Paella, a peasant dish for Royalty

The weather is changing. Hot days and hotter nights are now growing bearable. Slowly motoring down a dusty road in the community of Cantabria, headed for the Basque region, we slowly discuss what would be a pleasant dinner, Ah Paella!

Horns honking rudely, Shaken from my daydream, I realize I am really going to Bed Bath and Beyond to replace the coffee maker. Bummer, I’m not in Spain, but Newberg, Oregon and it looks like rain.

But Paella still sounds good. I’ll stop at the fish monger, on the way home, yes, little Newberg has a fish monger. Originally to supply restaurants in the area, they expanded their little shop for the public. Their selection is great, They even have fish bones available so you can build your own fish stock, but that’s another tale.

Paella, the classic Spanish dish, traditionally cooked over an outside fire, with the best part being the crust formed on the bottom of the pan from high heat and caramelized rice. Paella really only has a couple of never changing elements, rice, sofrito and saffron. Everything else is up to the chef of the night.

Sofrito is like the Creole Holy Trinity, a flavor base that has been sauteed, and then added to the rice. In this instance it consisted of tomato, onion, bell pepper, garlic and pork.

For our Paella we chose chicken, a good smoked sausage, we used our Andouille but a nice chorizo would have gone well. Shrimp, squid tentacles and sliced tube (What is tube?) and a few steamer clams. Paella may be cooked on top of the range, or baked in an oven. I have cooked it both ways, and make my decision according to the weather, I haven’t tried cooking it over an open grill or fire yet.

The rice called for is plain long grain white. You can substitute brown but this will radically change the cooking times. White rice takes 30 minutes, brown rice, an hour for the liquid to be absorbed.

One of the cardinal rules, is never stir your Paella once it has been built. BUT, if you’re going to use brown rice, I suggest you go stove top. Cook the rice and sofrito for 30 minutes, then layer on the rest to prevent over cooking the chicken, shrimp, clams etc., and cook till the liquid has been absorbed. In the oven, you will be taking a chance on over cooking and drying out the goodies.

The first time you make a Paella, it will seem to be a lot of steps, but is rather simple when you read through the instructions a couple of times, and realize you are just preparing sides to be layered.

You may have noticed we changed skillets after the sausage. The chicken etc should be cooked over a high flame, and high temperature cooking will ruin a ceramic coated pan, so I grabbed my trusty 12″ cast iron skillet to finish the prep work.

The Sangria looked interesting but could never stand up against a good homemade pitcher of the good stuff.

Now to an actual recipe of sorts.

First thing, 1/4 teaspoon of saffron, mashed with a mortar or ground. Put it in a small glass and add 1/4 cup of hot water. Saffron purchased in the supermarket is about a billion dollars per thread. Excellent, and much fresher saffron can be purchased by the gram on Amazon, both Spanish and Indian. Read the reviews.

Then 1/2 pound of sausage, cooked in a high heat skillet; I like cast iron, with 1/4 cup olive oil. I like to have the skillet and oil hot enough to actually sear the sausage.  I believe the sear adds another flavor to the dish.

Remove sausage, cut into 1/4 rounds and place in a large bowl.

Add a 1 1/2 pound chicken, cut up and cook till toasty brown. Salt and pepper the chicken. When brown (remember chicken, rabbit, etc will cook some more during the Paella cooking period), remove and place chicken in the same bowl.

Wipe out remaining oil and add 1/4 fresh olive oil. Add the sofrito mix and saute till translucent and soft. The Sofrito should be 1 medium sized onion, chopped medium to fine. 1 large tomato de-seeded and chopped, 1 medium bell pepper, any color. Red bell peppers are sweeter than yellow, which are sweeter than green. And add a few ounces of pork chopped or cut into 1/4 squares.

If looking at my pictures, i used a larger portion of pork as a filler.

Lobster goes great but it doesn’t really ring our chimes, so we use more shrimp and add squid. Remove the shells and devein a pound of shrimp leaving the tails on. Clean the clams or mussels, about a dozen or so, and rinse the squid.

One of our favorite toppings are large scallops. If used, I will do a very fast high heat saute to just brown the sides in butter or ghee, but NOT cook them. If precooked they will be tough when the paella is finished. You might even hold them back, and put on top about the half way mark.

Get out your favorite 14 inch Paella pan; you don’t have a paella pan? Then use a heavy roaster, this works best in the oven as the surface size and shape doesn’t lend itself to stove top burners, but would over an open fire.

Put 3 cups of long grain rice into the center, spread the sofrito on top, and add 5 3/4 cups of boiling water plus the 1/4 cup water and saffron. Stir the mix, and bring to a boil. Once a boil has been reached, remove from the heat.

Now is the time to check your seasoning. Remember the sausage and chicken will be adding the spices that are inside (sausage) or cooked with, chicken, salt and pepper.

Don’t feel the need to over season dishes from other countries. It’s not the seasonings, as much as its the local ingredients, and the way they are cooked that make them special.

Now layer your meats, sausage first, then chicken and seafood last. Place evenly, this dish should look as good as it tastes. Sprinkle 1/2 pound peas on top, this adds both flavor as well as color. You could use artichoke hearts, etc.

Place on the bottom of a 400° oven and bake for 30 minutes, or place on a hot grill and cook over a medium heat for 15 to 20 minutes, until the water has been absorbed by the rice.

When done, let rest for 5 to 10 minutes, then dig in.

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