While I don’t particularly care for the extreme heat this time of year, one thing I do love are the endless opportunities for creativity provided by the variety of seasonal ingredients. Appetite wise, I also find that this time of year my tastebuds tend to favor a more Mediterranean flavor. Perhaps it’s the fact that so many wonderful ingredients typical of Mediterranean cuisine are at their peak of production right now…tomatoes, peppers, herbs, summer squash, melons and the list could keep going. I think part of it is also the fact that the Mediterranean style of eating so perfectly ties-in to the lighter appetites we tend to have this time of year.
Summer was meant for casual grazing. Whether it’s a hamper of food taken to the local park to enjoy while taking in a concert, oar a group of friends gathered on the back patio while catching up as they create tempting aromas for the neighborhood, casual entertaining is the order of the day.
Paella, the iconic dish of Spain is one of those items that’s great to keep in mind for summer gatherings. The components can be prepped in advance, it’s a great use for whatever you might happen to have on hand for flavorful additions, and a little work goes a long way toward feeding a crowd.
Perhaps it’s due to the “iconic” stature of this dish, perhaps it was just ignorance, or simply the fact that for whatever reason, it hadn’t been on my radar. Whatever the case, until a few years ago I don’t think I’d ever actually made Paella. Then one day, I finally took the time to read through a recipe (truth be told, part of the reason for never having done one was probably due to the lengthy nature of most paella recipes). After reading and taking it all in I realized…”Well heck, it’s just a Spanish version of Jambalaya!” or perhaps….”Jambalaya is a cajun version of Paella?” No…I think they’re both Spanish and Cajun forms of latin Arroz con Pollo (chicken & rice)! That’s it….they are….all of the above! And if that’s true…then it’s just an un-stirred version of Risotto!
As with so many cultures, cuisines, and recipes…people move, adapt, incorporate, and create. Morphing one dish into another based on what was available at the market or in the cupboard. So here’s my point after all of this rambling around…if you can make any one of those dishes, you can make Paella!
A Paella is nothing more than the following:
1. Flavor base (Sofrito is the Spanish/latin term )
A sofrito is a cooked flavor base commonly composed of pork products (dry-cured Spanish ham, chorizo sausage, etc) and aromatic vegetables (peppers, onions, garlic, tomatoes) herbs and spices that are sauteed until very soft and most liquid has been absorbed. Pickled items such as capers and olives will also frequently be a component to add some top notes of piquancy. The flavor base is cooked to soften the vegetables, toast the spices/seasonings, and create flavor by developing fond (stuck on stuff) on the bottom of the pan.
2. Short-Grain Rice Short grain rice is essential to providing the right texture. Paella should have an al dente quality to it. Neither crunchy nor soft. Add the rice to the Sofrito and cook for a bit to coat with the flavor base. Cooking the rice in the sofrito helps to coat the grains with oil and make them less likely to stick to one another, distributes flavor through the rice, and helps to toast the rice a little by cooking with dry heat for more flavor.
3. Stock (usually chicken, fish, or vegetable) The purpose of stock is pretty straight-forward and should be easy to understand…it’s what’s going to soften the rice!
4. Garnishes (meat, seafood, strips of roasted pepper, etc) These are the goodies that everyone wants to enjoy. The addition of rice merely makes it easier to serve “the good stuff” to more people and make them all feel like they’re getting a decent size portion. This is the reason that Paella is great for a crowd…it allows you to serve good things like clams, mussels, calamari, meat, etc. without needing to have as much since the rice stretches the serving capacity. Items that need more browning and/or cooking time should be cooked before the sofrito. Remove the items from the pan and then start cooking your sofrito in the same pan. Delicate more quick cooking items like calamari, shrimp, etc. should go in about the last 10 minutes before serving. These items all need a quick exposure to high heat to prevent from turning tough with extended cooking.
The Levante region of southeastern Spain is the traditional home of this much celebrated dish. The Moores are responsible for the creation of a series of irrigation systems that ultimately made this area ideally suited for the growing of rice. Rice dishes of all sorts are typical of the Levante. The inland areas of the Levante garnish their Paellas and rice dishes with meat, snails, and small game. The coastal areas of course feature seafood. According to Penelope Casas in her book “Delicioso! The Regional Cooking of Spain”, mixed combinations of meat and seafood are created more for the benefit of foreign visitors than for purists.
