With the arrival of spring, my thoughts turn once again to outdoor cooking and eating. Like the Hungarian Goulash, Spanish paella is a dish that traditionally was cooked over an open fire and eaten outdoors.
Here we have a dish that, while considered Spanish, is based upon 2 ingredients that come from elsewhere. One of these, saffron, comes from Persia, making this recipe ideal for the two current events – National Paella Day and, with its use of saffron, Nowruz, the first day of a new year for 300 million people and the first day of spring for the northern half of the world.
For Spaniards, paella is not Spanish but Valenciana i.e. it originated in the region of Valencia. It was here that the Moors brought and planted the bomba and Calasparra varieties of rice and introduced saffron from Persia (now Iran.) The key characteristic of these two types of rice is their ability to absorb a large amount without losing their shape, leading to the cooking method of paella, combining rice, sofrito and stock in a pan over the open fire.
The traditional paella would be cooked in a paella, the name of the large and flat pan that encourages the evaporation of the stock, and the formation of the soccarat, the crispy bottom layer that forms as a crust.
It is credited to farmworkers who put together the ingredients into the paella (pan) in the morning over an open fire and then returned to a finished dish at lunch, the original ingredients were what they could get their hands on – vegetables, chicken, rabbit and snails.
But when did they start this? Since one of the ingredients of the soffrito now is tomato, it could have been as early as the mid-16th century as that is when tomatoes are first mentioned being eaten in Spain – against the advice of the doctors, I must add. They considered them of no nutritional value!
And the garlic and onion would have already been used, especially by the farmworkers since they were considered to be food for the lower class.
What I have not been able to find is information about when saffron made it into the dish. Was it less expensive then than it is now? Because now, saffron is the most expensive spice and easily the most expensive part of the dish. Having said that, for me, paella is not paella unless it has saffron! And I don’t use it sparingly either.
So we have the farmworkers out in the countryside, with the paella that they carry with them, along with garlic, onions, olive oil and saffron that must not have been pricey then. They build a fire, quickly make a sofrito from the garlic, onions, and saffron and tomatoes, add the rice and then the stock. They stir it once to mix everything and then literally leave it until it is cooked, with that crusty soccarat on the bottom, and the flames having delivered a slightly smoky flavour. They remove it from the heat at lunchtime, gather around and eat it from the communal pan.
Eventually, this dish made it to restaurants and the smokey Spanish pimento is added. Different toppings than the chicken, snails and rabbit are added, depending on the location and easy availability of ingredients. On the coast, it may be seafood, a version that many people associate with paella.
While people may argue over what is traditional, it is essentially a rice dish. To add different ingredients to localize it or even to modernize it may seem sacrilege, but as long as its essence of being a rice dish is maintained, it can still be considered authentic.
As with all recipes, the quality of the ingredients is most important. Use the correct rice to get the correct consistency, with the rice remaining separate – not creamy like risotto or arroz made in a pot, not a pan.
And the stock is very important. When I am in Madrid, I eat paella at La Barraca, a restaurant with Valenciana roots, when the family brough their paella to Madrid, opening their restaurant in 1935. One thing that adds to the quality of the paella there is that all stock is made from scratch and simmered for 24 hours. And of course, they use DOG Bomba from Valencia. As they say, La Barraca “never lost the values and culinary legacy of the old recipes.”
If you search paella, you will find very many recipes, some more traditional than others. But then again, even in Spain, the recipe will be slightly different in different places. Or as someone once said, there are as many recipes as there are villages!
As I said above but is worth repeating: it is about the rice. Everything added is to serve the rice. Make the basic and then add ingredients as you wish.
Below is the basic recipe, with chicken and rabbit. Change the meat and/or add it according to your tastes and availability of fresh ingredients. This is a stovetop method, but you can easily transfer this to your barbecue, open fire, or if you prefer, the oven.
Note that the result should not be creamy or mushy, so don’t stir it while it’s cooking and don’t cover it! And it is supposed to have that crispy, crunchy, possibly blacked bottom, which should be eaten!
Recipe for Spanish Paella
¼ cup olive oil
1-2 minced garlic cloves
1 medium-sized onion, minced
1-2 tomato quartered or diced
Large pinch of saffron threads
2 tsp. Spanish pimentón or sweet paprika
3 ½ cups stock (vegetable or chicken)
2 cups Spanish rice (or other short-grain if Bomba is not available)
Other ingredients by choice: chicken, rabbit, seafood such as mussels, clams, prawns, lobster or fish.
- Heat a paella pan over medium-high heat and add the olive oil. Swirl to coat the entire base of the pan.
- Add the onion and garlic and cook on medium heat for 2-3 minutes until softened
- Stir in the pimentón and saffron and cook for one minute. Add the tomatoes, stir and simmer for 10 minutes.
- Add rice and cook for one minute, stirring occasionally.
- Add the stock and stir until just combined.
- Using the stock and bring to a boil and then reduce to a simmer.
- If you are adding chicken, rabbit or seafood, add it now by placing it on top of the mixture.
Remember: No stirring from now on. That crust at the bottom is supposed to form!
- Reduce heat to a low simmer and cook until all the liquid has been absorbed by the rice. You’ll know when the rice is ready and the broth is gone, as you will hear a faint ticking/cracking coming from the bottom layer of rice. (If the liquid evaporates too quickly, add a bit more stock.)
- Serve immediately, straight from the pan. If it is done well, the paella should have a healthy socarrat, the crispy, blackened layer of rice at the bottom, which is the tastiest part of the whole dish!