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Oh, what a dish

Paella, Spain's beloved showstopper, can kick up its heels in California too.

June 27, 2007|Leslie Brenner | Times Staff Writer

I want to say one word to you. Just one

word. Are you listening?

Paella.

The conversation could end here, because the picture tells it all. It's gorgeous in its saffron robe, with plump coral-colored shrimp and happy clams and purple wiggles of squid. Bring it straight to the table in its own pan and you've got a party. Toss in some garlicky allioli to stir into the rice and a bottle of crisp rose and you've got a great party.

Everyone loves paella. But curiously, despite the fact that Spanish cooking is on the minds of gourmands around the globe -- with El Bulli continuing to capture the spotlight and tapas having spawned an explosion in wine bars -- paella, one of Spain's most beloved dishes, hasn't found a place on many restaurant menus.

That's all the more reason to make it at home.

Especially because it's the greatest dish imaginable for summer entertaining. Not only does it make a stunning visual statement -- it's unbeatable for that dramatic entrance. But it also takes care of itself for the last half hour of its cooking time, leaving you free to toss together a salad or put the final touches on a charcuterie platter to serve as a starter. And you can even make it on the grill.

Once you get the hang of the technique -- and it doesn't take much practice -- you'll want to make it a part of your repertoire, and even riff away on the ingredients. Unlike risotto, which is almost impossible to serve as a second course (unless you have a cook), paella has the grace to leave you time to sit and chill with a bowl of gazpacho first.

Confession: I was always afraid of paella. I think it's Craig Claiborne's fault, for my first tentative experience with the dish involved a recipe in the old New York Times cookbook. I remember it as being difficult, long and involved to prepare, and the rice turned out gummy.

A recipe for seafood paella in Anya von Bremzen's most recent book, "The New Spanish Table," was so easy and turned out to be so fantastic -- and such a crowd-pleaser -- that it got me wondering why I hadn't been making paella every week for the last 20 years. Von Bremzen, a Spanish-food authority who divides her time between Spain and New York, suggests serving the paella with allioli, Spain's version of aioli. Just a little dab of the garlicky mayonnaise stirred into the rice as you eat it takes it to a whole new level.

Inland inspired

WHEN most Americans hear "paella," we automatically think of seafood paella, but in fact the original paella doesn't involve seafood at all. "It comes from Valencia and involves rabbit, snails, sometimes chicken, never seafood," Von Bremzen says. "It's an inland dish, the rice cooked in the paella pan with a very simple sofrito. Even adding onion is something of a heresy."

In fact what defines paella is the pan: The word comes from the Latin patella, a shallow pan.

Though it's not the original dish, seafood paella is extremely popular on the Valencian coast, where it's served at chiringuitos, seaside seafood shacks. It might include mussels, clams, scallops, monkfish, squid or even squid ink for a black paella. Mixing seafood and meat is taboo.

Chiringuito seafood paella is just as at home here in Southern California.

But don't stop at seafood -- the dish is a natural for adapting to California ingredients. A true paella Valenciana might include some combination of rabbit, chicken, duck and land snails (rosemary is the traditional substitute), with the permissible additions of flat green beans, butter beans and artichokes. It's not difficult to give that a California spin, with chicken, Romano beans, favas, rosemary and artichokes.

And there's no reason you can't get more imaginative. In Valencia and Alicante, the two regions paella rules in Spain, meatballs, pork, sausages (including morcilla, or blood sausage) and pine nuts are used, as well as potatoes, cauliflower, chard, red pepper and other vegetables. So why not use California quail or spiny lobster, zucchini or mushrooms or eggplant -- or whatever looks great at the farmers market or is just coming up in the garden?

But whatever you embellish it with, the important thing to remember is paella is all about the rice. You want it to absorb as much flavor as possible, and wind up just a bit al dente, with the grains keeping their integrity. The Italian rice called Vialone Nano is ideal for this. And the seafood or meats and vegetables shouldn't overwhelm the rice.

No other pan will do

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