Mastering the Art of Paella

My friend Anu made this amazing Paella that my boyfriend still talks about to this day. Not only is he a wonderful cook but a humorous writer and a talented photographer, so I asked him to write about his experience with Paella….

“Even before Arati (that’s his lovely wife) and I went to Spain in April 2010, I had been a serious fan of Spanish food, wine, and lifestyle (call me a Spanophile). Last year I learned that every November since 2003 the Paella Lovers United (PLU) group in Austin had been holding a paella cookoff and competition. So going to Spain, one of my goals was to taste the real deal, deconstruct it and bring back some of the authentic ingredients.

From what I’ve read online and learnt in Spain, the very original paella was actually a land (turf) meat dish with rabbit and snails – basically stuff farmers could find easily in the countryside. Then other meats like chicken and duck were introduced. Later on seafood started being substituted by the Valencians and today most people think of paella as a seafood dish.

After coming back with somewhat smuggled paprika and saffron from Barcelona, I put together a team of cooking fans from my work to compete in the PLU competition. Our name? La Bomba –  a combination of the name for the Spanish rice used for paella (Bomba) and one of the  finest LDP movies ever (La Bamba). Our friend who is a brilliant designer and a screen printing enthusiast, Mari, came up with a t-shirt logo that would sum up our recipe strategy – we are going old school, baby!

La Bomba team logo designed by Mari DiGiovanni.

Our recipe strategy is to go traditional style with land meats – specifically, rabbit, duck, Spanish chorizo and pork (pork belly). Since I’ve been back from Spain, we have practiced numerous times. The first time we cooked it, we went seafood style on a small 14” pan and using risotto rice (almost blasphemous, but we were desperate) – it turned out very delicious.

First attempt: seafood paella on a gas grill – delicious! (Photo: Anu Saha)

The times after that, it has been on a giant 22” pan on an open wood fire with meats instead of seafood.

The main things you have to focus on are the following:

-  Rice:  Gotta use bomba rice – no substitutions.  The ratio is always 3 cups stock to 1 cup rice.

-  Meats:  I pick up what I can at the farmer’s market (Kocurek Family has awesome pork belly).  Rest I get at Central Market.  I never said this was going to be cheap.

-  Sofrito:  It’s a mixture of grated tomatoes, grated onions, garlic and olive oil cooked down to almost a paste and is the main flavor base for your paella.

-  Soccorat:  The hardest thing to perfect.  This is the slightly burnt but deliciously crispy layer that forms at the bottom of the pan – highly prized bites.

-  Paprika:  Use only nice smoked Spanish paprika.  It will cost you a pretty penny, but totally worth it.  I got mine from the Central Market bulk foods division.

-  Pan:  It’s not too expensive to get a 22” (~$55) or 13” pan (~$19) from Sur La Table or latienda.com.

-  Heat:  Outdoor grill/firepit with wood or wood charcoal.  I use a mix.  While a gas grill or charcoal brickets may seem like a convenient shortcut, avoid the temptation.

Speaking of ‘convenient shortcuts’, there are enough Rachel Rays and Sandra Lees on TV to show you how to trivialize, butcher and drive into extinction hundreds of years of culture and tradition by taking yumm-o shortcuts – I ain’t doing it. My mama cooks the real deal, and I will do all I can to keep those amazing recipes alive. I can understand using canned stock instead of making your own – but there’s a line. [Stepping off my soapbox now].

Now for more of the actual cooking. This recipe is for a 22-inch pan. I’ve learned to cook like my mom, so pardon the lack of precise (or any) measurements.

-  4 lb tomatoes, grated – keep all the juices

-  2 medium white onions, grated – keep all the juices

-  8 cloves of garlic, minced

-  1 (2- to 2 1/2-lb) rabbit, cut into bite-size pieces

-  1 good sized duck leg cut into bite-size pieces and skin scored

-  ½ lb of pork belly, cut into bite-size portions

-  2 links of Spanish chorizo (no preservative ingredients), sliced into disks

-  1/4 teaspoon crumbled saffron threads

-  Spanish extra virgin olive oil, enough to cook with

-  Spanish smoked paprika

-  Salt

-  Black pepper

-  1 red bell pepper, cut into 1-inch strips

-  1 lb long beans

-  1 jar/can of Spanish red peppers

-  5 cups of bomba rice

-  15 cups of low sodium chicken  broth

-  Lemons, for garnish and topping

Cover all the meats with some paprika, salt, pepper and olive oil and let sit in the fridge for at least 20 minutes. Get the fire going and start heating the pan on the grill. Start browning the duck with the skin side down and then turn them over. You are just looking for a good crisp skin and not trying to cook all the way. Barely crisp the pork belly because it’s most likely already a cooked or smoked meat. Similarly brown the rabbit pieces and chorizo. At this point, you should see a lot of rendered pork and duck fat. If you throw any of this delicious tasting God’s gift to mankind away, I *will* unceremoniously unfriend you on Facebook. Now is a good time to sautee any garnishing vegetables, like long beans, strips of red bell pepper, etc. Remove the meats and sautéed vegetables off to a side dish.

