Today, we are headed to Spain for one of the most emblematic recipes of the country: paella!
Every country in the world has one variation or the other of rice dishes that is unique to them. Rice is the seed of the monocot plants, Oryza sativa (Asian rice) or Oryza glaberrima (African rice). As a cereal grain, it is the most widely consumed staple food for a large part of the world’s human population, especially in Asia and the West Indies. It is the grain with the second-highest worldwide production, after maize (corn), according to data for 2010.
In Puerto Rico, arroz con gandules is said to be part of the Puerto Rican gastronomy consisting of a combination of rice, pigeon peas, olives, capers, and pork, cooked in the same pot with Puerto Rican-style sofrito, spices and annatto oil. Spain has arroz con pollo, rice with chicken, which originated as a form of pilaf and is a staple throughout Latin America.
Speaking of Spain, paella is a Spanish rice dish that includes different combinations of vegetables and meats, characteristically seasoned with saffron, but also has other spices depending on the recipe and area in Spain it comes from.
There is an old story of how the Moorish kings’ servants created rice dishes by mixing the leftovers from royal banquets in large pots to take home. It is said by some that that the word paella originates from the Arab word baqiyah meaning leftovers. However, linguists believe that it comes from the name of the pan it is made in – the Latin term patella, a flat plate on which offerings were made to the Gods.
The dish paella is said to be a perfect union between 2 cultures from Spain: the Romans, for the pan and the Arab that brought rice. The first documented recipe of paella valenciana, formerly known as arroz a la valenciana, appears in an 18th century manuscript by Josep Orri, which already highlighted some techniques related to its preparation. At the end of the same century, it was already a dish known throughout the Spanish territory.
The original paella valenciana probably dates to the early 1800s and consists of saffron-scented rice cooked with rabbit, chicken, local snails called vaquetes, and three types of beans: a broad string bean called ferraura, a lima-like dried bean called garrofo, and a white bean called tavella (which is hard to find outside of Spain). And, not surprisingly, you can find versions of the original paella valenciana all over town. But to travel to Valencia solely for that dish would be a mistake. Many restaurants serve a long list of paellas, including ones stocked with seafood and others made with seasonal vegetables and meats. Most of them are delicious; a few are sublime. Tinkering, it seems, is inherent to the culture of paella.
The earliest kinds of paella were products of purely local ingredients and eating habits. The dish exists because of rice, and rice has existed in Valencia and its environs ever since the Moors planted it there more than 1,300 years ago, in a lagoon called the Albufera, where the grain is still grown today.
Saffron, that precious and earthy spice, brought to Spain by Arab traders in the tenth century was the Moors’ preferred seasoning for rice, and it remains a traditional paella ingredient.
Local game like rabbit, and foraged foods like snails, as well as various legumes and vegetables, found their way into rice dishes during the Moorish occupation of Spain, but pork (which was prohibited under Muslim dietary laws) and shellfish did not.
After the Moors left Spain in 1492, the Valencians’ love for rice dishes lived on. As for that original recipe, one of the first printed versions of it appeared in 1840, but evidence suggests that the cooking of a rabbit-snail-bean-saffron “paella” (named after the wide, shallow steel pan in which such dishes were cooked) was by then a Valencian ritual; the dish was prepared in the countryside over an open fire of dried vines and orange-tree branches, usually on Sundays, usually by the men of the family while the women were at church.
As I have mentioned before, many cultures have rice dishes that have become famous on the world culinary stage: biryani is a mixed rice dish with its origins among the Muslims of the Indian subcontinent, jollof rice is one of the most popular dishes in Ghana and all across Africa. And let us not forget risotto, that mysterious dish that you always see under the “pasta” category in Italian restaurants that is so clearly not a pasta! Rice originated in Asia and, along with pasta, was brought to the Mediterranean by the Moors. When the Moors invaded Spain, they brought both products with them.
It is also noted that this Dominican dish locrio is an adaption of a paella and similar to a pilaf. It consists of seasoned rice with some kind of meat, such as chicken, Dominican salami or pork.
