BY LAUREN GROSE
Paella is a dish Valencianos take an enormous amount of pride in, as they should, since Valencia is the birthplace of this aromatic rice dish. If you have had any sort of American version of paella, it is probably highly frowned upon in Valencia. As if there aren’t enough rules in life, the Spanish have more than a few that apply to the art of making paella perfecta.
1. Use the correct pan for cooking. In Valencia, many people use large (I’m talking two feet in diameter) shallow, enamel-covered pans that look like small moons and are specifically designed to create the perfect jacuzzi of stock for the rice to get cozy in.
2. Use the correct rice. There are short-grain (Japanese) and long-grain (Indian) versions. Valencianos use both, as long as the rice is grown in the Valencia area. The starch properties of the two varieties differ, so the short-grain rice produces a stickier version that soaks up lots of flavor, and the long-grain produces a fluffier paella. In our cooking class, we used the short-grain version.
3. Do not mix meats and seafood. Ever. Or you might go to Hell’s Kitchen. Valencianos just won’t go for meat and seafood in the same paella. It is either meat or seafood—you pick. The meat versions here typically include chicken, rabbit and duck or a combination, although when paella was first created people had to use what they had available. Our instructor, Chef Gregorio, mentioned something about swamp rats. I think he meant muskrats. Either way, that made me a little nervous, but he swore that what we were cooking that day was chicken, so on with the lesson we went.
After reviewing what we would be making for our evening meal, we washed our hands. (Safety first, kids.) Traditionally, paella is only served as lunch or ‘comida,’ since that is typically the heaviest meal of the day in Spain, but I guess they figured we Americans could handle the heaviness of paella for dinner.
Chef Gregorio demonstrated how to grate the giant crimson tomatoes, pare the greenest artichokes I have ever seen, and trim and break the flat green beans into bite-size pieces with audible snaps. The produce in Spain always looks so fresh, and I do not recall ever having tasted such flavorful veggies and fruits. I’m not sure if it is because the Spanish use fewer pesticides, because there is less genetically modified produce, or if it is simply because the weather is temperate enough to make everything taste 10 times better than the ‘fresh’ stuff we get in the supermarkets in America. Regardless, they’re delicious. Trust me. But that is a different story. The point is this: The simplest and freshest ingredients are required to make a delectable pan of paella.
Now onto cooking the chicken. Chef Gregorio explained that the chicken—which I still feared might be Fluffy the Bunny or one of the Angry Beavers—had to be browned first with its bones to maximize the flavor of the final product. After the chicken was browned, we carefully tossed the vegetables into the antiqued paella pans and cooked them until soft.
One of the most essential parts of any Spanish dish, according to Chef Gregorio, is sofrito. To properly make the sofrito, toast freshly chopped garlic in olive oil, add a generous amount of paprika into the pan (careful not to let it burn or it will taste bitter), then add the grated tomatoes and stir. Violá! El sofrito es finito.
Next we added large bowls of water to create a stock and threw in a few threads of roasted saffron, which apparently makes the dish taste all that much different. I’m guessing we added eight cups, mas o menos, to the paella, then let it come to a rolling boil. The aroma wafted through the kitchen in waves of heat, and after a long day of journalism class and lots of walking, our mouths were watering.
But we still had 20 minutes to go.
Paella is an easy meal to make but the process takes time. We added the rice to the stock (no stirring, according to Chef Gregorio) and patiently waited. In the mean time, we enjoyed a cool cinnamon-and-clove-flavored sangria, and learned to make horchata de chufas, a traditional Valencian drink rarely found in other regions of Spain.
At last, the arroz drank up all the flavorful liquid, and it was almost time to eat. But first, for an element of earthy richness, and for presentation purposes, Chef Gregorio splayed large sprigs of rosemary that resembled fir tree branches atop each pan of paella in a stardust fashion.
Dinner, or la cena, was super satisfying after all the hard work we put into making it. I loved the rustic vibe of our version of paella. And yes, the meat was chicken and not Fluffy .. although I have heard that rabbit tastes a lot like chicken.
One last tip: Socarrat is all the rage here in Valencia. That’s the crispy, crunchy rice that sticks to the bottom of the pan during the cooking process. As the most revered part of the dish, socarrat is a must-have lest you miss out on the paella experience in its entirety.