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It's All About the Rice!

Written by: Jonathan Harris

seafood paella in paella panWhat is 'real' paella? I think the soul of paella is about gathering with family and friends in your backyard or at a restaurant, sharing a meal served from a communal pan. The first paellas began as a simple farmer's dish cooked over an open fire. Rice was mixed with whatever was available - vegetables, wild game and even snails. Whatever the ingredients, paella has always been a shared meal, and the process of cooking it is always better when the tasks of preparing it are also shared.

Technically the word 'paella' refers to a pan - broad, shallow, typically steel, used to simmer rice and pasta dishes across southeastern Spain. The meal that we call paella is much more difficult to define.

What passes for paella in most of the world, and in much of Spain, will elicit howls of protest from aficionados in Valencia and beyond. This most famous of Spanish dishes has become the victim of its own popularity, with any combination of meat and saffron colored rice earning the name paella. In fact, most paella is made without real saffron, instead featuring colorante, an inexpensive yellow coloring powder made from turmeric.

Years ago I began a quest to learn how to make truly great paella. Early on I discovered that, even when I fail to cook the rice correctly, or overcook the seafood, I enjoy the adventure of the process, learning about each ingredient and experimenting with new methods make each paella an individual experience to be remembered and built upon.

One of my first lessons was that rice is the heart of any paella. And only one type of rice will produce a great paella, short-grained Spanish rice. Long-grained rice doesn't absorb the flavors of the broth and fluffy short-grained Asian rice ends up sticky. And Italian Arborio is too creamy. The ideal paella rice absorbs the flavor of the broth, yet remains separate and distinct from the grains around it. Bomba is a strain of rice that was saved from oblivion by chefs in Spain about 30 years ago. It is famous for its ability to absorb broth and flavors without breaking apart, and it is a forgiving secret weapon for the home paella chef. Other excellent types of rice for paella are those from Calasparra in Murcia, the bahia and senia rice of Valencia, and rice from the Delta de Ebro near Tarragona.
close up of paella with a lemon wedge
Another discovery was that not all saffron is created equal. Because this rare spice is so valuable, most saffron is not labeled correctly and is often not saffron at all. We were hoodwinked more than once when we started La Tienda, so we decided to go direct to the source in La Mancha. We now work with Maria Ángeles and Juan Antonio Serrano, a couple who produce saffron in the tiny town of Minaya. There they pick crocus flowers by hand, and pluck the pistils to be toasted on a silk screen. Our orders have helped reinvigorate the saffron industry in the town, with several neighbors joining them in planting crocus bulbs as they had for generations before thereby reviving a way of life that was nearly wiped out by fraud. The resulting saffron is remarkable - aromatic and floral with a beautiful coloring power.

Traveling across Spain, I learned that there are many great rice dishes, with many different names. Most are simply called arrozes, literally ‘rices.’ I enjoyed one of the most sublime examples in Alicante, called Arroz a Banda. My brother and I were visiting one of our olive suppliers and he invited us to a restaurant overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. The waiter presented a paella pan with a thin layer of richly colored rice. No vegetables or seafood were immediately apparent as he spooned the rice onto our plates, but the first bite revealed the magic of this dish. The secret to Arroz a Banda is that the rice contains the essence of dozens of ingredients, including shrimp, fish, calamari, saffron, garlic, peppers and more. What an explosion of flavor! Later the seafood is served apart, or a banda, so you can savor the complex, rich taste of the rice on its own.

This is when I realized that the paella I first learned about, what I like to call Paella Mixta or Paella Americana, is an entirely different dish than traditional rice and paellas. In Spain, paellas are usually focused on one or two main ingredients, and almost never mix seafood and meat. Chorizo is almost unheard of as an ingredient in paella. The focus is on the rice, flavored with a great broth - any seafood or meat is almost like a garnish for the beautifully cooked rice.

