(This article first appeared in the Los
Paella Where It Grows
Valencia is a sparkling city on the east Mediterranean coast of Spain. Just south of the city lies the Albufera, an inland lake separated from the sea by a spit of land. Here, in the marshy wetlands surrounding the lake, the Moors introduced the cultivation of rice more than a millennium ago. Here rice is grown today. This is the home of paella, Spain’s famous rice dish.
Valencia, Spain. Smack in the middle of shimmering rice paddies not far from the city of Valencia is Restaurant La Matandeta. Manuel Baixauli, 67, is the paella cook at La Matandeta. On a typical Sunday afternoon he may cook as many as 30 paellas--170 servings.
Manuel did not always cook paella for paying customers. He used to be a farmer. In fact, the restaurant is housed in what once was the cow barn. The rice fields start right at the edge of the restaurant’s terrace.
Manuel fanned a fire beneath a blackened grate. When it was blazing, he set a wide steel paella pan on the grate, added some olive oil and a sprinkling of salt. Then he put in pieces of duck, chicken and rabbit and let them brown very slowly.
“The secret to good paella is the sofrito,” said Manuel.
A sofrito is the mixture of ingredients which are “fried” slowly to develop flavor.
“Real slow,” said Manuel. “There’s no rush.” He added a little chopped garlic and grated tomato pulp and continued frying. Next were added wide flat green beans and big fat lima beans, called garrafón. Only when the meat was nicely browned and almost cooked did he add liquid--part water and part stock; a sprig of fresh rosemary; a dozen big snails, already cooked, and a golden mixture of real saffron and yellow coloring.
Manuel added some fast-burning twigs to the fire to stoke it very hot and bring the liquid to a boil. Then he poured the rice into the pan in the form of a cross. Once the ingredients were distributed evenly in the pan, the paella was never stirred again. It bubbled gently as Manuel let the fire die back.
Finally the paella was served, golden yellow and fragrant. We scooped up portions of tender rice with some of the socorrat, the crusty, toasted layer from the bottom of the pan. The rice was delicious, moist and redolent of the rich flavors of the meats, snails and saffron.
This is paella where it comes from, back to the roots, in the Albufera region of Valencia where rice is grown.
If you learned to love paella as made anywhere else in the world, you might be surprised to find that authentic Valencia paella contains no seafood. That’s right--no shrimp, no lobster, no mussels or clams. No squid. No sausage nor brazen strips of red pimiento.
Paella on its home ground has beans and snails, rabbit or chicken, possibly duck. The rice, of course, colored by saffron, is a sunny yellow color. But even within the confines of authenticity, there is room for variation.
“There’s no official recipe,” declared Santos Ruiz Alvarez, a young agricultural engineer who heads the regulating council for the Rice of Valencia denomination board--Denominación de Origen Arroz de Valencia. “Here they use green beans and lima beans, but 15 miles north, my mother puts fava beans and artichokes in her paella.”
What is essential to authentic paella is medium-short grain Valencia rice. This type of rice is not supposed to cook “every grain separate.” It is not “fluffy” rice. Its great virtue is as a “flavor conductor,” soaking up the savory juices with which it cooks--chicken and rabbit, the herbal essence of snails, fresh vegetables, the heady scent of saffron.
Santos drove me through country lanes in the Albufera wetlands where rice has been grown since the tenth century when the Moors--the Arabs who conquered much of Spain--introduced its cultivation. The Moors introduced the complex system of irrigation channels, dikes, sluice gates and water wheels which is still in use centuries later.
The Albufera region is one of Spain’s richest wildlife reserves. Santos had a field guide to water fowl in the car and we spotted several sorts of herons, wild ducks and other water birds.
Santos said that the people of the Albufera traditionally lived by hunting, fishing and rice growing. The original paella was a dish cooked by the rice reapers, who made their midday meal from what was at hand--rice, eels, wild duck, wild rabbit, snails, frogs’ legs--cooked over a wood fire in a shallow, flat-bottomed pan.
Where a family vegetable plot was at hand, beans, artichokes or other vegetables found their way into the rustic paella. Thus evolved the dish known round the world as paella.
Three varieties of rice are grown in Valencia--Bahia, Senia and Bomba. All three are medium-short grain and have the perla, a white “pearl” where the starch is concentrated.