Paella would seem a natural dish, since rice is grown in Spain, and all meats, and seafood in some regions are plentiful. Since there are many workers in the fields, cooking it over an open fire also would be the most practical. Spain is not known for forests and lots of timber, so the small available twigs and branches from pruning that are green gave a quick hot fire instead of a slow burning one from logs. The size of the pan grew instead of the depth, so you could get a hot fire at maximum evaporation.
The special paella pan
The pan used to make paella valenciana is characterized by being round with a flat bottom. The pan can be anywhere from 12 inches in diameter to several feet. The one thing that doesn’t change is the height. It is about the first joint in the thumb, deep as the Spanish would say, so that the rice has maximum contact with the bottom of the pan.
It evolved this way, starting with a rounded bottom, designed to hang over a fire. My guess is that as soon as some sort of grill or flat top burner was invented that the pans started to become more flat bottomed. I use to think when looking at paella that it was just the Spanish version of jambalaya. While there are similarities, they really are quite different. Traditionally, jambalaya is cooked in a round pot over a fire, and paella is cooked in a flat pan over high heat.
Why the dimples in the paella pan?
The dimples serve several functions. They trap small amounts of liquid and thus promote even cooking, they make the pan rigid, and they prevent warping. They’re also a nostalgic reminder of the days when paella pans were hand hammered. Some people claim that the dimples keep the rice from sticking to the pan but I am not convinced. For one thing, rice sticking to the bottom of the pan is not something you want to avoid, since it helps foster one of the most succulent and seductive aspects of paella valenciana, something called socarrat (the crusty bottom layer of rice).
What rice is used in paella?
The two types of rice of Spain are small, rounded, medium size grains that absorb the flavors and stock well, but keep their shape. This is different than the rice used for risotto that breaks up a bit and develops a creamy texture. The most popular rice is Bomba rice.
What meats and vegetables are used in paella?
Depending on the region in Spain, the meats and vegetables added to the paella vary. Paella can have several or no meats in it, here are a few of the traditional ones. Rabbit, chicken, snails, Spanish smoked sausage like Chorizo. Seafood can be shrimp, mussels, clams, lobster and crab. Vegetables like onions and garlic are a must, and very often you will see fresh peas or beans as a garnish. Artichoke quarters and red bell peppers are often used when in season.
What seasonings are used in paella?
Saffron is seen on every paella recipe. It gives not only a nice background flavor that is earthy, but a nice color. Often you see Spanish paprika, many chefs recommend pimentòn (sweet paprika).
How is paella eaten?
Paella is served family style traditionally in Spain on a round table with the pan in the center. Usually eaten right out of the pan and not on plates. This way you don’t over mix the congealed structure of the rice too much by agitation. Each guest starts at the perimeter of the paella and works toward the center with lemon wedges to accent the flavor.
If you look closely enough, you will find the entire history of Spain within the perimeter of a paella pan. Olive oil, the golden film that forms the base of every paella, adding depth and a gentle sheen to the bed of grains, is the story of a hungry ancient Rome expanding its empire across Iberia, one olive tree at a time. Tomato, the heart of the sofrito that lends color and a savory-sweet baseline to a proper paella, is the story of Spain’s own vision of empire and conquest, and the unexpected treasures it pillaged from the New World. And the heart of paella – the rice, saffron and vegetables that fill out the pan – speaks of 700 years of Moorish rule leaving a footprint on the Iberian Peninsula; one that informs how Spain eats, drinks and lives to this day.
When the Berbers of North Africa made their way up through Andalucía and into the Valencia area during the eighth century, they found a flat coastal land rich with fresh water from the rivers and lagoons that cut through the plains like veins and arteries. They called the area the Albufera, little sea – green and wet and spotted white with ocean birds, a breeding ground for a new culture in Spain and the rest of Europe.
Within years of the Moors’ arrival, the wetlands were converted into rice paddies used to feed the growing Iberian extension of the Moorish empire. Thirteen hundred years later, massive grain silos stand tall like watchtowers over the Valencia flats, fueling one of the world’s most enduring and extraordinary rice cultures.
