Page 7 of 11A SONG OF RICE & FIRE
Ditch the BBQ and enjoy summer defined in wood smoke and paella.
Story and Photos By stephen dark
Paella, for the uninitiated, is an ancient dish from Valencia, Spain, which is cooked in a wide-based pan and is famous for its versatility, with ingredients, along with rice, that can focus only on seafood, meat or simply vegetables, or mixtures of all of the above.
Paella lore demands that you wait for the guests to arrive before you add rice to your carefully crafted dish. The guests can wait for the rice, but the rice can't wait for the guests, goes the philosophy. Throw in the rice on time for the scheduled meal, only for your guests to arrive late, and that means a ruined dish. Paella is nothing if not temperamental. There's one element of making a paella that is oddly personal for me, which, for reasons I've never understood, I've always preferred to do alone. And that is making the sign of the cross with the rice.
I learned about incorporating this curious superstition during my first and only visit to Spain. As a lapsed Protestant, I felt no particular religious drive to initially distribute the rice in this fashion. But the more time I've spent making paellas over the last few years, the more I've come to appreciate the oddly spiritual pleasure to be found in sharing this dish of dishes with family and friends.
Part of that spiritual quality, I would wager, comes from the utensil I use to cook it in.
While paella can be cooked all year round, for me it will always be a summer dish. I love to cook it over wood, and the only way I can do that is with a disco de arado. It's essentially two earth tiller blades with a rim and three legs welded to one blade, a handle to the other, which I brought with me from Argentina over a decade ago.
Paella and the disco are the perfect union. The flavor of the earth it moved for years in South America mixed with smoke and all the meals I've cooked on its dark, oval surface lends the disco, and the meals I prepare on it, a sense of reverence I'd be hard-pressed to find with, say, a frying pan.
Paella is eminently adaptable and whether you buy a paella pan at World Market ($16.99) to use on a stove top, or have someone fashion your own outdoor paella dish, it's a dish that defines the idea of gathering with family and friends. Indeed, in Spain, I believe, you gather around the finished meal and work away at it with a spoon. It's the one plate I make where I always see guests returning to help themselves to more.
Paella is essentially a dry-rice dish, but it's also incredibly versatile, and while purists would undoubtedly quibble with some of my approaches to this dish—you don't use onions, for example, because they make the rice moist—I've learned that the pleasure of paella is defining it within your own taste parameters.
Key to flavor absorption is the quality of the rice, which should be short or medium grain, and preferably Spanish. I've found Bomba and Calasparra in Utah, both at World Market and, more recently, Smiths, which has kindly imported a variety of Spanish delicacies to embolden with a little more authenticity my paella journey.
I have found one of the most flavorful paellas is a paella mixta, which requires both fish and meat. Whatever ingredients you want to cook with, as long as you have a well-flavored stock, the paella will deliver.
The paella masters typically use twigs to cook with, but chopping up logs into kindling provides the heat I need, as long as I pay attention to the fire and keep it well fed, but not overbearing.
I light the fire, throw in some oil and when it sizzles, brown pieces of chicken thighs and small squares of pork ribs. Once cooked, I removed those to a plate, and work on the sofrito, the aromatic vegetable paste that deepens the flavor of the rice.
I throw in a little more oil, stir-fry the onions, garlic, carrots and red pepper, and after the vegetables are tender and to the point of sticking, I add a glass of white wine and scrape off the burned bits with a wooden spoon. Finally, I throw in some tomatoes, breaking them up and stirring, until I got a consistency of paste, before returning the chicken and meat to the dish.
After letting the fire die down a little, I add the rice in a vertical, then horizontal gesture, pausing a moment to drink in the curious nature of what I've just done. I add two pinches of saffron—crucial for color and flavor—and then stir the rice around until it's both well-coated and evenly distributed, all the time maintaining a low fire.
Now comes the stock, followed by some kindling to feed the fire until the paella bubbles. Don't touch the dish. If there's one cardinal rule, it's this: You can't stir the paella after you've added the stock.
After 10 minutes or so, as the rice continues to absorb the stock, it's time to add whatever fish you have: some shrimp perhaps, mussels, clams or calamari.
Once all the stock has been absorbed, test the rice to make sure it's al punto (cooked, separate grains). Always keep some stock handy in case you need more.
If the rice is done, put some paper towels over the dish to let it breathe, wait five minutes, then call your guests. The mark of a truly successful paella is the socarrat—a deliciously crusty base that forms at the bottom of the pan, which some guests enjoy scraping off.
For a dish that's so laden with folklore and rituals, I'd nevertheless argue that the joy of paella is both its versatility and its individuality. Practice a few times before inviting people over to get a feel for the interplay between heat, pan and ingredients. Its pleasure is both its simplicity and the depth of history and taste that your guests will remember long after the fire has turned to ash.