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The Right Tools and Ingredients

April 11, 2001|JANET MENDEL

* The pan. Paella pans are made of rolled steel and come in sizes from 10 inches up to 3 feet in diameter. The depth varies from 1 1/2 to 2 inches. A 10-inch pan serves 2 to 3 people, a 12-inch pan is about right to serve 4 to 5, and a 16-inch pan serves 6 to 8.

A paella pan larger than 12 inches is difficult to manage on top of the stove because it has to be positioned over two burners. If you're making more than 4 or 5 servings, divide the ingredients among two or more 12-inch pans. Or cook the paella outdoors over a wood fire, barbecue or large gas ring.

* The rice. Valencia paella is made with medium short-grain Valencia rice. Otherwise, use any Spanish medium-or short-grain rice, such as Calasparra. (See source list.)

If real Spanish rice is not available, the closest equivalent is a short-grain rice of the Arborio or Carnaroli type. Long-grain, "American," 'pilaf" or converted rice will not work.

Allow 1/2 cup of rice per person. For paella, the amount of liquid is double the rice, so 2 cups of rice will require 4 cups liquid. Have on hand about 1/2 cup of additional liquid to add in case the liquid cooks off too rapidly.

Do not wash the rice. Add the rice to the paella pan once the liquid has come to a boil. Stir in the rice and bring the liquid back to a full boil-then never stir the paella again. Stirring releases the grain's starch and makes gummy rice. Some cooks like to shake the pan, to prevent the rice sticking on the bottom, while others, appreciating the crunchiness, let the bottom get a little crusty.

* The cooking liquid. Simple country paellas are made with only water-and very tasty they are. A simple chicken broth or, for paella with shellfish, chicken broth boiled with shrimp shells and liquid from steaming open the mussels, enhances the finished flavor of the rice.

Color it yellow. Paella is always a sunny, golden color. The coloring (and flavoring) agent of choice is saffron, but this expensive spice can be extended with powdered artificial coloring or yellow food coloring.

Crush a few threads of real saffron in a mortar. If you don't have a mortar, use the butt of a knife to crush the saffron in a teacup. Stir 1/4 cup water into the saffron. Then supplement the golden color with a pinch of powdered yellow coloring or five to six drops of yellow food coloring. Do not, however, substitute that other yellow spice, turmeric, because it's too strongly flavored for paella. If neither saffron nor yellow coloring is available, the best substitute is a big spoonful of pimenton (Spanish paprika), which adds both color and flavor.

* What meat, seafood? Paella is a rice dish, so don't overload it with meats or seafood. If calculating 1/2 cup rice per person, allow 6 to 8 ounces per person of combined chicken, meat and seafood. Cut chicken, rabbit or other meat into small pieces, so that it cooks fully in the time it takes to cook the rice.

* The sofrito. The sofrito is the mixture of sauteed ingredients-meat, peppers, beans, tomatoes. Olive oil is the essential starting point of a good sofrito. Use a medium fire, so the chicken browns very slowly. It should be nearly cooked by the time the liquid and rice are added.

* Timing. Allow 20 to 30 minutes for the sofrito. Then add the liquid and bring it to a full boil. Put in the rice. Cook it on a hot fire for the first 5 minutes, then reduce the heat to medium. The rice should cook in 20 minutes from the time it was put into the pan. It will be tender but slightly chewy. Let the paella rest 5 to 10 minutes to finish cooking.

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