The one thing I immediately thought of buying when I found out my office was sending me to Madrid for a week was a good, old fashioned paellera – a shallow pan specifically made for paella. Although I live in London, in a gardenless flat, far from any wilderness or even open spaces where barbecues are allowed, my imagination still ran wild with thoughts of paella cooked over twilight open fires, with fresh seafood pulled directly from the ocean into my pan and saffron tendrils falling from the sky like a gentle snow. And, well … I bought the paella pan. I am now willing the rest of the vision to appear. Isn’t it just like purchasing a Ferrari at age 57? Don’t the hot chicks just appear? If you build it, they will come….?
There are extensive debates as to how to make a proper paella. What meat? What stock? Saffron or paprika? Add rice, then stock? Stock, then rice? What veggies? Oh lordy, it didn’t promise to be an easy undertaking. Then there was the matter of the paellera itself – did it need to be seasoned, like a wok? Could I use soap when it needed washing, or did it need to be treated like a delicate nonstick fryer – where no metal could ever touch its surface? My saffron-dusted dream was quickly turning into a bitter nightmare fraught with imitation food-colouring.
So anyways, I used my trusted friend the Internet to decide how exactly I should begin my paella journey. After extensive research, I can say the following factors are key in a successful paella:
1) Proper rice
2) A proper sofrito (a vegetable base made of slow-fried peppers, tomato, onion and salt, sauteed until all the liquid from the tomatoes has evaporated and the consistency is paste-like)
3) Proper (read: home-made) stock
The stock and rice are simple enough – paella rice is usually clearly marked on supermarket shelves, and it only takes a single roast chicken dinner and some veggie scraps to make a delicious stock. The question then lies in the sofrito, and how one combines the ingredients to make it magical. Below find my own order of execution – while highly controversial according to some paella instructions, it’s what I like!
For the sofrito:
1 white onion, diced
2 tomatoes, grated with skin discarded (the best way for getting tomatoes out of their skins, ever)
1 green pepper, diced
olive oil, salt
For the paella:
1 1/2 cups paella rice
1 litre homemade chicken stock
a pinch of saffron
1 1/2 tbsp olive oil
400 g chicken thighs, deboned and deskinned, chopped in medium pieces
200 g Spanish chorizo, chopped
1 tsp paprika
1 cup green beans, chopped
1 cup green peas
400g raw tiger shrimp
The key to personalising your paella is order of assembly, and order of ingredients added. Think of what you’re making a bit more like a pizza than a stir-fry, and you should develop a pretty product at the end. (By the way, if you don’t have a paellera, use a thick-bottomed, shallow fry pan.)
I begin with the meat (chicken, sausage). I brown it in a little olive oil, and set it aside, keeping the oil and meaty juices in the pan. I then move on to creating the sofrito – I slowly (and I mean slowly!) saute the onion, tomato and green pepper until it is a nice thick paste with no water left over. I add salt to taste. I might also add the paprika at this point. I then add a bit more olive oil (can’t be stingy with olive oil), return the rice and meat to the pan and fry them briefly. I make sure to give the rice a nice fry with the lovely veggie pasty olive oiliness of the pan, and distribute the meat and sofrito evenly throughout. As I allow this to fry, I should have my stock bubbling away on the stove – to this I will add the saffron. It gives the stock a rich amber colour that will diffuse into the rice. I return to my frying pan and shake it to settle the mixture evenly and flatly before adding the stock. A rough rule is to add just under double liquid to rice – ie: 2 cups of rice woud need just under a litre of stock, but depending on how high the heat is under your paella, it may dissolve before the rice is cooked, so top it up as necessary.
After adding the stock, your stirring time is over. You will stir no more. You are done. Lay the green beans and peas over the top of the mixture in a pretty fashion, and put your little prawns over the top, creating lovely pizza-like patterns. Now leave it alone. After about 20 mins, when the centre of the paella may be getting a little crispy, the outsides are cooked through and there is no extra liquid, cover the paella with tinfoil, turn off the heat and let it rest for 10 mins. The steam during this time should cook any prawns that are still a bit gray, or any veggies that are still a bit firm. Enjoy.