Paella wasn’t the result of a singular creation from an inspired cook, but a slow evolution of necessity and adaptation, a convergence of land and history and circumstance. References to rice a la valenciana can be found as early as the 17th century, but the paella itself, the wide, shallow pan fundamental to the dish’s creation, doesn’t surface until the end of the 19th century. With it came what we now recognize as the world’s most famous rice dish.
Paella remained a regional food for a good long while. Back when that original paella recipe was first published, Spain wasn’t a popular destination on the tourist track, and its cuisine was little known beyond its borders. But the 20th century — the century of Picasso, Dali, Buñuel — saw a burgeoning interest around the world in all things español.
Epicures were eager to discover the country’s rich, rustic flavors; in 1950, Elizabeth David, the cookbook writer who delivered England from its wartime gastro-dreariness, published A Book of Mediterranean Food (John Lehmann), which included a recipe for paella containing the hitherto untraditional combination of chicken and shrimp. By this time, coastal cooks in Valencia were probably making seafood-stocked paella a la marinera, but that recipe never includes meat. Before long, gourmands in England, America, and beyond were serving all kinds of variants of the dish out of brightly colored Dansk paella pans along with goblets of sangria.
Today, you can find the odd wood-fire holdout at rural Spanish restaurants, at family gatherings, and at local festivals, but the heyday of the traditional vine-wood-fired paella is past.
Enjoy this deliciously colorful paella valenciana!
- 2 lb chicken (thighs, and wings)
- 2 lb rabbit
- 20 escargots , ideally vaquetes de Valencia, well cleaned (optional)
- 1 lb ferradura (flat green beans), cut into small pieces
- 1 lb garrofó (large white beans)
- 3 tomatoes , peeled, seeded and grated
- 2 teaspoons pimenton (smoked paprika)
- 1 small branch rosemary , cut in 2
- 35 pistils saffron (about)
- 5 cups paella rice (round and short-grain rice)
- 1½ cup extra virgin olive oil
The day before, bring a small amount of spring water (3 tablespoons) to a boil and pour this water into a small jar with the saffron pistils.
Close the jar tightly and let it steep at room temperature for 24 hours before use.
The day before, soak the white beans for 12 hours in 4 times their volume in water.
Rinse them, cover them with 5 times their volume of water and boil them in a pressure cooker for 20 minutes from the moment it is under pressure.
Cut the chicken and rabbit into pieces and season with salt.
In a paella pan, heat the olive oil over high heat.
Brown the meat over low heat. You must brown it without cooking it too much.
Arrange the meat in a circle on the edges of the pan. The heat being in the middle of of the large paella pan, the meat does not cook anymore.
Add the ferraduras in the center. Fry lightly in the juices and fat of the meats. Season with salt.
Place the ferradura on the edges of the pan with the meats.
Add the tomato to the center. Sauté until their water evaporates completely.
Add the paprika and mix well.
Bring everything back to the center of the pan and mix gently over low heat for a few minutes before proceeding to the next step.
Pour the boiling water (about 6 quarts). Cook everything in the water for 5 minutes over high heat, stirring gently.
Introduce the dried beans soaked from the day before. Add the infused saffron and the pistils. Add the rosemary.
When a quarter of the water has evaporated, pour the rice into the pan when the water is boiling.
Arrange all the ingredients at the beginning of the cooking of the rice, as nothing can be stirred or moved afterwards.
Spread the snails evenly at the beginning of cooking the rice.
To cook the rice
- High heat for 8 minutes.
- Low-medium heat for 10 minutes.
- Very high heat for 1 to 2 minutes at the end to obtain the socarrat (crispy crust that forms at the bottom of the paella pan).
Let the paella sit covered for 10 minutes before serving. If you think the rice is not cooked enough, cover for 10 to 15 minutes with aluminum foil by folding it well on the edges and add a heavy cloth on top.
Serve the paella while it is still steaming.