Paella, The Heavenly Rice Dish of Spain
When trips to Spain are coming up, myMEGusta’s thoughts turn to paella.
Paella on the beach! Paella in the moonlight (the locals do dine late)!
Pronounced pah-eh-yah, not pah-LAY-lee-yah, this mélange of rice and meats and/or seafood and/or vegetables transcends the idea of chicken and rice. It’s usually made with special paella rice, akin to the Arborio rice used in risotto. It is always cooked uncovered, and the quality of the ingredients (e.g. really good stock, the proper rice, fresh seafoods and such) and the sequence in which they are added make a huge difference. The “socarrat,” crisped rice at the edges and on the bottom of the pan, is an important part of the delicacy, and servers make sure everyone gets some.
Like the great pasta dishes of Italy, paellas reflect local ingredients.
The best known type, from Valencia, is traditionally made with chicken and snails, although you won’t find the latter is most modern renditions outside of the city. Paella originated here, a major rice growing area, and was named for the unusual pan in which it is cooked, the “paellera.”
The owner of Etapes, a favorite Barcelona restaurant (http://www.etapes.cat/en/) , warns customers that theirs is the “local” paella, Costa Brava style, not the Valencian. I was delighted with this shellfish rendition – hefty shrimps, razor and cherrystone clams and mussels – from the seaside region northwest of Barcelona.
Then there is black paella, made with squid ink and shellfish. It sounds odd, looks odder, and is an exquisite creation that sings of the sea. Lovers of risotto nero, an Italian relation, will also adore this dish.
Paella, made correctly, is such a production that most of what is consumed in Spain is purchased ready-made at the market, like in this photo from Madrid’s Mercado de San Miguel (two versions!) or from paella specialist caterers. Outside of Spain, you’ll find superb examples at places like Borough Market in London.
One restaurant in Barcelona’s Las Ramblas market specializes in paella, which you watch cooking through a window, and it is on this year’s must-try list.
Ambitious home cooks do make it, and my MEGusta has enjoyed a superb example, which took hours to create, in the home of Minnesotan friends.
And, there are festivals, large groups of people gathering late into the night to indulge in paella made in super giant paella pans on wheels. (You cannot make this up: The pan’s diameter was as wide as the man was tall.) The fixin’s for this “fideua,” a pasta based variation on paella, were in view from the sidewalk, mountains of dried egg noodles and other ingredients that were just being organized for a VERY late night feast. Maybe this is where the idea for Rice-A-Roni came from?