There is something wonderfully American about the paella we most often find in the US - exuberant piles of shrimp, peppers, chorizo, chicken, clams, mussels and artichokes all crowded into a pan that can barely contain the cornucopia! This kind of paella offers a riot of flavors, and everyone can find some part of it they like. Like many other great foods that originated elsewhere, we have adapted the paella and made it our own.
El Famos restaurant
That said my eyes were opened to the purity of flavor that is the essence of traditional Spanish paella. Finally, a few years ago, I had the opportunity to travel to the center of paella culture, Valencia. Paella originated in this region as an outdoor meal cooked over a wood fire, so I went with my family to one of the few restaurants that still cooks paella over orange wood, called Casa El Famos.

El Famos is a century old paella institution situated in a field at the edge of the city, surrounded by farmland. Here I was greeted by two brothers who personally prepare each paella in an open grilling area. In their small kitchen I saw a line of paella pans held up by a thin metal rack, with blazing sticks of orange wood underneath. Each pan was charred black and held ingredients in different states of preparation - from the fresh chicken searing on the left, to the furiously boiling broth in the pan to the right.

Throughout the process I chatted with the brothers, who work with their wives and children and nieces and nephews to carry on the tradition. Each brother was cooking two or three paellas at once, chopping chicken, adding wood to the fires, tossing seafood into pans and talking to me at the same time! I wish I could tell you that I learned the ancient secret of cooking the perfect paella, but in all of the action there was no one thing that stood out!
man cooking several paellas over open flames
The paella was phenomenal - rich and flavorful, with a crunchy crust at the bottom, called a socarrat. The seafood paella that my family ordered was decorated with cigalas, prawns and shrimp, but the star was definitely the rice.

Here in Virginia our family has a tradition of cooking paella, especially in the summer. My brother Tim and I like to have a paella cook-off, preparing two paellas side by side on the back deck. Then we serve the paellas to family and friends. We always have a great time, and each of the paellas is a new experience.

So, at long last, what have I learned about traditional Spanish paella? First, rice is the most important ingredient. Second, restraint is key - it is important to not overwhelm the rice with too many ingredients. Third, make a great broth with great spices, including real saffron. Fourth, your paella should be flat and fairly thin, and you should not stir it after you add the last of the ingredients. Fifth, let the paella sit for 10 minutes after you remove it from the flame. And finally, decent paella is easy to make, while great paella takes practice.

There are some questions that I still can't answer, at least not yet. Should the uncooked rice be fried in the olive oil before you add the broth, or should it be sprinkled into the boiling broth? Should paella start with sofrito, a sauce made from simmered tomatoes, onions and garlic? When is it acceptable to serve alioli with paella? Or lemons?

The most important lesson of all was the one I learned with the first paella I cooked in my backyard: there is no wrong way to cook paella. Paella is about cooking a great meal with friends and family. It is about experimenting with ingredients, and adding your favorite flavors to the ancient pan. Will I ever cook a paella good enough to impress a Valencian? I hope so. But even if I don't, I plan to have fun along the way!

This month's guest writer is Jonathan Harris. He is a co-owner and son of Don Harris.

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"Completely illuminating - after years of making paella, I now know I have made it incorrectly. Thank you, thank you, can't wait to eat at Restaurant El Famos. Ordering rice now!"
June 2013

"Hi Lalou, No paella is incorrect if you enjoyed it with family and friends! But it is fun to learn the traditional methods. After 20 years of cooking paella I am still discovering new things - best of luck this summer!"

"I love making paella, and in California can cook it on our wood-burning grill year round. One thing I discovered (from watching a Valencian TV cooking show) is instead of using chicken broth, which is what most paella recipes I've found use, you make the broth IN THE PAN when you are cooking over wood by simply adding hot water to the sauteed ingredients and letting it cook down some before adding the rice (and more water, if necessary). That way the rice is cooking in a broth made from the ingredients it'll be served with, rather than the broth bringing in some different flavor. (I add the rice at the end rather than sauteing it first, though this should also work for the other method.) "
June 2013

"Hi Allen, I like the idea of concentrating the flavor of the broth in the pan! I do find that making a great broth ahead of time can make a big difference. Cooking down chicken bones, shrimp shells or vegetables and garlic (depending on the paella) for a couple of hours ahead of time is my favorite method. Adding rice before or after the broth seems to be a personal preference, I don't think it makes a huge difference. Good luck with your paellas this summer!"

