My paella, like a woman low on confidence so she overloads on makeup, was so overloaded you can't see the rice. Less is always more, with paella and make up.
The Best Paella: this is how a good paella should be; it should be all about the rice. My first impression was that the rice had the flavor of grilled prawns. The rice was rich, wet out and firm inside, caramelised slightly without that steamed rice texture that my paellas always have. Notice that the rice comes to half the height of the pan--that's now it should be or the rice becomes steamed and fluffy. Like mine.
Before Barcelona, I was quite happy with my paella ("pie-a-yah") and the reason I've not blogged about the dish was because I couldn't get a good photo since I only cook it for dinner, when the whole family sits down together. Post Barcelona, I still couldn't get photos good enough to blog but the reason for not blogging about paella is different: I can't get my paella right, even after many tries. Once in a while I do but most of the times I've not been happy with the results. My family loves my paella and thinks I've set my paella standards too high after the Barcelona trip.
Before eating The Best Paella in Barcelona (though not all paellas that we ate were as good), I was happy enough with my paellas but now I keep trying and failing to get them just like The Best Paella. I know where I go wrong, but I seem to repeat it each time I cook paella. I know I may never cook a paella as good as The Best Paella, in which each bite was a wonder--fragrant, aromatic mouthful of rice that's coated with a wonderful sauce yet firm inside, without the steamed rice taste of my paellas--but I have made enough mistakes cooking paella to write about them. Cooking paella stresses me, because I have to be by the fire all the time to make sure the rice doesn't burn or turn into congee. Paella is not an easy dish to do but it's not impossible to get a reasonably good paella.
What I've learnt from mistakes:
1. Don't be tempted like me to overload (it's a Chinese thing) the paella with ingredients. Like they say, it's all about the rice. A great paella should have a bottom of crispy, golden brown rice (soccarat) but frankly I've never achieved that. I suspect it's because I've always used too much rice for my 34 cm pan. I've recently been given a big paella pan and I tried it out last night. Unfortunately I still overloaded the pan, so no golden crust.
2. Use the correct-sized paella pan. Do not try to overload a paella pan to feed six if the pan is only for four. The rice and ingredients should not fill more than half the height of the pan so that the rice will not get that steamed, fluffy taste.
3. The fire is important. I found that a large stove burner is good because the fire and heat is spread out instead of being concentrated at a smaller area. The rice is likely to burn and not cook if the fire ring is small. I've found that with my new 38 cm paella pan (thanks, E, for not just giving me the pan but also carrying it all the way back), I need to use two burners, turning the pan once in a while. I've read that there are special paella burners for the bigger paella pans. My 34 cm pan, which I bought for 10 euros in Barcelona, cooks well with a single burner although I still turn and push the pan around to make sure all the rice is cooked. Paella pans are wide with small indentations on the base and usually have red handles. They are made of carbon steel so you need to wipe them with oil after every use.
4. My biggest, biggest mistake is always overcooking the rice. Since you can't stir the rice after it's added to the pan, or it'll turn creamy like risottos, and you can't cover the pan (I used to before Barcelona; now I have tasted a good paella I know the difference is that covering the rice while cooking gives me steamed rice), it's hard to get the rice fully cooked so I often add too much stock and let the rice cook for too long. The best thing to do is to rest the rice for about 10 to 15 minutes, covered with foil, and it'll cook. I never seem to have enough time to rest the paella because the family would be seated, hungry and impatient as I struggle to get the rice cooked evenly.
Unfortunately, I can't get Spanish short grain rice such as bomba rice here so I do use arborio or risotto rice.
Apparently Valencian paella is the real thing, and rabbit is used instead of chicken. I've not cooked any paella other than mixed seafood and chicken paella. I think if I get it right, I can just cook a simple seafood paella with prawns and mussels without overloading. Paellas aren't easy to cook because you can't really quantify the ingredients as the ingredients vary in water content and flavor, the liquid absorption of the rice differs according to the variety and the amount and intensity of heat differs so that each time you can get different results. It takes experience, a lot of it, to make a good paella. Just like make up.
Seafood, Chicken & Chorizo Paella (6-8 servings, 38 cm pan)
6 to 8 medium-sized prawns, unshelled, dirt veins removed
6 to 8 mussels, shells on, cleaned
a handful of squid rings
6 to 8 pieces of chicken (I like with bones on but you can use de-boned chicken), seasoned with some salt
3 chorizos, cut into 1.5 cm pieces
1 cup peas or flat beans (or omit)
1/2 red bell pepper, in very thin strips or chopped
1 onion, chopped
4 garlic cloves, chopped
2 t saffron
1/4 cup fresh flat-leaf parsley, chopped plus extra for garnish
1 T fresh rosemary, chopped (optional)
6 canned tomatoes, chopped
1 1/2 t paprika
salt to taste
6 cups fish/prawns/chicken stock
2 cups short grain bomba or arborio rice
1 lemon, in wedges
1. Put the stock into a pot, add the saffron and bring to a boil. Lower heat until just barely simmering.
2. Put 2 T olive oil in a 38 cm paella pan (preferably over two burners side by side) and fry the chicken until golden. Add the chorizo and fry until lightly browned. Remove them from the pan. Fry the squid rings until cooked, remove, then fry the prawns (add oil!) at high heat to get that grilled flavor, seasoning with some salt. Remove when nearly cooked.
3. Put another 2 T olive oil into the pan and add the onion and garlic, frying them in low heat until they turn transparent. Add the paprika, tomatoes and bell pepper and fry (low heat) until the mixture thickens and dries up. This is sofrito, which gives the paella flavor. Now add the chicken, chorizo, rosemary and parsley. Add the rice and stir well to coat with the sofrito*. Season with salt. Add all but 1 1/2 cups of the stock. The rice should be covered by the stock. Turn the fire up so that the stock boils for about 2 minutes, then turn it down to low, pan uncovered. Once in a while, turn the pan to get even cooking. Do not stir the rice although sometimes I poke it here and push it there to check and make sure it is covered by the stock. Sprinkle the rice with the remaining stock if necessary.
4. When the rice is 3/4 done (translucent with white center), push the mussels (I like to place them meat side down to cook better, then turn them up before serving), prawns and squid in. After about 5 minutes, add the peas or bell peppers and let cook another 5 minutes. Level the surface with a spoon. It's okay if it's slightly soupy; the stock will be absorbed when you let the rice sit. It's ok if the rice is still white in the center; do not overcook. Switch heat off, cover the pan with foil and let sit for 15 minutes.
Arrange lemon wedges around the rice, sprinkle with chopped parsley and serve paella straight from the pan.
*if the chicken is in big pieces, I like to add the stock first to cook the chicken and then add the rice.