What’s A Paella, Anyway?
What makes a rice dish a paella? Paella is a rice dish from the Valencia – Alicante regions of Spain cooked in a wide shallow pan called a paella. The original Valencian recipe starts by sautéing chicken and rabbit … Luckily for vegetarians there are infinite varieties of authentic paellas using any mix of vegetables, including two of my favourites, artichokes and thistles
Here’s a quick guide. If you don’t care about the ins-and-outs of culinary history, authenticity or paella semantics skip to the recipe and come back later for a wee read
Arroz (rice) a la paella: the original name of the dish. Paella is made in a paella.
Paella is not yellow. It has saffron which is yellow, but this is used for flavour. Being expensive you might be tempted to omit this queen of spices. That’s fine. But please, please don’t stain your rice with that tartarazine-based paella colouring that Spaniards adore, but is only a food dye with no flavour and zero nutrition. Add turmeric when it’s aroma enhances your particular dish. But not just to make it yellow. Paella isn’t yellow. OK?
Valencian Paellas use paprika as well as saffron. Originally unsmoked from the Murcia region, you’ll find plenty of modern paellas using the smoky La Vera paprika
Alicante paellas use salmorreta: dried sweet peppers (ñoras) are sautéd with garlic, tomato, parsley and salt then blended smooth. Salmorreta will colour your paella a rich rusty red with no hint of yellow.
Paella contains beans. Originally a type of butter-bean local to the region, nowadays you’ll see any mixture of white and green beans including haricot and broad beans Peas are OK too.
When to add the rice? Valencian paellas add the rice before the liquid coating it in oil to keep the grains separate. Alicantine paellas add the rice last. Though there is a difference in the outcome it’s a fine point. What matters is the rice.
Which rice? Paella is dry. Bomba rice from the Valencian Albuferra is the classic, being highly absorbent, but there are many other types which connoisseurs can distinguish in taste and texture. Any medium grain highly absorbent rice which holds its shape is good.
Socorrat:, the crunchy caramelized crust at the bottom of the pan is an essential of authentic paella. it requires two things: a shallow paella pan and not stirring the rice after adding the liquid. This applies to all paellas. Finally:.
A dash of lemon? There was a big hoo-ha a while back in Spanish Master-Chef. Like onions in tortilla (or, dare I mention Brexit?) the country was split down the middle on the subject. Admittedly lemon with rabbit and chicken isn’t to everyone’s taste. But vegetables love a bit of lemon. You can go a step further and pound garlic with black pepper in a mortar and pestle then add lemon juice and smother your paella all over with the resultant majado
And now, here’s a recipe that respects principles while staying heroically unfettered by tedious rules: a long-grain rice paella with a smoked chipotle chilli – oregano salmorreta topped with avocado and a shallot-lime majado in the Alicante style A La Mexicana
Paella A La Mexicana
- long grain rice - such as Basmati use one handful per person plus one for the pot
- salt to taste
- 2 tbsp olive oil
- 1 onion roughly chopped
- 3 cloves garlic whole or halved
- 1-2 chipotle chillies dry or in adobo sauce
- 4 fresh tomatoes unpeeled and quartered
- 1 tsp dry oregano
- 1 pinch saffron (optional) saffron strands benefit from soaking in a little hot water; powdered saffron can go straight onto the rice
- 2 carrots cubed
- 1 stick celery very finely chopped
- 2 medium sweet peppers (capsimums) your favourite colour
- 1 tea-cup beans any, but pinto are very Mexican
- 1 handful green beans sliced
- 2 avocados sliced - allow 1/2 an avocado per serving
- 8-10 whole black pepper corns pounded
- 1 lime jiuced
- 2-3 small shallots finely sliced
- 1 bunch fresh coriander leaf chopped
Marinate The Shallots
- Immerse the finely sliced shallots in lime juice with a pinch of salt. Cover and set aside
Prepare The Salmorreta
- Gently fry the onion, garlic, oregano and chipotle chillies with a good pinch of salt in a tablespoon of oil to just soften and lightly brown. Add the tomatoes (no need to peel) and oregano and fry for another minute or two
- Put the the mixture into a blender goblet with a little water or vegetable stock and liquidize to smooth
Prepare The Rice - Vegetable Base
- In a wide, shallow pan sauté the carrots, celery, green beans and peppers in a tablespoon of olive oil to lightly brown and soften
- Add a cup of water or vegetable stock and cook, covered, until the vegetables are soft but still firm
- Add the rice, cooked beans, tomato-chile salmorreta, saffron if you're using it, and water or more vegetable stock to cover rice by a good inch. Season with salt. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat to low and cover. Cook on a low flame without stirring or uncovering for 15 minutes
- Test the rice - it should have no crunch in the centre. If it does give it another 5 minutes. Finally turn off the heat and allow the dish to rest, covered, for 5-10 minutes
Finish Off The "Majado" Dressing & Other Toppings
- Pound a small clove of garlic with 5-8 peppercorns in a mortar and pestle. Add marinated shallots with all the lime juice
- Slice the avocados length-ways and arrange over the now rested rice
- Sprinkle over the lime dressing and chopped fresh coriander and garnish with lime wedges. Serve with a fresh crisp salad