How not to make a bad one
Paella first emerges in history in the mid-19th century near the Valencian lagoon of Lake Albufera on the east coast of Spain. Today, the Valencians regard it as a symbol of their region, and tucking into a paella certainly ranks high on the to-do list of most visitors to Spain. However, finding a really good paella can be a mission—and preparing your own even more so.
For a simple dish, a lot can go wrong.
First, it can be too fancy. A true paella needs to stay close to its origins as a humble peasant dish. The ten traditional ingredients were olive oil, chicken, rabbit, green beans, butter beans, tomato, saffron, salt, rice and water or stock. If you must add anything else, keep it to seafood or game, and maybe garlic, onions and/or smoked paprika on the seasoning side. Stop there.
Second, the stock can be rubbish. Don’t use cubes or concentrate—make your own. Not only is stock preparation an intrinsic part of the paella ritual, but you have control over the quality of this all-important ingredient. Roast up the leftovers (bones and shells included) of whatever meat or seafood you’re using, then simmer them in a pot with shallot, carrot, fennel, garlic, tomato paste, and paprika, topped with five or six centimetres of water.
Third, you need to use the right rice to absorb the flavours properly. Bomba rice is preferred because of its amazing ability to expand sideways to absorb three times its volume in broth while remaining firm.
Fourth, use the traditional wide, shallow paella pan to ensure that the paella mix can be spread thinly enough to achieve the prized soccarat—the crispy, caramelized crust that forms beneath an authentic paella cooked over flame. Afficionados recommend that if you walk into a restaurant and mention the word soccarat and the staff look puzzled and/or inform you that they bake their paella in the oven, turn around and walk out the door.
To create your soccarat, DON’T stir the rice once it has joined the stock in the pan—it will just stodge up. DO leave the pan on the heat for a short while after the rice is cooked until you hear it sizzle and see the edges crisp.
For a final touch, blend saffron, raw or roast garlic, and white wine and pour it over the paella to soak in for a few minutes before serving—and always serve straight from the pan.