"I have noticed that the Spaniards often do not attribute Arabic word origins. In this case, paella is not a pan but rather baeeya - remains or leftovers."
June 2013

"Hi Laura, Very interesting! I have heard several theories on the origin of the word paella, this is an interesting one. Thanks!"

"Resonated. The article projects the experience and interest of the author. Agree that it is all about the rice, and that is the challenge...the basis of the attraction to keep trying...each try a success, an objective achieved...towards a goal that would disappoint if reached... Also I went to Valencia...would have liked to have known about Famos..."
June 2013

"Hi Nando, Thanks for your note. In this case, like most worthy pursuits, it is the journey that is the most important. And the willingness to learn more and try again after each attempt. Ending up with a tasty paella each time to share with your friends is not too bad either!"

"Jonathan, thank you for your excellent, well researched article about paella! Many thanks to the Harris family for sharing authentic information about the real Spanish people! Best wishes!"
June 2013

"Hi Gabriella, Thanks for the kind words. Spain is truly a passion for us and I am glad we can share what we have learned."

"Great story! I've had the pleasure of visiting Spain 3 times and yet not had the opportunity to visit the Mediterranean coast or the south. Next trip it is on the agenda. And now, in great part to your tale, I so very much look forward to the experience of paella as it was meant to be. Being Latina I understand the value, the importance of a well made rice dish. Now armed with your information I am ready to tackle my 1st authentic paella. Thank you for the time, the care, the attention, to what you do here.

Un fuerte abrazo y besos,

June 2013

"Azalea, You are far too kind! I am glad you are inspired to try your first paella, it is a joy to share with your family and friends, and easier than you may think."

"Hi La Tienda, Thanks for a great web site, I have been an avid follower for quite a few years. I agree completely that the heart of the paella is the rice and stock that it is flavored with. We cook paella regularly at home and also when we go camping in the outback. The stock is made up of herbs, peelings, all the bits and pieces that have been cut off in the preparation of the paella ingredients, fish carcass, prawn shells, calamari bits etc. if it's a seafood paella and meaty odds and ends if it;s a meat based paella (we do not mix the two generally, unless that's all we've got.) Here in Australia we have many good hard woods that make good charcoal and end up with a very tasty crust at the bottom of the pan. I give the rice a cook in the hot oil first that has been used to cook the onion, garlic, ginger etc. before adding the stock as I think that it stays separated and is less gluggy at the end when it is cooked?? Maybe that's my imagination but but it seems to work out just right and I've never had a complaint from friends or family and they often ask when is the next one!! Keep up the good work. PS It's a bit far for me to get any goods from you but I have a great little Spanish grocer here in Melbourne.

Peter "
June 2013

"Hi Peter, Your note makes me hungry - and ready to go and cook another paella! It sounds like you enjoy this great dish as much as I do. It is nice to know that we are helping spread the word about Spanish food all the way to Australia!"

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¡El secreto está en el arroz!

seafood paella in paella pan¿Qué es una paella auténtica? A mi me parece que el alma de la paella es quedar con la familia y los amigos en el jardín o en un restaurante y compartir una comida que sale de una sartén común. Las primeras paellas no eran otra cosa que una sencilla comida de agricultores sobre un fuego al aire libre. Se mezclaba el arroz con lo que hubiera disponible en aquel momento: verduras, carne de caza e incluso caracoles. Sean cuales fueran sus ingredientes, la paella siempre ha sido un plato compartido y su proceso de elaboración siempre es mejor cuando el conjunto de tareas necesarias para su preparación también se comparte.

Técnicamente la palabra “paella” hace referencia a una sartén ancha, poco profunda y normalmente de acero que se usa en el sudeste de España para hacer el arroz y la pasta a fuego lento. El plato que llamamos paella es mucho más complicado de definir.

A lo que llaman paella en la mayoría del mundo, y en muchas partes de España, suscitaría gritos de protesta entre los aficionados de Valencia y de otras partes. Este plato, el más famoso de España, ha sido victima de su propia popularidad y ahora, a cualquier combinación de carne y arroz amarillo con azafrán se le llama paella. De hecho, la mayoría de esa llamada paella se hace sin azafrán, y en lugar de éste se utiliza un colorante en polvo barato hecho a base de cúrcuma.

