafted, and incredibly reasonable in price. The reds are much easier to find than the whites, which are just insane, but also absolutely spectacular. Heredia's current release of their Tondonia tempranillo is the 2007 vintage due to their commitment to aging their wine in the bottle until they believe it is ready to be released and consumed. The result is a complex, cherry-driven Rioja with silky tannins and fabulous complexity. We polished off two bottles, acquired (surprisingly) at our local booze shop, while enjoying the paella and the ensuing conversation. This is the best wine in the world you can purchase for less than $50, I guarantee you.

What a fantastic evening. It is lovely to have family over when we can host outside, six feet apart, of course, with fabulous food and wine. So refreshing to have some much-needed social time! After a few days feeling absolutely depressed and dreadful, I had such a marvelous day, and even found myself dancing in the kitchen while listening to music and preparing the mise en place.

Hope everyone has a fab weekend! Keep and eye out for the Maestro's unassailable sangria recipe, which served as our pre- and post-dinner tipple this evening.

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