Friday, July 27

Paella is the New Black

Paella is the New Black

The big culinary retailers seem to have a whole cabinet full of new pans and accouterments for paella, but all you really need is a wide, flat-bottomed saute pan (preferably with straight sides to maximize the cooking surface area) and good heat source, and some Bomba or Calasparra rice (paella rice). The super-thin metal pans you see on the shelves might be traditional in some way, who knows, but they're also perfect for burning your ingredients and inducing hot spots. I prefer seasoned cast iron or stainless. For the grill, cast iron is just plain thematic.

Part of paella's lore is that it was originally made by Spanish caballeros over an open fire using rabbit or whatever other wilderness creature was strolling nearby as the protein. Whether true or not, its easy to imagine how smoky flavors would compliment a dish rich with onion, peppers, and saffron. So a charcoal grill works great, and it gives you the unparalleled luxury of making something really impressive and delicious outside while friends gather around the beer cooler to relax under the setting sun.

Proteins Come First
Get any ingredients you want on top of your finished paella ready. You'll add them back in later. I usually opt for baby artichoke hearts, asparagus, and chicken thighs. But you can do anything really. There are a million flavor combinations, but if you do the rice well, they will be complementary rather than center stage. The flavors you develop in the pan with these first ingredients will linger and help to bring your dish together at the end. After your proteins are well browned in as much oil as they need, and your vegetables are almost cooked, take them off the heat and set them aside. If a lot of fat was rendered, you can pour off most of it, but keep the pan greased.

Get your Sofrito Ready
In part 1, I talked about getting your sofrito ready. Here's the master recipe for sofrito that's enough to serve about 4 or 5 people. You can add red and green peppers if you like, too, about half a cup of finely chopped of each:

2 medium tomatoes, grated and skins discarded
1 medium onion, peeled and grated
4 cloves of garlic, thinly sliced
1/4 olive oil

Start your grill or stove off slowly. Sofrito needs time to cook on a slowish fire, not a quick blast of high heat. On the grill, this means covering with enough air vented through to keep the embers burning (for charcoal). On the electric or gas range, you already know the drill.

Dress your pan with 2 or 3 tablespoons of olive oil and keep more on hand. The process of cooking out the moisture and creating a deeply caramelized sofrito usually takes about 45 minutes to an hour. So pace yourself, open a beer or pour a glass of wine, and realize that slow, steady heat is your friend.

As the sofrito loses moisture and cooks down, it will slowly turn reddish brown. Keep it going until it's very heavily caramelized, and salt along the way. You're looking for a dark, tomato-paste consistency that's pungent, sweet and savory. Remember that aside from some chicken stock and a few ingredients, you're really making the most important flavor base of the dish. So take it slow and don't give up on it until you think its concentrated enough. When you taste a tiny bit, the salt and oil should quickly permeate your palette and the aromatic garlic and and onion should have a potent, browned but not burned flavor. This requires lots of stirring and paying attention. If you're doing this on the grill, the grill-cover will be coming on and off, and you'll be stirring in between. On the stove top or gas, leave it uncovered. When you're convinced, and I mean really convinced, that the sofrito can't take one more moment on the heat, scrape it out and set it aside.

3 More Keys and You're Done
1st Key: While the pans still hot, toast your saffron by wrapping 5 or 6 threads in foil packet and throwing it into the pan for a few minutes. When it becomes aromatic, it's ready.

2nd Key: Get your stock hot. I usually use chicken stock, but you could use seafood or vegetable stock depending on your choice of proteins and vegetables. Just be sure it's good quality, or that you make it yourself. You'll need at least 3 cups (I usually heat up 3.5 cups in case I need more if the rice gets too dry). You can heat the stock on the grill while your sofrito rests, but I use a portable burner just to save time. After it's steaming and almost ready to boil, infuse it with the saffron you've toasted. You should get that satisfying orange color in seconds. Taste your stock and see where it's going. Remember that you've got a lot of salt in the sofrito already, so exercise caution.

3rd Key: Put your flat bottomed pan back on the grill (uncleaned!) and throw in about 1.5 cups of rice. Cook it in the rest of the olive oil until the grains are slightly translucent (just like when you're making risotto). When the rice has absorbed enough of the oil so you only see a pin head of white inside the grain, combine it with the sofrito and distribute it evenly throughout the pan.

Next arrange your proteins, vegetables, and a couple of fresh rosemary sprigs on top, and you're ready to begin the final cooking. From this point on, your spoon or spatula should not touch a single grain of rice (except to pick one up to test it for doneness, perhaps). Don't stir because this releases a lot of the starch from the rice and will result in a starchy, sticky mess. That's what your want for risotto to get that creamy texture, but not for paella.

Add the Stock
Add the hot stock to the pan gently over medium heat and let it go for 10-15 minutes untouched until most of the moisture is absorbed. Take the pan off the heat before it's completely dry, cover it, and let it rest for another 10 minutes. During this rest, the rice will finish cooking and absorb the rest of the stock. If you think the rice is too dry and too far from done, add a little water or stock and let it cook a little more before removing it from the heat to rest.

The Sought-After Crust
The Spanish love the toasty crust called the socarrat that forms on the bottom of the paella, but to get it, you have to put the 99% cooked rice back on the heat for a minute until you start to hear slight crackling sounds and smell the toasted rice. Don't let it go too long. Those crackling sounds let you know the rice on the very bottom of the pan is getting brown. After you think your socarrat has formed, take your finished paella straight to the table. Your friends will gasp.