Tuesday, June 12

Paella Is Rice, Not the Stuff on Top

Some make dishes over and over because they savor the memories over every forkful. Others because they're curious about a new style or technique, or they're just trying to get a wow at the table. The most soul satisfying dishes for me, however, come when I get a craving for something that builds into an inspiration to cook. Rice is a definite craver, and paella is a sure-fire satisfier. But it's not the stuff on top I want. Those prawns with the crazy long eyeballs, tons of clams, and copious chorizo chunks are great, but they don't hold a candle to a perfectly seasoned, irresistibly textured, gorgeously saffron-tinted bed of the paella.

Firm Pillow, Sticky Blanket, Saucy Slurry

Fortunately for me, rice has many roles to play in innumerable dishes: firm pillow for chops, sticky blanket for raw fish, and saucey centerpiece in risotto. It showcases flavors well and compliments them with its background earthy, nutty aroma and firm bite. Paella rules because it draws from most of these many possibilities.

In addition to providing it's own earthiness, rice carries the flavors of the paella's concentrated flavor-base, the sofrito, perfectly. It also binds together just enough in the pan to resist your fork just enough to keep things interesting. And the socarrat, a lightly toasted layer that forms on the bottom of the paella pan at the end of the cooking time, is a prize worth pursuing regardless of the fracas of flavor taking place above it.

Why is Paella so Good?
It's the rice! paella is best made with starchy, medium to short grained varieties. The most typical and famous Spanish rice for paella is called Bomba. Its grains are squat and round, and come swathed in plenty of starch to create body and bind the dish while its kernel is sturdy enough to deliver bite at the end of cooking. If you don't have any Bomba lying around, you can substitute. According to Jessica Lasky, one of the esteemed chefs I've had the pleasure to learn from at the Tante Marie school in San Francisco, Carnaroli (a variety mostly associated with risotto) can be used as an alternative. In a pinch, any short or medium rice could be pressed into service.

If rice is the Heart, Sofrito is the Soul of the Paella
sofrito is nothing more than a few vegetables cooked down and caramelized into a super concentrated paste. An ideal sofrito has enough body to actually cling to your spoon like tomato paste. To get this consistency, you need steady heat, a steady stirring hand, and a dedicated heart because it does take a bit of tending to get there. There are as many variations on sofrito as there are towns in Spain, but the main ingredients are onions and tomatoes. Some have garlic, some smoked peppers, and others sweet peppers. The traditional Valenciano sofrito (the root of all sofritos) is made from an onion, a tomato, and 4 cloves of garlic sliced thinly. One great method to get the sofrito going is to grate these ingredients into a mush, releasing all of their moisture as well as flavor so they're ready to be cooked down until almost, but not quite, charred. You want deep caramelized flavors and color, but not charcoal. Sometimes its a fine line.

Next Time
Why you should make paella on your grill and not on the stove, what sort of pan to choose, and the actual method for putting the final dish together.