Friday, March 31, 2006

Flavors of Spain I Adore You -- A Paella Variation

There are many reasons to go to Spain -- the people, the sights, the art, the music, the lifestyle, the shopping and the architecture -- but for me the compelling reasons always come down to the food. True, I travel the world on my stomach, but there is something special about the food in Spain. The paellas, the tapas, the chocolate. Lots of good things. I have lots of notes to turn into recipes and photos to download from my camera, most of which I haven't yet dealt with.

Within two days of coming home, before my jet lag had lagged, I already craved the flavors of Spain. So much so I had to make a paella for dinner. (The photo above is of my paella creation.) I adapted this recipe from a vegetarian paella I had in Madrid and several cookbooks, but I also was trying to use up some odds and ends from the fridge. There is no one kind of "correct" paella, but I do have some rules for paella making:

1. Use a Spanish short grain rice. There are lots of good kinds of rice from Valenica and other areas of Spain. If they are unavailable, use a Italian risotto rice such as aborio. You need a rice that will absorb a lot of flavor and give off a creaminess. If you don't have the right rice you don't have paella. You can make a lovely arroz con (rice with) whatever, but it won't be paella.

2. Invest in a paella pan. It doesn't need to be fancy. The shape allows you to brown your ingredients without crowding and helps the rice absorb the liquid correctly. If you don't have a paella pan, choose a pan that is wide and somewhat flat that can go into the oven and that is made out of a material that heats up quickly and cools down fast. Stainless or carbon steel are good choices. (The photo at left is of paella pans for sale in a Madrid market.)

3. Cooking a paella is a variable experience. You need to bite into the rice to judge where it is in the cooking process, don't just go by the clock. You need to gauge the soupiness of the broth. I can give you times, but it there are so many factors it is better to know what it is supposed to be like rather than depending on my telling you cook five minutes. Your rice may absorb liquid faster or slower than mine and you can end up with too much liquid in your paella or dry, tasteless rice.

For rice, pans and seasonings, I recommend the Spanish Table website but there are lots of other gourmet sites and stores that sell them, too. The following has been based on my own experience and ideas as well as recipes from Paella by Penelope Casas and The Spanish Table by Anya von Bremzen. Both books are available from the Spanish Table, although the book and website are not affiliated.

Paella with Meatballs and Vegetables with Avocado Sauce

For meatballs
3/4 pound of ground turkey meat
2 tablespoons finely chopped parsley
1 clove garlic, finely minced
3 tablespoons of finely crushed bread crumbs
1 egg, beaten
2 tablespoons water
ground pepper to taste

Combine ingredients. Form into 1 inch meatballs. Set aside. (Can be made ahead and refrigerated, bring to room temperature before using.)

For broth
4 cups of homemade or good quality commercial chicken broth
10 cloves of garlic without peels
2 tablespoons of paprika, preferably Spanish smoked style
2 springs of parsley
1 dried sweet pepper, Spanish noras, mild New Mexico pepper OR 1 fresh red bell pepper, seeded and cored and cut in half
pinch of saffron threads
2 tomatoes, chopped

Combine all ingredients in sauce pan. Bring to boil. Simmer until vegetables are softened. Strain, pressing down on solids to extract liquids as much as possible. You should have three cups of broth. Add water or more chicken stock if need be to make up three cups. Return to a simmer to use in paella recipe. (Can be made ahead and reheated.)

For Paella
4 tablespoons olive oil
Small onion, chopped
6-8 cloves of garlic, chopped
1 red pepper, seeded, cored, chopped
2 medium size tomatoes, chopped
1/8 pound of white button or small brown mushrooms, chopped
1 pound of boneless chicken thighs or breasts or combination cut into large, bite size pieces OR 1 pound of sweet turkey Italian sausage, sliced into rounds. (Or do a combination)
1 1/2 cups of paella rice (see "rules" above)
Broth (see above)
Meatballs (see above)
Coarse sea salt to taste
About 3/4 cup of cooked artichoke hearts
About 3/4 cup cooked green beans
Chopped parsley to sprinkle on top of finished paella (optional)
Avocado sauce (optional, see below)

Heat oil in a 12 to 14 inch paella pan (measured at it's widest point) or a wide, shallow fry or saute pan over a medium high heat. Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Add onions, saute until slightly softened. Add garlic. Saute until golden. Add chicken and sausage and brown (cook in batches if need be to avoid steaming). Add red bell pepper, mushroom and tomato chunks. Saute for a minute. Add rice, toss to coat thoroughly in the oil. Saute for a moment, then pour in the simmering broth. Stir everything to combine, cook at a boil for about five minutes, stirring every now and then. Add in meatballs. Continue to cook uncovered on medium high heat for about five minutes more, stirring occasionally.

The rice should be absorbing the liquid as it cooks. Since the pan is bigger than your burner, you may need to adjust its positioning to make sure the rice cooks evenly. If the rice seems to be drying out too fast in a particular spot, add a bit of water or chicken broth to it.

Bite into a grain of the rice. It should no longer have a raw taste, but still have some resistance or "crunchiness" in the center. While most of the broth should be absorbed, there should still be enough in the pan to seem a bit soupy. Taste also for salt and add to your taste at this stage if it is needed.

(If your paella rice is not at this stage, continue to cook it on the stove top, testing a grain of rice every now and then until it no longer tastes raw but has a "crunchy" center as described above. Then proceed as directed below.)

When your paella is at this stage, arrange the cooked artichoke hearts and green beans on top of the rice mixture, then carefully move the paella pan to the center of the preheated oven and continue to cook for 10-12 more minutes, or until most (but not all) of the liquid is absorbed and the rice seems cooked ALMOST all the way through when you bite into a grain. You want a bit of resistance at the core of the grain. Good paella is not mushy!

Remove the paella pan from the oven, cover with aluminum foil and let set for 10 minutes more, or until grain of rice is cooked all the way through and the rice mixture is moist but not liquidy or dry.

Scatter with chopped parsley, if desired, before serving. Serve with optional avocado sauce.

Avocado Sauce

This very untraditional sauce is based on a tapas recipe from The New Spanish Table. A spoonful or two on each serving of the paella really adds a bit of bite and richness, punching up the flavor. I used a mortar and pestle I bought in a past trip to Spain to mash everything together. You could use a bowl and the back of a sturdy fork as a substitute. Do NOT puree this in the food processor, it will pretty much liquify.)

Mash together:
2 small garlic cloves, finely chopped
3 tablespoons minced fresh parsley
1/4 teaspoon of coarse sea salt

2 small avocados, preferably Hass, pitted and cut into small bits
1 small, ripe tomato, cut in half and grated(you only want to use the mushy, grated bits, discard the skin).

Mash with the other ingredients until a rough puree, then add:
1 tablespoon sherry or apple cider vinegar
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil

Combine into a rough, slightly chunky sauce. Let sit about 15 minutes for flavors to mix. Taste and correct with additional salt and/or lemon juice as needed.


teacherarbc said...

First let me say that I really like your blog. Secondly, regarding your Avocado sauce, I make a similiar one incorporating sour cream and cayenne...yummy...

Karin W. said...

I travelled a lot in my younger days and I have found Spanish food excellent. I have some memories of paella - the word for the "frying pan" in Valencian (from Latin patella). The dish has become so popular that the word "paellera" is now usually used for the pan and paella almost exclusively for the dish.

My memory: A paella made at a sunny Spanish distant ocean beach by two men - lots of seafood, chicken, some lemon and orange slices too. And, of course the three main ingredients rice, saffron and olive oil.