Sunday, June 21, 2015

Passing on some tips

Paella or arroz as it is better known here on the Vega Baja is the dish that most of us associate with Spain.

Its origins are in Valencia where peasants would prepare a quick meal in the field using rice and any meat, vegetables or fish they could lay their hands on. They would cook this in a large  shallow pan (the paella) over a wood fire that generated a lot of heat but not for long.

There was nothing fanciful about the food and it was certainly not gastronomic. It was cheap, cheerful and filling like migas (a dish based on dry bread crumbs).

Even though most now use a gas burner to prepare arroz, the pan is still shallow and wide to allow maximum heat to the rice and minimum cooking time.

The most important ingredient is the rice which by choice is apparently bomba. Small and round, it absorbs flavours well and retains its shape. Then come the other essentials like saffron, garlic, olive oil and either stock or water.

Normally vegetables and or meat/fish are used but not always. Aficionados of the dish scoff at certain ingredients. Some will tell you that paella should NEVER contain chorizo or even onion, others will throw in whatever they feel like. If the result is not truly authentic what does it matter as long as it is tasty.

The arroz that was prepared for our Spanish class was traditional to the Vega Baja but even then, as Pepe said, there are as many variations on the dish as there are cooks preparing it. He even suggested that the dish would be different each time and went as far as to say that your mood at the time effected the final flavour.

A few tips from Pepe:

He claimed that cooking arroz over wood produced a more authentic flavour. Of course he could not use wood at La Pedrera because of the fire risk. Instead he had one of those double ring burners fuelled by gas.

Since he was preparing arroz con conejo, he chose rabbits that he had reared himself - fed on vegetables. He told me that shop bought rabbits are reared on pellets and have a different flavour.

Many recipes advocate stock rather than water and some even suggest that you should use a traditional Valencian fish stock and none other. Pepe used water.

Pepe also told me that you should only ever use extra virgin olive oil.

Pepe did not add any vegetables to his dish but there were a few herbs floating around including rosemary, basil and chives. As for spices, he added just a pinch of cinnamon and gratings from the shell of walnut. I did not see it go in but I am sure there must have been a pinch or two of saffron.

As for cooking time, you need to make sure that the meat is thoroughly cooked in the broth before adding the rice. When the time comes, add the rice in the form of a cross in the centre of the pan. Stir to make sure it is distributed and well covered and then leave it. No more stirring!

After 20 minutes, the rice will be cooked and it is time to cover the pan to allow the dish to rest for 15 minutes. Pepe used a tea towel, some use pieces of cardboard. I've read about using aluminium foil but Pepe advised against that saying that the vapour from the rice would condense on the foil and return to the pan. A cloth on the other hand absorbs the vapour.

My version

When I prepare a paella of arroz at Casa El Willo, the proportion of meat to rice is a lot higher. Those small chunks of rabbit with bones inside are very tasty but I prefer larger portions of chicken (thighs on the bone or drumsticks by choice). 

I also add a lot more vegetables including those white beans that you find in shops, green beans, peppers cut into strips and even sometimes frozen peas. Chunks of tomato are a must in my recipe. 

Instead of adding a variety of spices and saffron, I use sachets of Paellera from Mercadona. I like the aroma and flavour they produce. 

The result tastes nothing like the arroz that Pepe produced but then nobody who has ever sampled my version has ever complained. Not sure I would serve it to a Spaniard though!

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