Paella, for those unfamiliar with the name, is a Spanish dish, chiefly associated with Valencia that many regard as being *the* Spanish national dish. It is a rice dish, where the rice is (usually) cooked with saffron and other ingredients. The most traditional contains rabbit and snails but there are many, many variations on the basic theme and seafood Paellas, particularly those with chicken added, seem to be the most popular. A Paella is cooked in a special pan also known as a paella, or paellera. I have three and the one pictured above is my largest at about 18 inches across. Some pans are truly immense and can extend up to several feet in diameter.
I love to put together a Paella from time to time. I always use chicken, mussels and shrimp but the dish lends itself to variety and I doubt I have made it the same way twice. It had actually been a good year or more since I last cooked the dish but, a few days ago, my wife arrived home from an extensive trip away and announced she had a craving. I rustled around, bought some special ingredients, and whipped up the result you see above which contains lobster, mussels, shrimp, squid and chicken
I should point out here that my standard way of making Paella differs significantly from the traditional method. Paellas are supposed to be cooked entirely in the pan over direct heat. Indeed, the dish is often cooked outside over wood fires or BBQ type devices. Generally, the meat and then other ingredients are cooked and then rice and the cooking liquid is added and left to finish so that, eventually, there is a nice crust of toasty rice at the bottom of the pan. My method, which is more suited to a small indoor kitchen, differs in that I cook the rice in a separate pot, pre-cook some of the other ingredients, and then assemble all the final ingredients in the paella for a final cooking in the oven. I daresay quite a few purists might say that this disqualifies my variety from being a real Paella, but, with the exception of the toasted crust at the bottom, the end result is largely the same so I would not be inclined to quibble too much.
In Spain, short-grained rice is most commonly used. I use long grain (Uncle Ben’s), not just because that is what I had on hand but because I prefer it myself. In the picture above you can see the rice (one and a half-cups worth), 2 cups of water with saffron added, and a cup of white wine (thus yielding a total of three cups liquid for a 2 to 1 liquid/rice ratio). I also use one small onion, chopped finely, some garlic and salt. Also pictured are two packages of the saffron I used to infuse the water.
To cook, I sautéed the garlic and onion in a mixture of olive oil and butter until the onion was becoming soft. Then, I added the rice, turned the heat up and stirred just until some of the grains were becoming a little brown at which point I added the wine and water. As soon as the liquid began to boil, I turned down the heat, covered it and let the rice steam for about twenty minutes until most of the liquid was absorbed
The Main Ingredients
On the left, are the mussels and lobster I used. The mussels are a ‘green’ variety (from New Zealand) and come on the half shell, frozen in a box. I usually use the more common whole, fresh blue mussels, which look very pretty, and I was not keen on using these half-shell types, especially since my last experience with this particular brand did not impress me. In retrospect, though, I think this may have been because they had sat in the freezer too long as this time they were very nice.
I am not sure where the lobster comes from, as it was nowhere marked on the package. In any event, they are not Canadian, I would say, and they are definitely nowhere as good as the ones from the Maritime Provinces or Maine. They are, however, relatively cheap.
To the right of the picture above, all arranged in the Paella, are the shrimp, squid, and chicken along with a bowl of chopped tomato, frozen peas, and the green pepper. Not pictured is the parsley and sliced black olives I used for the garnish.
For pre-cooking, I individually sautéed the squid, shrimp and lobster in garlic butter. The shrimp, and especially the squid were cooked only lightly while, for the lobster, I used higher heat and cooked the tails, split in half, with the meat side down until they were brown and nicely caramelized. The chicken pieces were the middle portions of some wings that I cooked in the oven for supper a few days earlier.
Once the rice was cooked, I stirred in the tomato and spread it all over the pan. I then arranged the seafood and chicken as you can see in the first picture, sprinkled over the peas and black olives, and then covered everything with foil. After about twenty minutes in the oven, I removed it, garnished it with the parsley and it was ready to serve.
We had the Paella with a fairly nice 2009 Georges DuBoeuf Beaujolais. As you can see, we use some freshly grated Parmesan cheese to finish the plates. The Spanish would probably react with horror at this, and even Italians frown on using Parmesan cheese with seafood, but my wife and I both love it and I think it is fine to depart from tradition if the result is good.
Well, both my wife and I wife thought this was about the tastiest Paella yet. The lobster, which I find to be of mediocre quality was actually quite nice, and with the flavors of caramelization turned out to be quite sweet, if a little tougher then the better sorts. The mussels, though, were a big surprise and I actually found them to be the nicest I have tasted yet. After my first negative experience I m glad I tried them again and will buy that brand again
I have to say, though, that the presentation was less pretty than other attempts. I usually try to arrange the main ingredients in nice geometric patterns before adding the peas, etc., but on this occasion there was a lot too work with and the end result was a little cluttered. I think a more ‘minimalist’ approach is better for this dish.
Anyway, as much as we enjoyed this meal we were only able to get through about half of it between us so it is going to be Paella for lunch again today!