It’s the 4th of July here in the US and the national holiday naturally makes me yearn for… paella! Well, not just any paella, but paella mexicana, a Mexican-style version inspired by my fellow blogger Non Chef Nick’s latest post on In the Kitchen with Nick. I absolutely love paella. Having not prepared it for quite some time and being on something of a Mexican ‘kick’ lately, when I saw his mouth-watering recipe for Mexican paella, I knew I had to try it. Sorry, Nick for being such a copycat, but you know what they say: imitation is the sincerest form of flattery!
Being a man of simple tastes, I have reduced the number of ingredients quite a bit and simplified the technique here and there. Here’s my take:
- 2 links of Mexican chorizo
- 2-3 chicken thighs
- 2 poblano chiles
- 1/2 white onion, chopped
- 2 tomatoes, puréed, or 125 ml (1/2 cup) passata di pomodoro
- 2 Tbs pimentón (smoked paprika)
- A few threads of saffron
- A dozen clams
- Olive oil
Plus Arborio or Spanish paella rice
Heat a well-seasoned paella pan over high heat, preferably on a barbecue or, even better, a paella burner. (If you don’t’ have either, you can make paella perfectly well over the stove, but it will lack that characteristic lightly smoky flavor.) When hot but not burning, add enough olive oil to cover the bottom of the pan and sauté some Mexican chorizo. Meanwhile, char a couple of chiles poblanos over the flame and, when nicely charred on all sides, remove them and let them cool a bit, covered with a cloth or in a paper bag.
Add some chicken thighs to the pan and brown them very well. You want both the chorizo and the chicken to be very nicely golden brown, which will give your paella deep flavor.
While the chicken and chorizo are browning, skin your chiles poblanos with your hands, remove the seeds and cut them into rajas (or strips). When the chicken are chorizo are done, add a chopped white onion and the rajas to the pan.
When the onion has softened, shove all the ingredients in the pan to the sides, making a ‘well’ in the middle. Into this well, place a spoonful of cumin (not too much, as cumin has a very strong flavor) and a heaping spoonful or two of pimentón (smoked paprika). Allow the spices to fry in the oil for a moment, until they become nicely fragrant:
Then add two tomatoes, which you will have puréed in a blender. (For extra flavor, you can char and peel the tomatoes along with the chiles before puréeing them.) Mix the ingredients all together and let them simmer until the resulting ‘sauce’ thickens nicely.
Add enough water to almost fill the pan. (If using a traditional paella pan, you can use the rivets for the handles as a guide.) Season with salt and add a few threads of saffron—again, not too much as saffron too has a strong flavor and is very expensive to boot!
Allow this broth to simmer for a good 10 minutes or more, until it reduces by about half and develops a rich flavor. Taste the broth at this point to see if it sufficiently savory. Adjust for salt if need be and, if it tastes a bit ‘thin’, let it simmer some more.
When your broth is ready, add your rice. The traditional Spanish way of adding the rice is by pour a line of rice from top to bottom and then from left to right to form a ‘cross’ in the pan that just barely rises about the top of the broth. Then you spread it out evenly. I usually simply sprinkle the rice around the pan as evenly as I can manage, enough so that it is just visible under the surface of the broth.
Either way, let the rice simmer undisturbed for a good 15 minutes or so, until the broth has almost but not quite entirely been absorbed. Taste a bit of the rice—if it is still quite hard, add a bit more water. Then add some clams here and there, as many as you like without overwhelming the dish:
Let the rice continue to cook until the clams have opened and the broth entirely absorbed. (NB: You may need to raise the heat a bit at this point so the clams open.) The rice should ‘crackle’ a bit, meaning that it is forming that delicious crust called socarrat. Remove the paella from the heat, sprinkle it with a shot or two of tequila and let it rest for 10 minute or so before serving.
My paella mexicana turned out to be truly delicious, if I do say so myself! If I had one thing to change, though, I would have held back about half of the rajas and placed them on top of the paella along with the clams toward the end of the cooking time. While the poblanos had lent their wonderful flavor to the dish, they had essentially disappeared as a separate ingredient when all was said and done. Reserving some for the end would have also added a bit of contrast and color to the final dish.
Nick’s version of paella mexicana is a bit more elaborate than this, with shrimp, tomatillos, green beans, shallots, chicken stock, peas in addition to the ingredients used here. And he uses chicken wings instead of thighs, chili powder instead of cumin. He also ‘toasts’ the rice in the oil before adding his stock. It looks perfectly delicious, too.
Post scriptum: We had some fun trying to think up a name for this dish made for the 4th of July. Paella cuatro de julio was an obvious choice, but didn’t seem right. Then why not paella Pancho Villa? Paella Benito Juárez? Paella Frida Kahlo? Then I suggested paella Emperatriz Carlota, at which point we realized we should quit while we were ahead and settled for plain old paella mexicana…