There is a stigma to one-pot meals—an illusion of simplicity—and although paella does eventually reside in a single pot (or pan), this is a dish that requires, technique, patience ,and a bit of feel. While most anything can adorn the top, from shellfish to poultry, chorizo, rabbit, and vegetables, the base is a slow burn and must be built carefully and with intention to achieve something its Spanish inventors would approve.
In simple terms, paella is a large rice dish or casserole, cooked in a wide pan with spices and topped with meats, fish, and/or veggies. Paella is often served in the large pan in which it was cooked, intended to be shared by groups at weddings, birthdays, and other family celebrations; fiesta food of the highest order.
While often served informally, speaking with Michael Han, chef de cuisine at New York’s Spanish outpost Ortzi, it’s clear that preparing the dish can be a complicated endeavor, but one worth every bead of sweat. When the technique is mastered, the opportunities for experimentation are vast…“something so versatile, you could eat it almost every day,” Han says.
Rudimentary versions can be traced back to the Moorish people of (what is now) coastal Spain over a thousand years ago, but a version resembling Ortzi’s took hold of the seaside city of Valencia in the 1700s. It was there and then the dish catapulted in popularity into what would become a ubiquitous source of national and regional pride. Paella is a touchstone for thinking about Spanish cooking; an anchor to demonstrate much of its colloquial character: spice, warmth, seafood, and celebration.
In coastal parts of Spain, paella is often finished with fresh shellfish, unsurprisingly, but access to ingredients and local tastes often dictate the finished product as in Boqueria’s (New York) massive “brunch paella” with chicken confit, pork belly, and sauteed kale topped with fried eggs. Spanish, yet somehow unmistakably Brooklyn. Despite the modern makeovers, there a few things Chef Han and others who toil in the dark and delicious art of paella agree must always be considered.
The rice is not just the backbone of a paella but if not paid its due attention, can also be its downfall. Bomba rice, cultivated mostly in Spain, is widely used for its ability to retain moisture at three times its volume without bursting. Paella has no apparent broth or liquid component but it does exist, trapped inside the kernels of bomba. Like anything, it can be over or undercooked and here lies any paella chef’s great challenge.
Paella rice is first sauteed in olive oil with dense flavors like sofrito (peppers, onions, garlic, and tomato) and a melange of spices, namely saffron. This saute sears and darkens the rice and from there, broth is added in stages to absorb flavors and impart them on the rice as it stews. The broth helps direct the flavor profile and can vary. At Ortzi, Han uses halibut stock, lobster bodies, clams, mussels, red shrimp, herbs, and white wine which complements the bounty of seafood with which it’s finished.
If done correctly (read: slowly), a muddy brown, almost black, color takes hold of the bomba rice. Versions prepared in high-volume restaurants that require a faster prep hold saffron’s yellow, but a traditional paella chef aims for a much murkier shade. From there, paella is often covered and finished in the oven for a final marriage of flavors.
The pan matters. So much so, the name “paella” is actually derived from an old French word for it. As Han suggests, thicker pans create a better ‘socarrat,’ the caramelized rice crust that lines the bottom of any good paella and to many, including myself, the best thing about it, adding a smoky, almost umami crunch. A sturdy pan also helps distribute heat evenly as not to scorch the rice.
As discussed, most anything from fish to fowl, chorizo sausage, veggies (peas and peppers are popular), and even brunch fare can assume the role. Chef Han finishes his with tender calamari, red prawns, mussels, clams, and almond picada but Valencians have long cried foul at all the many proteins that have climbed atop these “unsanctioned” paellas. Their original version is said to be finished with rabbit and snail. Nothing more.
Much like its native Spain, if you’ve ever had the pleasure of visiting, paella invites you to the fiesta table like few other foods, connecting you to the person at your side or even across the room. Where neighboring and sometimes precious French fare, for example, might inspire contemplation and solitude in its delicateness, paella blurts out “grab a spoon, dig in and while you’re at it find a friend and bring them, too!” Heck, it would just be rude not to.
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