'Is not possible!. He tell me I not know how to make-a paella! I tell him paella is-a Spanish, not Cockney-stinking eel pie! I make-a paella like my mama! My mother's recipe is big in Barcelona!'
In an hilarious episode of Fawlty Towers, Manuel (the bumbling Spanish waiter), has a total meltdown because Terry, the hotel's chef, won't let him cook paella to his mother's recipe which, he explains to hotel owner, Basil Fawlty, in broken English, 'is big in Barcelona'. Fawlty, meanwhile, has been running around in his usual manic state trying deal with the fact that his wife stormed out of the hotel thinking Basil has forgotten their 15th wedding anniversary. Fawlty has invited some close friends to a surprise party to celebrate, and panics when he feels the need to explain Sybil's absence! Of course he concocts a crazy story about her being in bed with puffy thighs, and the fun begins...
As patriotic as Manuel, paella is the iconic Spanish dish, with numerous variations across the different regions of the country. In my 1992 edition of The Spanishwoman's Kitchen, author Pepita Aris writes that 'Paella's history is a short one, for Spain's most celebrated dish is less than 200 years old... [and was] invented by [peasant] men, combining fish and meat [originally eels, snails and green beans] in rice for the first time... and every village has its tio, uncle-expert, who will hold forth on how to make it.' Truth be told, paella is not that difficult. Freshness of the ingredients is important, as is the quality and provenance of the rice and the saffron. At a certain point in the cooking, when all the ingredients have been added to the pan, the paella must not be stirred. Towards the end of the cooking time, the heat increased just long enough to form a golden crust on the base of the paella. And it goes without saying that the dish should be served with good wine!
6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
200g chicken tenderloins, cut into bite-sized cubes
125g chorizo, cut into 1cm slices
1 squid tube (180g), sliced into rings
12 large green prawns (shell half & leave the tails on, leave the rest in their shells)
6 mussels, cleaned
For the soffrito:
1 red and 1 green capsicum (bell pepper), diced
1 large brown onion, diced
1 clove garlic, chopped
2 tomatoes, peeled and chopped
1.5-2 litres (hot) chicken stock
1/2 cup dry white wine
1/2 teaspoon Spanish saffron threads, infused in 1 tablespoon of the stock+
2 teaspoons sweet or smoked paprika+
450g Spanish paella rice
sea salt and cracked black pepper, to taste
lemon wedges, to serve
Most importantly, have all your ingredients measured, chopped, sliced, diced and set onto platters before you start cooking. Heat half the oil in the paella pan over medium heat. Add the chicken pieces and cook until golden brown. Remove from the pan and set aside. Add the chorizo to the pan and cook until sealed on both sides, adding more oil if needed. Remove and set aside. Now cook the prawns and squid for a couple of minutes, then remove and set aside.
Heat the remaining oil and make the soffrito, which comprises the capsicums, onion, garlic and tomatoes, sauteed until until the vegetables are tender and the liquid has reduced and you have a paste like mixture. Add the wine, rice, paprika, saffron, chicken, chorizo, squid and the prawns that you've shelled to the pan together with the boiling stock, stir, then lower the heat. Arrange the mussels and remaining prawns (in the shells) over the top and poke them into the rice. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
Simmer the paella over a low heat for around 15-20 minutes, but don't stir it any further at this stage. You will know that the paella is cooked when the rice is al dente but not too dry, and all the stock has been absorbed. In the last minute or two (no more), turn up the heat so that you can caramelise the bottom of the paella to get a nice socarrat, or crusty base. Drizzle with a little more extra virgin olive oil. Turn off the heat. Cover tightly with aluminium foil and allow the paella to rest for about 10 minutes. Serves 6-8.
For a party paella, allow your guests to serve themselves straight from the paella pan, which has centre stage on your table (on a trivet!). Serve with wedges of lemon and suitably chilled wine, such as Promised Land Moscato.
* This quantity is suitable for a 40cm paella pan.
+ I used Herbie's Paella spice blend with saffron (1/2 teaspoon per cup of stock).
The process in pictures...
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Hello. I'm Liz, a writer, cook and traveller based in Canberra, Australia.
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NB: I use Australian standard measuring cups and spoons in my recipes.