Chicken & Seafood Paella
Paella is one of the most well-known of Spanish culinary creations. The name is derived from the latin “patella” which means pan. It’s from this word that the Valencia word “paella” is derived, which also means “pan”. Most likely it is believed to have originated as a peasant dish and a means of using up leftover scraps of food that could be stretched to feed more when combined with the rice. While the short-grain Valencia rice is used in Spain, another short-grained rice such as Arborio (used for risotto) may also be used. Inland it’s usually made featuring snails and chicken. When near the coast, you’ll commonly find a large array of seafood tucked into the rice. This version has something for everyone. Don’t let the lengthy list of ingredients scare you away, it’s really just a cooked flavor base of vegetables (sofrito) that has rice, liquid, and meat and/or seafood added to it.
Yield: 8-10 Servings
½ cup dry white wine
1 teaspoon saffron threads
½ lb. boneless & skinless chicken thighs
Kosher salt and black pepper
Olive oil for sauteeing
¼ cup olive oil
8 garlic cloves, peeled and minced
1 cup yellow onions, ¼” dice
1 cup green bell pepper, ¼” dice
¼ lb. Spanish chorizo sausage*
1 teaspoon Kosher salt
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 bay leaves
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1 teaspoon Spanish paprika
1 cup diced tomatoes (may use canned)
¼ cup sliced spanish olives (may also used “salad” olives or whole olives that have been chopped)
2 tablespoons capers packed in brine, drained
2 cups (1 lb.) Valencia or Arborio rice
3 1/2 cups chicken stock
½ lb. squid, bodies and tentacles, cut in bite-size pieces
½ lb. 31/31 shrimp, peeled, deveined if desired
1 dozen mussels in the shell, scrubbed clean and beard removed
1 cup frozen green peas, thawed
1 red bell pepper, roasted, peeled and cut into strips
Heat wine in a microwave safe dish on HIGH for about 45-60 seconds or until bubbling. Add the saffron and set off to the side to infuse and steep (like tea) for about 20-30 minutes while doing other preparations. Longer is better.
Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
Cut chicken thighs into 1-inch pieces and season with salt and pepper.
Heat a large (12-inch) skillet or similar pan that is at least 2-3 inches in depth over high heat until the heat can be felt radiating from the bottom of the pan when your hand is held about 6-inches above the bottom surface. Add enough oil to form a thin film across the bottom and add the chicken and cook until browned on outside. Chicken doesn’t need to cook through entirely as it will cook more in the rice. Remove chicken from pan with a slotted spoon to a dish on the side.
Add the ¼ cup olive oil to the skillet and add the garlic, onion, green pepper, chorizo, salt, pepper, bay leaves, oregano, thyme, and paprika. Cook vegetables over medium-high heat for 3-5 minutes or until vegetables begin to give off their juices and sweat. Add the tomatoes, olives, capers, and reserved saffron-infused wine. Cook over medium-low heat for another 3-5 minutes or until most of the liquid has evaporated.
Add the rice to the seasoning base (“sofrito”) in the pan. Stir and cook for about 2-3 minutes while coating the exterior of the rice with the sofrito. Add the chicken stock and scrape up any cooked on bits in the bottom of the pan that can be removed. Add the reserved chicken pieces and bring to a simmer. Transfer the pan to the preheated 375 degree oven for 15 minutes. Remove from the oven and stir the squid and shrimp into the rice and arrange the mussels on top with the hinge end into the rice. Scatter the peas over the top and garnish with roasted red pepper strips. Return pan to oven until the mussels open, about 5-10 minutes. Remove from oven and remove any mussels that do not open. Cover the pan with a lid or foil and let sit for about 5-10 minutes to finish cooking before serving.
*Spanish chorizo sausage is a cooked sausage similar to pepperoni. It can often be found in sealed plastic pouches in the “international” section of grocery stores, with the other similar dried sausages, or in the refrigerated sausage section. Mexican Chorizo won’t give the same sort of flavor. Substitute Italian Capocollo or soppresata sausage if Chorizo isn’t available.[/print_this]