For me, one of the critical components of any culture, particularly Spanish culture, is its cuisine. You can visit historic places and read age-old tales, but to eat a dish that has been passed down for generations and eaten by the rich and poor both in good times and bad (apparently I haven’t left the whole wedding thing behind me, have I?) is the ultimate cultural experience. You may not be able to take the Alhambra with you back to your little corner of the world, but you most definitely can try to whip up a mean batch of gazpacho, thus transporting yourself, even just slightly, back to a scorching hot day in Andalucia. This is what food is about to me. So that is why I would like to take you on a little journey to experience an afternoon with a very well-loved Spanish dish – paella. It famously originates from the Valencia region of Spain, can be cooked probably a million different ways, and made its formal debut as an official dish sometime during the 18th century.
Last weekend Jacobo and I headed to our friends Manu and Natalia’s house about 20 minutes north of Madrid on what was proving to be a perfect, sunny Autumn day. It had been two whole years since we’d last had Manu’s paella, but our obsession with it was not forgotten – I was in fact so desperate for it that I bartered with Manu in order to get him to make it, offering my banana bread in return for his paella (a weak trade, I know, but he bought it! Sucker!). You see, Manu’s paella isn’t just served to you at a formal dinner table, but instead cooked slowly in his yard, all afternoon long, while the guests can see the ricey wonder transform into paella, and at the same time nosh on tapas as they throw back glass after glass of almost always delicious Spanish wine.
Arriving at Manu’s, the first line of business was pine cones. Yes, pine cones. Cooking the paella over them not only gives it great flavor, but the cones allow you to control the heat easily by adding more or by spreading them apart. Nothing gets you in the mood for a good paella like working up some hunger while pine cone hunting. Ok, who am I fooling, the hunting was brief, like five minutes amongst a small grove of trees on the side of the road, but does one really need to work very hard to build up a hunger for paella?? No? That’s what I thought.
Back at the house, Manu prepped the broth for the paella in the kitchen by filling a large pot with water, then adding paellero seasoning (a premix of paella spices – the key spice being saffron), chicken broth cubes, a whole tomato and a whole onion. Done with his work there, he turned on the stove heat to high and headed out to the yard where the real work began (and consequently where my real work began – sampling the tapas and wine of course! A rough job, but I didn’t want to be rude and not express my appreciation for the fine appetizers).
Out in the yard, the table was set with care – and by care I mean all the essentials were present: jamón, manchego cheese, bread, potato chips (not an essential for me, but strangely enough a tapas essential in most all Spanish households), and white wine (to be followed by two other red wines). Meanwhile, Manu prepped the BBQ with a few pine cones, lighting them on fire and placing the paellera, or paella pan, on top of the rack. First into the pan was a touch of olive oil and four whole cloves of garlic, which he cooked until browned. While the garlic was cooking, he chopped up a bit of tomato, and a quarter or so each of the green and red bell peppers. Once removing the garlic from the pan and setting it aside, in went the tomato and peppers, sizzling away.
While the pepper and tomato cooked, our paella chef chopped up the pig ribs (something I could admittedly live without – I’m still working on my love of pig) and chicken (bones and all), and then mashed up the browned garlic. After the tomato and pepper had done their time in the paellera, it was the pig’s turn (as apparently it takes the longest to cook) along with the mashed garlic. Before too long, the sausage was added, and then finally the chopped chicken. The smell of the intermingling ingredients and the crackling pine cones was intoxicating.
Meanwhile, the broth was merrily boiling away in the kitchen, just waiting for showtime. So after all the meats had cooked for a bit, it was time to add that broth to the paellera so that it could boil, slurp and pop its way to perfection. For how long you ask? Good question, and one that I posed to Manu. The response, “oh you know, as long as I feel like.”
You’re probably starting to wonder about that key ingredient aren’t you? The rice! Not just any rice though – it should ideally be Spanish paella rice as it is especially absorbent and therefore sucks up all of the mouth watering flavors. There are two important things to keep in mind at this point: 1) don’t add too much rice – a good paella is one that has a very thin layer of rice, which ensures that it is evenly cooked, and 2) once you add the rice, no stirring as nothing makes a Spaniard more happy than the slightly crispy, almost burnt rice that is stuck to the bottom of the paellera. This crusty layer of rice is called socarrat and is indeed the most coveted part of the paella – the part which the server will laboriously scrape at so that you can have that crunchy goodness on your plate.
Around 4:30PM, the rice had finally absorbed all of the broth, and lunch (yes, lunch!) was ready to be served. Manu’s masterpiece had a smoky flavor and perfectly crusted bottom – I can hardly write this without contemplating heading to the kitchen to feverishly find a spoonful of saffron just calm my nerves! Mixed with a glass of wine (eh hem, or several) and the mildly warm weather, you couldn’t ask for a more perfect Spanish afternoon. A big thanks to Manu and Natalia for making it all happen!
So brave Spanish Cuisine Chef (yeah, that’s you!), are you ambitious enough to take an imaginary journey to the Spanish countryside and try your hand at making paella? If so, I’ve included the list of ingredients below (albeit in fairly loose quantities, but you’re adventurous, so who cares!?). In the meantime, though, since I’ve got you all worked up into a Spanish food tizzy (I know, it was rather cruel wasn’t it?), perhaps you’d like to go grab a snack and cozy up for a little journey through food around the world! It’s the subject of the latest blog carnival by the Lonely Planet BlogSherpas, which is hosted by Tie Dye Travels. It’s calorie free, so why not?
1/4 of 1 green bell pepper
1/4 of 1 red bell pepper
Paella spices such as saffron, paprika, thyme and garlic (or just use “paellero” if you can find it)
4-5 cloves of garlic
Chicken broth cubes
Spanish paella rice
Sausage (ideally chistorra)
*Note that you can find various Spanish products, such as the Spanish rice or paella pan, at La Tienda