The grain in Spain

A cookery masterclass in the art of making a genuine paella
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How Did paella become one of the world's great dishes? Like many other famous dishes, it is rooted in peasant beginnings, and it is named after the container it's cooked in. A paellera is a wide, flat frying pan with two handles.

Can you cook this dish without a proper paella pan? You can, but it won't be a very big one. It's essential to the unique texture and character of paella that the rice cooks as a shallow layer so, unless you have a very wide frying pan, you'll have difficulty making one for more than four people.

In Spain, paella pans come in a multitude of sizes. This raises a second problem; the heat source. To cook a paella for six or more people, using a large pan, a single gas or electric ring is not sufficient. You have to juggle the pan on several rings, making quarter turns every few minutes to spread the heat. It is infinitely more satisfying to grasp the nettle, buy a real pan and turn it into your speciality outdoor dish as an alternative to steaks on the barbecue (an excellent heat source).

Having said this, what do we mean by a paella? The Spanish food writer Maria-Jose Sevilla, who guides us through this dish, is resigned to the fact that its meaning is abused in the Spanish gastronomic vocabulary, in Spain as well as overseas.

Everyone thinks of it as yellow-rice dish, decorated with colourful red and green peppers, and studded with mussels, crowned with orange langoustines. She sighs; "This is not a true paella but an Arroz a la Marinera, or an Arroz Abanda. The true and original one is the Paella Valenciana de la Huerta and doesn't contain seafood."

The huerta is the farm orchard, and from the 8th century when the Moors introduced rice to the Valencia wetlands, the ingredients were those most readily found around the farm; chicken, rabbit, snails, beans. It's not realistic, but if we could follow the purist track all the way we'd better have the right beans; garrofon, like big, flat butter beans, tavellas, freshly podded white kidney beans, and ferraura beans, flat, green pods like mangetouts.

The technique of cooking is different to that of Italian risotto. (In a rissoto, rice is stirred rapidly in a deep pan, the loose starch thickening the cooking liquid.) In a paella, the shallow layer of rice is not stirred. If the layer is not shallow enough it will take for ever to cook through. The rule is to make sure the level of rice and liquid does not rise above the welded studs of the two handles.

What if the rice sticks to the bottom? Good. The crispy bit at the bottom is known as soccorat, and is scraped up at the end of a meal with delight by true aficionados. Here then, is Maria-Jose Sevilla's authentic paella. If you choose to do the seasiders' version, don't tell Maria-Jose. Use the chicken as shown, but substitute mussels for snails, Spanish chorizo sausage (about 350g/12oz) for rabbit, and finish it with eight uncooked prawns and four langoustines. Try to use some beans (say 125g/4oz broad beans) and you might want to add a deseeded sliced red pepper for colour not to mention (oh, heresy) some chopped coriander or parsley.

One last thing. On no account substitute long-grain rice. It's essential to use short-grain because it is absorbent. Italian risotto rice is fine, actually, but if you're buying Spanish look for the name Bomba or Calasparra. A warning, not all Spanish rice is short grain. In the Spanish Civil War the Republicans held the rice-growing areas of the river Ebro and Valencia in the North; desperate for food resources Nationalist leader General Franco ordered rice to be grown in Andalusia. Thus Spain is Europe's biggest grower of long-grain rice, sold here as larga. I've bought this rice in London thinking larga must mean large, which sounds right for a paella. Not so, larga is Spanish for long. Long grained rice, the wrong one. No-good paella.

PAELLA A LA VALENCIANA DE LA HUERTA

Serves 4

125g/4oz white butter beans (soaked overnight)

125g/4oz lima beans, soaked overnight, drained and rinsed

134 litres/3 pints water

500g/1lb corn-fed chicken, cut into pieces

500g/1lb rabbit, cut into pieces

2 tablespoons olive oil

salt

150g/5oz green beens, cut into 1-inch pieces

125g/4oz tomatoes, deseeded and finely chopped

16 cleaned snails or a sprig of rosemary

pinch of saffron

1 tablespoon paprika

350g/12oz short-grain rice Bomba or Arborio

Cook the soaked butter beans and lima beans in a pint of water for 45 minutes, or until nearly soft. In another pan, boil the snails for five minutes and drain. Trim the chicken and rabbit, leaving the bones in.

Heat the oil in a 40cm (16in) paella pan with a pinch of salt. When hot, fry the chicken and rabbit in it over a medium heat until golden brown on all sides. Add the green beans and fry for five minutes, then add the tomatoes and cook for another three minutes.

Steep and crush the saffron in a little boiling water. Sprinkle the paprika in the pan, add water and rest of beans and bring to the boil. Now add the snails, or the rosemary, the saffron, and another pinch of salt. Simmer, covered with a sheet of foil, for 30 to 45 minutes until meat is tender. If the level of liquid has gone down, top it up with boiling water.

Sprinkle the rice into the boiling liquid and cook over a high heat for 10 minutes. Turn down the heat, and leave to cook without disturbing for 10 minutes until the liquid has evaporated. If it doesn't seem completely cooked at the end, take it off the heat and cover with a dampened, folded tea cloth for 10 minutes. Leave to stand, and the rice will continue to cook.

Paella pans can be obtained from Products of Spain, 89 Charlotte Street, London W1P 1LP (0171 580 2905) in sizes to serve one to 50. Pan for four: pounds 6.05. Pan for 10, pounds 11.29. It also sells paella rice at pounds 1.73 per kg.

COMING SOON

Next week we will publish the first of two extracts from Clare Ferguson's comprehensive new book, 'Rice' (Ryland, Peters & Small), starting with some of the world's classic rice dishes, such as risotto alla Milanese, Louisiana jambalaya, Greek dolmades and Indian lamb biryani. Then, in the final week, we will look at black or red rice, using rice bi-products, such as noodles and rice flour, and desserts with rice, shortbread, ice-cream, puddings; together with an exclusive reader's offer for Clare Ferguson's book (embracing 50 wonderful traditional and modern rice recipes).

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