The Pleasures of Paella

What to eat. What not to eat.
Dec. 6 2011 11:12 AM

Paella Is a Party!

Stop wasting your time with risotto.

Paella
Seafood paella

Photograph by iStockphoto/Thinkstock.

Maybe it’s time you stopped stirring. For a couple of decades now, risotto has been the go-to sophisticated rice dish for homes and restaurants alike, and cooks have stood by the stove with a spoon in one hand and a ladle in the other, tending to their finicky rice. But there is another great European rice tradition that delivers even more oomph with less baby-sitting, and a recent cookbook, Paella, by Spanish-Parisian chef Alberto Herraiz, has reminded me just how good the dish can be.

Though they are both made with absorbent short-grain rice, the differences between risotto and paella are elemental. Risotto is a big, mushy bowl of comfort, but one that calls for some finesse: You know the dish is well-made if it is creamy, but each grain of rice maintains a gentle bite. The best examples are exercises in restraint, focusing on one key flavoring ingredient—the pure, golden yellow of risotto Milanese, the kelly green peas polka-dotting a velvety springtime rice, the mushroom intensity of an autumn risotto. It’s all very nice, but it can get a little monotonous, too—all that smoothness and suppleness, with little textural variation.

Paella, on the other hand, is a party. It can get a little garish in there with all the saffron and the green beans and piquillo pepper, but what's more fun than a whiff of chaos? You can throw seafood, sausage, meat, beans, and peppers into a paella pan, and no one will think you’ve gone too far. One of the recipes in Herraiz’s book describes a paella with salt cod, apples, olives, and cauliflower—a so-crazy-it-just-might-work dare if I’ve ever seen one. I made it, and the dish was crazy and delicious all at once, the brine of the olives and cod offset by the sweetness of the fruit and cauliflower.

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The truth is, I haven’t made a practice of cooking paella regularly. Someone else does it for me: My great friend Curtis has made something of a specialty of cooking paella on his Big Green Egg smoker, and I’ve made a point of getting invited over to his place whenever it's afoot. Smoky, vibrant, and overloaded with nuggets of chorizo, I wouldn’t miss it for the world. But Paella, the book, made me resolve to dust off an old wedding present, a lovely paella pan, and get cracking. What I discovered is that paella is not just more fun to eat than risotto, it’s also more fun to cook.

Risotto is typically made with portly rice varieties that produce a starchy sauce as they cook. You stand in front of the stove for most of the process, stirring in ladlefuls of hot broth every few minutes, and whether you stir constantly or only intermittently, you need to stay close to the pot to prevent sticking. Paella, on the other hand, usually made with bomba or calasparra rice—is meant to stick. The bottom layer of the rice is toasted into a crust, known in Spain as soccarat; it is the treasure buried at the bottom of a well-made paella (not unlike the tah-dig in Persian rice dishes).

I’ll never claim that paella is a simple weeknight dinner; shopping for ingredients alone can send you off in several directions. But as with stir-fries, once you have everything you need, the actual cooking goes quickly, and the payoff is big, and fun, and delicious.

Herraiz has put together a stovetop method for cooking paella that’s easy to get down, one that even gives you a little breathing space, while the rice is in the oven, to leave the kitchen and chat with your guests. In short, you start heating aromatic ingredients in not a little olive oil. Then the rice gets stirred into the pan and toasted a bit before adding hot broth. (As with risotto, this is a key ingredient—you can use anything from chicken stock to octopus stock to maximize flavor.) Once the rice mixture has started to bubble, you can adjust your seasoning, but only for a few minutes. After that, you risk disturbing the socarrat at the base of the pan. Take note: The crust shall not be disturbed. After 17 minutes on the stove, add some decorative meat or vegetable elements to the top of your rice and pop it into a preheated oven. At this point, you can have a drink, cook something else, or otherwise relax. Twelve minutes later, you remove the pan from the oven, let the rice rest, and POW! Your paella is ready to go.

You can, of course complicate your life by cooking your paella over an open fire. When I tried making one on my own grill, things got a little dodgy—I didn’t quite have the intense heat I needed to reduce the liquids in the pan and cultivate a crackly crust. I ended up shuttling my pan into the kitchen a couple of times to get it rolling on the stovetop before finishing it in the backyard. That said, what I gave up in textural perfection, I gained in smoky flavor.

With or without smoke, paella’s pleasures come from its complexities. While risotto is about the uniformity of texture, paella indulges in diversity: the soft rice at the interior of the pan; the drier stuff on top; and the unbelievably delicious, crunchy crust at the bottom of the pan. The buried treasure of chunks of meat, seafood, veggies, or sausage embedded in the rice add yet more chewy variety to your eating.

I realize that I am using the term paella improperly. The dish, in the strictest sense, refers to rice as it is made in and near Valencia, Spain. That means it's aggressively saffroned and studded with produce and meats indigenous to the region, such as chicken, rabbit, eel, snails, broad beans, and white beans. Ideally it's cooked in a campfire near a marsh.

Herraiz avoids angering purists by calling any non-Valencia-style paella “paella rice.” Thus indemnified, he lets no tradition keep him from experimenting with his rice dishes—his book offers recipes for paella rice without the typical tomatoes and saffron, which he calls paella blanca; fantastic black rice darkened with cuttlefish ink; “dirty” paellas with unshucked shellfish and meat on the bones, which you have to sully yourself to eat; and paella-style dishes to conjure India (korma masala spice and coconut milk), New York (lots of sausages, including hot dogs), Buenos Aires (beef offal and mate tea), and Paris (veal, turnips, mushrooms, and Dijon mustard).

Funny, observant, and ever-so-slightly obsessive, Herraiz seems just the raconteur for this mode of cooking. If a fine risotto is a poem, a meditation on a single season or ingredient, a fine paella is a swirling social novel, overstuffed with compelling characters and all the more lively for the tensions and harmonies between them.

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