A few months ago, I took a trip to the Andalusia region of southern Spain. It is just thirty miles from northern Africa. The region is heavily influenced by the many different cultures who have left their mark over the millennia including the Moors, Jews, Christians, Romans, Phoenicians and many more.
In addition to Spanish and African influences, there is a huge gypsy culture in the region. Interestingly, the gypsies seem more respected and revered in southern Spain than in other place I’ve been. The flamenco music and dancing are central to the gypsies and the culture of this southern most peninsula of Spain.
Just writing about my trip, I can hear the sounds, feel the 100 degree heat, see the men and women dancing dripping in sweat and sultry. The memories are full of color. Bright ceramic tile speaks of the Moorish influence, red peppers and spices line the markets, orange saffron and spongy bitter oranges, blue water, and green fertile hills filled with feasting goats.
During my trip, I explored the secrets of paella. It is a national dish and different regions offer different takes on the specialty. The ingredients are key, most importantly the saffron and the rice.
The rice must be able to absorb all of the flavors of the paella without becoming soft. Long grain rice such as basmati does not absorb flavors, most short grain turns into mush. The best I have tried is from the mountains of Calasparra called la bomba rice. The saffron I love to use is Princesa de Minaya Saffron, D.O. La Mancha, many say it is the best in Spain as it produces a deeper color and intense flavor. Though when I was in Spain many people use an artificial yellow coloring to get the glowing yellow color, very disappointing. A few other tricks that I picked up include adding wedges of lemon to garnish the finished dish. Lemon with paella seems to really bring out the flavor of the dish.
Also, you MUST resist the urge to stir the paella while cooking. The caramelized crust along the pan is the most desired part! Finally, don’t skimp on making your own stock. It will make all the difference.
In Spain they say there are as many paella recipes as there are cooks in Spain. Though the original paella region originated in a rice growing region in the town of Valencia sometime in the mid 19th century. This most traditional “harvest paella” was the signature dish of Valencia made with chicken, rabbit and snails.
A large, beautiful dish of paella is enough of a centerpiece in the middle of a table surrounded by friends and family. Try my version with of course a little bit of chocolate!
Step by step directions.
½ onion, large cut in slices
3 tbsp olive oil
7 cups water,
1 cup white wine
1 pound mussels
8 large shrimp peelings shell heads and tails
Rinse mussels in water and scrub off any debris, tap the mussel to see if it is alive, if you tap the mussel it should close, if not throw it away. Debeard mussels if necessary.
Place a large stockpot on medium high heat. When hot add the olive oil followed by the onions. Sweat the onions until soft. Add the mussels and sautee until they are just beginning to open. Add wine and deglaze the pan. Gently remove the mussels and remove the mussel from the shell and set aside but return the shells back to the pot. Add shrimp shells and the water and bring to a boil. Then take off heat and let sit until your stock is needed.
For the Paella
½ cup olive oil
6 pieces spicy sausage, chorizo cut into small chunks(optional )
red pepper, 1 cut into long strips
Heat paella pan on medium high heat. Add olive oil. Heat for 1 minute add sausage and cook until cooked through. Simultaneously cook the strips of bell pepper to a nice caramelized finish on both sides. Set sausage and peppers aside for later.
1 bell peppers, red diced
1 bell peppers, green diced
1 onion, medium diced
2 tomatoes, diced or tomate frito
5 garlic cloves, small diced
2 1/2 tsp dried paprika (pimiento)
Calamari rings, 1 pound (1 1/2cups)
1 ½ cups white wine
13 little neck clams
2 cups rice, Redondo Calasparra
1 tbsp salt
1 tbsp saffron powdered
¼ cup olive oil, Spanish
8 Shrimp with shells or langostinos
13 Shrimp shelled and deveined
2 lemons cut in 5ths
Sautée peppers and onion in the sausage fat until softened. Add the tomatoes, garlic, paprika. Cook down a few minutes. Add Calamari rings and white pepper. Sautée for a minute.
Add white wine and cook off the alcohol. Add clams/cockles until opened.
Sprinkle 2 cups of rice around the paella pan. Add 4 cups of stock and cook for 20 minutes while the rice is really boiling. Do not stir.
Salt to taste throughout – I use a lot!!!
Add saffron. Stir around. Add olive oil to taste.
Add the whole langostinos, peeled shrimp tails and cook for 10-15 minutes, cover to steam the shrimp and it will cook better. Add more stock as necessary.
DO not stir the paella as you want to caramelize the bottom. This is the most desired part!
Arrange the mussels in half shells and in pieces out of the shell, place in at the end only to warm for 5 minutes with a decoration of the long strip of red peppers like a flower in the center
Add more salt if needed.
Cut lemons for garnish on the side. They think it tastes much better with lemon.
vegetable and chorizo
all meat pollo and cerdo
mariscos and chicken and pork
Note on Cleaning Clams: First, gently tap any clams with open shells against the counter top. Discard any clams that do not close their shells within a few minutes or that have cracked or chipped shells. Place all the clams in a bowl and fill it with cold water. Someone told me that adding cornmeal or black pepper to the water will encourage the clams to release more sand. Let the clams sit for 20 minutes to an hour. During this time, they will spit out the sand from inside their shells.