Hace años empecé mi propia cruzada con el objetivo de aprender a hacer una auténtica paella. Pronto descubrí, que aunque no logre cocer el arroz correctamente o pase demasiado el marisco, disfruto con lo que de aventura tiene su proceso de elaboración.

Aprender algo sobre cada ingrediente y experimentar con nuevos métodos, hace que cada paella sea una experiencia única que merece la pena ser recordada y repetida.

Una de mis primeras lecciones fue que el arroz es el corazón de la paella. Y únicamente hay un tipo de arroz capaz de garantizar una gran paella: el arroz de grano corto español. Los arroces de gran largo no absorben los sabores del caldo, así el esponjoso arroz de grano corto asiático se queda muy apelmazado. El arroz Arborio italiano es demasiado cremoso. El arroz ideal para la paella es el que absorbe el sabor del caldo sin apelmazarse, un arroz en el que uno puede distinguir cada grano una vez listo. El arroz Bomba es una forma de arroz que los chefs españoles rescataron del olvido hace unos 30 años. Es famoso por su capacidad de absorción y por su resistencia al abrirse durante la cocción y es una socorrida arma secreta para el que haga una paella en casa. Otros arroces que son excelentes para la paella son el de Calasparra en Murcia, el arroz bahía y el arroz sénia, ambos de Valencia y el arroz del delta del Ebro, cerca de Tarragona.
close up of paella with a lemon wedge
Otro descubrimiento que hice fue que no todo lo que se conoce como azafrán lo es. Debido a que esta extraña especie es tan valiosa, la mayoría del azafrán no va etiquetado correctamente y muy a menudo no es ni siquiera azafrán. Como nos engañaron más de una vez cuando iniciamos nuestra andadura en La Tienda, decidimos ir directamente a su lugar de origen en la Mancha. Ahora trabajamos con María Ángeles y Juan Antonio Serrano, una pareja que se dedica a la producción del azafrán en la pequeña población de Minaya, donde a mano recogen y desbriznan las flores del azafrán para posteriormente tostar sus estigmas en cedazos de tela de seda. Nuestros pedidos han servido para volver a impulsar la industria del azafrán en la localidad. Varios vecinos se han unido a esta pareja en el cultivo de los bulbos, utilizando el mismo proceso que se venía realizando en generaciones anteriores y logrando así resucitar un modo de vida que casi había desaparecido debido al fraude. El producto que obtienen es extraordinario, un azafrán aromático en polvo sin igual.

Viajando a lo largo y ancho de España, aprendí que hay muchos grandes platos a base de arroz que tienen nombres diferentes. A muchos se les llama simplemente “arroces”. Uno de los más sublimes ejemplos de arroces del que pude disfrutar es el llamado “arroz a banda” de Alicante. Mi hermano y yo estábamos visitando a uno de nuestros proveedores de aceitunas cuando nos invitó a comer a un restaurante que daba al Mediterráneo. El camarero nos trajo una paella con una fina capa de un arroz muy viscoso. Según iba sirviéndonos no se veía ni verduras ni marisco pero el primer bocado reveló la magia del plato. El secreto del arroz a banda es que el arroz contiene la esencia de docenas de ingredientes, entre los que, junto a otros muchos, se encuentran: gambas, pescado, calamares, azafrán, cebolla, ajo y pimiento. ¡Qué explosión de sabor! A continuación el marisco se sirve aparte o “a banda” para que uno pueda saborear el complejo y potente sabor del arroz por sí solo.

Fue entonces cuando me di cuenta de que la primera paella de la que tuve conocimiento, lo que yo vengo a llamar “paella mixta” o “paella américa” es un plato totalmente diferente a los arroces tradicionales y a la paella. En España, las paellas se basan en uno o dos ingredientes principales y casi nunca mezclan la carne con el pescado. El chorizo es un ingrediente totalmente ajeno a la paella. EL centro de atención es el arroz, que obtiene su sabor de un gran caldo, cualquier carne o pescado es relegado al papel de guarnición de ese arroz cocinado a la perfección.
El Famos restaurant
Hay algo maravillosamente americano en las paellas que encontramos en los EEUU; exuberantes montones de gambas, pimientos, chorizo, pollo, vieiras, mejillones y alcachofas, todo junto en un recipiente que apenas es lo suficientemente grande para tanta abundancia. Esta clase de paella ofrece sabores encontrados y todo el mundo puede encontrar uno que sea de su agrado. Como muchas de las otras grandes comidas que nacieron en otro lugar, hemos adaptado la paella y la hemos hecha nuestra.

