Paella a la valenciana

If you’re like me, you may have thought that paella a la valenciana was made with a mixture of chicken and seafood and perhaps a bit of Spanish chorizo, onions, red peppers and peas for color. Well, as it turns out, the real paella a la valenciana is quite a different animal.

I recently tried out a recipe that I found on lapaella.net. According to this (and a number of other recipes I found in Spanish across the net) the real thing uses chicken, but no seafood, chorizo, onions, red peppers or peas. The recipe, which is quite easy but involves a number of steps, goes as follows:

Fry lightly salted pieces of chicken (thighs and/or legs) and rabbit in a generous amount of olive oil, in a well-seasoned paella pan (see below). When nicely browned–and a good browning is crucial to the success of the dish–add green beans and, if you can find them, ‘romano’ green beans (both cut into sections), a Spanish white bean called garrafon–use baby lima beans if you don’t have these on hand–and, in season, artichoke, trimmed and cut into wedges. Allow the vegetables to saute for a few minutes. Then clear out an open spot in the center of the paella pan and add one grated tomato (if tomatoes are not in season, use two tablespoons of canned crushed tomato) and a tablespoon or more of pimenton, Spanish paprika. Allow the tomato and pimenton to caramelize a bit, then add water or chicken broth to cover all the ingredients, together with saffron threads that you will have dissolved in a bit of warm water. (The paella pan should be almost full to the brim.) Allow to simmer for about 30 minutes. Taste and adjust for salt. Add rice (see below), distributing it as evenly as possible, and continue simmering for 7 minutes over very high heat, then another 4-5 minutes or so over medium heat, then finally another 3-4 minutes over very low heat. About 5 minutes before the rice is ready, lay a sprig of rosemary over the rice. (If at any point you find that you’ve miscalculated and your paella is drying out but the rice is still hard, now worries: just add a bit more water.) Allow the paella to rest 5 minutes before serving.

I have not included exact measurements here–the eye is all important–but for measurements and a blow-by-blow illustrated recipe, go to lapaella.net. Elsewhere on the site, you can find lots more information and background on making the perfect paella, as well as recipes for other sorts of rice dishes and some other intriguing recipes the cuisine of Valencia. (The site only exists in Spanish and Italian–but the photographic paella recipe should be easy enough to follow.)

Well, the paella was quite different from any other paella I had had, but it was very, very good indeed. Two of us polished off what should have served four!

NOTES: Paella is best cooked over an open fire. Special paella burners are available, but I have found that my barbecue does a fine job. You can also just cook paella on the stove (finishing it off in a hot oven after you’ve added the rice) but the dish will lack that semi-smokey flavor that is so characteristic of a real paella. One way to make up for this is to add more pimenton, which will impart a little smokiness to the dish.

Using the right kind of rice is essential for a good paella. The best kind of rice for paella is called “bomba”, which is a short grain rice. If you can’t find bomba or just don’t want to spend the money–bomba rice is quite expensive–try another Spanish short grain rice. (Balducci’s carries something they call “paella rice” from Spain, and Spanish rice is also available online on amazon.com as well as sites that specialize in Spanish food like Hot Paella.com and La Tienda.com). I have also used Italian arborio rice with obtained fine results. Whichever type of rice you decide to use–but especially if you use arborio–be sure not to stir the rice after you add it to the pan and distribute it among the other ingredients. Paella is not meant to have a creamy texture, and too much agitation will get the starch going and produce a creamy dish, which is what you want when making risotto, but not when making paella.

The original technique for adding the rice to the paella, by the way, involves pouring the rice in the form of a cross, vertically and horizontally. The rice should just come up slightly above the ‘water line’. The rice is then mixed–only once–into the broth. This apparently ensures that you get the right amount rice vs. broth. (The photos on paella.net illustrate.) I usually don’t do this and just take my chances, as I find mixing the rice into the other ingredients rather awkward to accomplish.

According to some sources, including the About.com: Spanish food website the original paella a la valenciana also included snails. I have not tried this but it does sound good. If you have an aversion to snails or rabbit, a paella made entirely of poultry and vegetables would no doubt be equally delicious.
The best pan for making paella is called–not by coincidence–a “paella”. It can be bought in a lot of good cookware stores (including, for example, Sur La Table) and also available online at the websites mentioned above. The traditional paella pan is made from polished steel and needs to be seasoned. If you have ever seasoned a wok or a cast iron skillet, it works the same way: you wash the pan in soap and hot water first, then dry it scrupulously. Oil the inside of the pan (paper towel is useful here) and then place it over medium-high heat. The bottom of the pan will begin to turn a golden brown as the oil ‘burns’ into the steel. It won’t look very pretty, but don’t worry–this is what you want. Rotate the pan to make sure that the entire inside surface of the pan is well seasoned. Let cool and repeat. After it cools for a second time, the pan is ready to use. The seasoning provides a natural non-stick surface. As with other seasoned cookware, you should clean your pan with hot water only–if you use soap or detergent, you will remove the seasoning. After each cleaning, oil the inside of the pan again and let it heat up for a minute. Wipe off any excess oil and store it away until you’re ready to enjoy your next paella.

Now, if all of this sounds like too much trouble, no worries. You can buy non-stick and stainless steel paella pans, which require no seasoning or special maintenance, as well as the traditional polished steel. And for years I used a regular non-stick braiser with fine results.

Post scriptum: Some of you may be thinking that you like adding seafood or chorizo or peas–or whatever–to your paella. So what’s wrong with that? Nothing at all, of course. But, in the words of one exasperated Spanish food blogger:

EN FIN, CADA UNO PUEDE HACER LO QUE QUIERA A SU GUSTO, PERO AL MENOS QUE NO LA LLAMEN PAELLA VALENCIANA!!!

Which means, roughly: “at the end of the day, each one of us can do what suits their taste, but just don’t call it ‘paella valenciana’!!!”

Paella Valencia on Foodista

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2 Responses to “Paella a la valenciana”

  1. 26 August 2009 at 13:21 #

    Lol. From now on I shall call mine Mock Paella Valenciana!

  2. 26 August 2009 at 02:03 #

    that looks so delicious!Thanks for the tip about not stirring the rice.Im learning so much from you!

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