Any of them can be used for paella, while the third variety, Bomba, a shorter grain, is especially appreciated for caldoso, or soupy, rice dishes because the grain’s starch doesn’t expand and get sticky if overcooked.
In Valencia, Santos said, paella is the protagonist for Sunday dinner, when the whole family gets together. It’s always served in the afternoon, never at night.
“On weekends in the country,” said Santos, “the men cook the paella. Even if they would never cook at home, outdoors they’re in charge.”
The festive get-together begins late-morning. While the kids romp, the adults play cards or catch up on a week’s gossip. About noon the guys start gathering wood for the fire. Prunings from orange and olive trees and grape vines are ideal.
Once the fire is blazing and the big paella pan leveled on a tripod, the cooking begins. First, the sofrito--slow browning of meat and vegetables. Then liquid is added with a sprig of fresh rosemary. How much liquid? Right up to the level of the rivets where the handles are attached. When the liquid comes to a boil, the rice is poured in. Everything bubbles on a brisk fire for a few minutes. Then as the flames subside, the rice finishes cooking gently. After a few minutes to “repose” and finish cooking, the paella is served. Everybody gathers round to eat the rice straight out of the pan.
What’s the secret for making great paella?
“Practice every Sunday,” said Santos.
Although authentic Valencia paella is the one with chicken, rabbit, snails and beans, other rice dishes are cooked in the paella pan. As one Valenciano put it, there is only one, true paella, but there are many paellas. A popular variation, which turns up in other regions of Spain, is made with chicken plus shellfish and is usually flamboyantly garnished with shrimp and strips of red pimiento. Another rice dish cooked in the paella pan is arroz abanda, rice with fish “on the side,” a fishermen’s dish typical of Alicante, south of Valencia. The rice cooks with a flavorful fish broth and is served plain, with boiled fish and garlic sauce as a separate dish.
The pan. Paella pans
of rolled steel, come in sizes from 10 inches up to three feet. The depth
varies from 1 1/2 to 2 inches. A 10-inch pan serves 2-3; a 12-inch pan is
about right to serve 4-5; a 16-inch pan serves 6-8.
The rice. Valencia paella is made with
medium-short grain Valencia rice. Otherwise, use any Spanish medium-short
grain rice, such as Calasparra.
The cooking liquid. Simple, country paellas are made with only water--and very tasty they are. A simple chicken broth or, for paella with shellfish, chicken broth boiled with shrimp shells and liquid from steaming open the mussels, enhances the finished flavor of the rice.
Color it yellow.
Paella is always a sunny, golden color. The coloring (and flavoring) agent
of choice is saffron, but this expensive spice can be extended with
powdered artificial coloring or yellow food coloring.
What meat, seafood?
Paella is a rice dish, so don’t overload it with meats or seafood. If
calculating 1/2 cup rice per person, allow 6-8 ounces per person of
combined chicken, meat and seafood.
The sofrito. The sofrito is the
mixture of sautéed ingredients--meat, peppers, beans, tomatoes. Olive oil
is the essential starting point of a good sofrito. Use a medium fire, so
the chicken browns very slowly. It should be nearly cooked by the time the
liquid and rice are added.
Timing. Allow 20-30 minutes for the sofrito. Then add the liquid and bring it to a full boil. Put in the rice. Cook it on a hot fire for the first five minutes, then reduce the heat to medium. The rice should cook in 20 minutes from the time it was put into the pan. It will be tender, but very slightly chewy. Let the paella rest 5-10 minutes, so that it finishes cooking from residual heat.
Paella, Valencia Style
1 cup fresh or frozen giant lima beans or dried
butter beans, soaked overnight
If using dried butter beans, soaked overnight, cook
them in boiling water for 5 minutes. Drain and refresh under cold water.
Set the beans aside.
Paella with Chicken and Shellfish
Discard the empty half-shells of the mussels. Strain
the liquid and reserve it.
Alternate method for a 16-inch paella pan, serving 6-8: Increase the quantity of rice to 3 cups; increase liquid to 6 1/2 cups. Preheat oven to 375º. Prepare the sofrito on top of the stove. Add the liquid to the paella pan and bring to a boil. Add the rice and bring again to a boil. Place the pan in the oven and cook 20 minutes.
Janet Mendel is an American journalist based in southern Spain. Her newest book about Spanish food, My Kitchen in Spain (HarperCollins 2002) has many more recipes for rice dishes.
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