Now for the sofrito. In the fat in the pan, add just a bit of olive oil (please don’t call it “E-V-O-O”). Then add the grated onions (including the juices) first and keep them moving all around the pan. You want the onion to start reducing and slightly caramelizing – this should take about 8 minutes. Now add the garlic and grated tomatoes (again, with the juices), salt and some paprika. Mix it up well and keep it moving all around the pan, trying to reduce the liquid down. You can also add about half a jar of the Spanish red peppers now. In 15-20 minutes, it should start becoming a dark reddish brown paste with no liquid present. This is your sofrito – the flavor base for your paella.

Sofrito in its last stage. (Photo: Anu Saha)

In the meantime, in a small bowl, crush the saffron with the back of a spoon and dissolve it in a bit of the broth you have heating in the stock pot.

Next add the rice and mix it up well to coat all the grains with the sofrito. Mix in the meats back in at this point to also to get coated well with the sofrito. Then slowly pour in all the broth (which you should keep heated in a stock pot on the stove – never add cold stock to a hot pan of rice). Also pour in the saffron infused broth at this point. Channel your inner mason and carefully spread out the rice and meats evenly all over the pan. You won’t be able to see anything under all that broth, but have faith in your zen as you go all Japanese sand garden on this beast.

The whole thing should start coming to a slow simmer at this point. Let it sit and don’t touch it or disturb it! You want the rice to have an al dente feel to it – soft outside with a slightly firm bite to it. It should not be creamy like a risotto but not too dry. So try to keep some extra stock around to add if the rice doesn’t cook through.

After all the liquid disappears (around 15-20 minutes) give it some more time and start checking around the center and the edges for the soccorat. I like to put my nose just above different parts of the paella to try to smell that slightly burnt caramelized aroma of the soccorat.

Once you have confirmed some decent soccorat-ization, top with the beans, peppers, etc and take it off the heat. Dig in! I like to add a bit of sea salt and squeeze a bit of lemon after I serve myself some paella on my plate. And of course, get a glass of some good Spanish red wine.

Done! Have fun w/ the garnishes. (Photo: Anu Saha)

Our Spanish Wine (Photo: Anu Saha)

If you can serve this with a side of grilled and charred green onions and asparagus accompanied by a home-made romesco sauce, someone will ask you to marry them.”

(Photo: Mari DiGiovanni)

Want to try delicious paella cooked by 30 different teams, including Anu’s team La Bomba? Head on over to Paella Lovers United and buy a ticket for the November 6th, 2010 cook-off.

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11 responses to this post.

  1. Spanophile… I love that! (and I’m totally stealing it!)

    Reply

  2. Looks delicious, and thank you for not “dumbing it down” for the real foodies :)
    Pleasure meeting you at lunch today! I’m definitely looking forward to getting to know the Austin foodie community.

    Reply

  3. Love this post! I spent three weeks in Spain & Portugal and ate nothing but Paella for dinner while I was there!

    Reply

    • Posted by Anu on October 22, 2010 at 3:33 am

      Nice! Except we had a hard time finding paella for dinner. Apparently it should only be eaten for lunch (when the sun is up).

      Reply

  4. Man, I’m sorry I didn’t see this earlier. Paella has become one of the staples around here since I found Spanish a chorizo at Whole Foods that we love (Framani). My wife and I always had a joke that we couldn’t make it without a paella pan and I went and ruined a good joke by using a beat up old pan of ours that works great and makes soccarat just fine.

    Chef Dad

    Reply

  5. Posted by Anu on November 15, 2010 at 8:27 pm

    The competition is now over and I’m having paella withdrawals. We didn’t place, but we did quite well for our first year competing. The event was incredibly fun – tons of tapas, wine, sangria, Flamenco, and of course, great paella floating around. One of the judges notes our team, La Bomba, for our team spirit: http://www.alcoholian.com/?p=5918

    Reply

  6. I’ve written down much of this and will be trying it on my own.
    Thanks,
    Ash

    Reply

  7. I am so right-with-you about the cooking short cuts & Sandra Lees. I rant about it over at my place with startling regularity, but it does keep my blood pressure down!

    Love paella. Must get a pan. Saw St. Alton Brown make some awhile back. I need to just commit!

    Reply

  8. Holy mackerel! This is an impressive post. I want to try this as soon as it’s grilling weather again.

    Reply

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