Until last year, I’d never eaten paella, let alone tried to pronounce it. Last year, at a restaurant in Kent, Wash., I finally did both.
As for saying paella, I’ve found that few people will laugh out loud if you pronounce it “pie-ay-ah.”
When I saw paella on that restaurant menu, and saw that fish, crab, shrimp, mussels and clams were in it, I bit. After the first bite, I was hooked. It was at least as good as the best seafood gumbo or jambalaya I’ve ever had. The only thing keeping me from licking my plate was the fear that they wouldn’t let me come back for more.
After eating that delicious dish, I had to try making it. First came the pan. You can cook paella in a made-in-China frying pan without lightning striking you dead, just as you can stir-fry food in something other than a wok, but properly prepared paella is made in a paellera, a round, shallow, polished-steel pan with two handles. I ordered a 13-inch “Pata Negra” double-gage steel pan. It’s heavy enough to use on my electric stove top or on my Weber grill without warping, and it holds enough to feed 4 to 6 people.
Next came the rice. For paella, the rice is usually the short-grained Bomba or Calaspara, which absorb flavors without becoming mushy. I ordered two kilos of the Calaspara.
In Spain, where paella is the most popular dish, preparing and eating it is an exciting occasion. People gather around a huge pan and help themselves. According to the LaTienda Website, where I ordered my pan and rice, “Each neighborhood has its own concept of the perfect paella and cache of secrets jealously guarded within the barrio. There are regional variations as well, because paella is a work of art, not a formula.”
In Spain’s region of Galicia, chefs vie each year for the title “Paella King.” In 2001, chef Juan Galbis made the world’s largest paella, one that fed 110,000 people. In 1992, he made the Guinness World Book of Records with a somewhat smaller paella, one that fed only 100,000 people.
Spanish chorizo is usually used in paella. This chorizo differs from Mexican choriso in taste, texture and appearance. Both are pork sausage, but the Spanish kind is firm, not mushy, like the Mexican kind. Spanish saffron and Spanish smoked paprika are other common paella ingredients.
Some paella recipes use duck, rabbit, chicken and other meats, but the most popular ones use seafood, often a combination of shrimp and whatever else is available.
My latest effort at making paella was on May 19, Sue’s and my first wedding anniversary. Having experimented with the dish twice, I felt brave enough to risk invite friends. I used the “Authentic Spanish Paella” recipe at the food.com Website, mainly because its author had the temerity to say in writing, “I think I’ve finally got it perfect.” I halved it, so everything would fit in my 13” pan. Instead of chicken stock, I made stock with shrimp shells, onion, celery, carrots, bay leaves and white wine. Instead of chorizo and rabbit or chicken, I used king crab, spot shrimp, weathervane scallops and smoked black cod. It brought oohs and ahs aplenty.
If you do it right, your paella will have a crunchy layer of toasted rice on the bottom of the pan. Called “socarrat” in Spain, this layer is considered a delicacy by paella fans. It forms toward the end of cooking, when the rice has absorbed all the liquid. I have yet to achieve this feat, but it’s something to work toward.
The next time I make paella, I hope to include chorizo, clams, mussels and littleneck clams, and whatever else and can dig up or reel in. I’ll also add a little heat to that recipe, maybe a jalapeno or two. I can hardly wait.
Les Palmer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.