Teniendo encuentra lo arriba mencionado, mis ojos se abrieron a la pureza del sabor que es la esencia de la paella tradicional española. Finalmente, hace unos años, tuve la oportunidad de viajar el centro de la cultura de la paella, que no es otro lugar que Valencia. La paella se originó es esta región como una comida que se hacía al aire libre sobre un fuego de madera, así que fui con mi familia a uno de los pocos restaurantes que siguen elaborando sus paellas sobre madera de naranjo, se trata del restaurante Casa El Famos.

El Famos es una institución centenaria situada en plena huerta valencia, a la afueras de la ciudad. Allí me recibieron dos hermanos que personalmente preparan todas sus paellas a leña. En su cocina, pude ver una ristra de paelleras sobre finas estructuras metálicas que reposaban sobre la brasa de troncos de madera de naranjo. Cada paellera estaba carbonizada y contenía ingredientes en diferentes estados de preparación: desde pollo haciéndose a fuego lento a la izquierda, a un caldo hirviendo a fuego vivo a la derecha.
man cooking several paellas over open flames
A lo largo de todo el proceso, charlé con los hermanos, que trabajan junto a sus esposas, hijos y sobrinos para continuar con la tradición. Cada hermano estaba preparando dos o tres paellas a la vez: cortando el pollo, añadiendo leña al fuego, dando la vuelta al marisco que había en las paelleras y hablando conmigo al mismo tiempo. Me gustaría poder decirles que aprendí el antiguo secreto de cómo preparar una perfecta paella, pero durante todo ese ajetreo no hubo ni una sola cosa que se saliese de lo normal.

La paella estaba extraordinaria: sabrosa, densa, con una crujiente capa al fondo, llamada 'socarrat'. La paella de marisco que mi famila pidió, estaba decorada con cigalas y langostinos pero la estrella era ,sin lugar a dudas, el arroz.

Aquí en Virginia, nuestra familia tiene como costumbre hacer paella, especialmente en verano. A mi hermano Tim y a mi nos gusta competir preparando cada uno su paella uno al lado de otro en el jardín. Una vez terminadas, las servimos a familiares y amigos. Siempre nos lo pasamos bien y cada paella es una experiencia nueva.

Así que, resumiendo, ¿Qué he aprendido sobre la paella tradicional española? Primero, que el arroz es el ingrediente más importante. Segundo, que la clave está en la moderación: es importante no echarle demasiados ingredientes al arroz. Tercero, que hay que hacer un buen caldo con buenas especias, incluyendo azafrán auténtico. Cuarto, que la paellera debería ser plana y bastante baja y que no se deberían mover los ingredientes una vez incorporado el último de éstos. Quinto, que la paella tiene que reposar durante 10 minutos una vez que sale de las llamas. Finalmente, que una paella decente es fácil de hacer y que una paella extraordinaria necesita práctica.

Hay algunas preguntas a las que no puedo responder, al menos no por ahora. ¿El arroz, hay que freírlo en aceite de olive antes de echar el caldo, o hay que añadirlo al caldo hirviendo? ¿Toda paella tiene siempre que empezar con un sofrito (condimento que se añade a los guisos hecho con tomates, cebolla y ajo)? ¿Cuándo es adecuado servir alioli con la paella? ¿Y limón?

La lección más importante de todas fue la que aprendí cuando hice mi primera paella en el jardín de casa: no hay forma errónea de cocinar una paella. Una paella no es otra cosa que preparar una comida estupenda con familiares y amigos. Se trata de experimentar con los ingredientes y añadir los sabores favoritos de uno a la antigua sartén. ¿Alguna vez seré capaz de cocinar una paella lo suficientemente buena como para impresionar a un valenciano? Espero que sí. Pere incluso si no lo consigo, pienso pasármelo genial intentándolo.

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