Rather surprisingly, given how much I love paella and always want to eat in when in Spain, I’d never cooked it, so I decided to put that right. I ordered a small (26cm) paella pan from Amazon, which is the right size for 2-3 portions, and then I was set to go.
As I wrote in my post about having a paella in Moraira, Spain, last September, paella is usually eaten at lunchtime there; it’s thought better for the digestion to eat rice during the day rather than in the evening. However, I rarely eat big meals at lunchtime and so my digestion was going to have to deal with it. Paella was on the menu for supper last night.
Paella originally came from Valencia (where I went for a day trip), and where there are rice fields in the surrounding area. It was very much labourers’ food, often cooked over open fires in the fields. The wall tiles in the restaurant I went to in Moraira had pictures of this. For that reason, it consisted of things that easily came to hand: chicken, rabbit, snails and vegetables. There are three main types of paella: Valencian, which has all the ingredients just listed but also dried lima (butter) beans; seafood paella replaces the meat with a variety of seafoods, especially prawns, mussels and squid; paella mixta is more freestyle – and I suppose what I did last night – mixing meat, seafood and vegetables.
The ‘freestyle’ definition is a good encouragement to not get too hung about about ingredients and just use what’s to hand with the basic paella rice (you must use the right kind but it’s easily available in supermarkets). Although using a jointed chicken, with the meat still on the bone, would be best, my freezer contained only chicken breasts. Prawns in shells are the norm, but I had only ones without – but raw.
The best way to cook the paella is to get all the ingredients ready and chopped so that at the last minute you can just put everything together in the pan as you start cooking. This is what I did: cut 1 good-sized chicken breast into bite-sized pieces and season with salt and pepper; chop half a Spanish onion (sweeter than English); slice 1 red pepper; finely chop 1 garlic clove; skin and chop 2 tomatoes; have 70g raw prawns ready (defrosted if you’ve had in freezer) and some peas (what seems enough for two – I slightly overdid it as I love peas!).
Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in the paella pan (if you don’t have one, a shallow frying pan will do), then add the chicken and once nicely browned, remove to a plate. Now add the onion, garlic and red pepper to the pan and fry on a medium heat till soft. This is the sofrito and giving it time to cook well before you add the other ingredients is important to the final taste of your paella. Now add 1 teaspoon paprika (traditionally smoked paprika is used, but I prefer sweet), a good pinch of saffron that you’ve soaked for a short time in a little hot water (saffron is an essential part of a true paella – but don’t mistake putting in too much to get that famous yellow colour – too much will give your diarrhoea! The Spaniards sometimes use colouring, but I’m happier with just a slight yellow colour), and a good pinch of dried chilli flakes. Stir it all together well and cook for a couple of minutes, then add the chopped tomatoes and 2 cups of hot chicken stock. Return the pieces of chicken to the pan and cook for 5-10 minutes. Remove chicken again and set aside. Check seasoning and add salt and pepper as needed.
Now, scatter over 1 cup of paella rice. Give a stir, let it all come back to the boil and then gently simmer, uncovered, for about 10 minutes. A paella, unlike a risotto, should be fairly dry at the end. Shake the pan occasionally but don’t stir. Now return the chicken to the pan with the prawns and peas. Use a fork to submerge them, and continue to cook, uncovered, for about 15 minutes, or until the rice is done. If it gets too dry before the rice is cooked, add a little more hot stock or water. Remember that the rice in the middle will cook before that at the edge, so check the rice on the edge. Also, remember to turn the prawns halfway through cooking.
When the rice is cooked and all the liquid evaporated, the paella is ready. Serve with some lemon wedges and scatter over some chopped parsley if you have some. You should find the paella has caught a little on the bottom of the pan but this crispy, browned rice is thought to be a special bit – so enjoy!
Well, that’s my first paella. I looked through lots of recipes, finding a Delia Smith one online very helpful; my World Kitchen Spain book and Moro the Cookbook. There are so many variations that I know I’m going to have fun trying more out and making lots of use of my new paella pan.