Nothing will ever match my first wood fired paella. When I was twelve and my family lived in Spain, we took a road trip out to the farmhouse of some family friends in the dry Spanish countryside near Pamplona. When we arrived there was a stout old man standing over a fire, roughly shoveling heaps of shrimp and vegetables the massive pan on top. I watched all the ingredients simmer while the aroma of the saffron tied everything together.
I must have blacked out the wait because my memory cuts to sitting at the long indoor table, cheerfully cramped with about fifteen other people, all staring at the delicious heap of yellow rice topped with whole shrimp and mussels. I had learned to correctly peel the head and skin off a whole shrimp earlier that year, so there was nothing slowing me down. After eating to exhaustion my sisters and I climbed up into the large farmhouse attic where we each took our place on one of many guest beds. An old woman who lived there came upstairs and covered each of our bellies with warm blankets to help digestion. After a long nap, I went outside and found my place on a hammock where I swung blissfully.
A couple of weeks ago I had the pleasure of putting on my best re-enactment of that cooking performance for about twenty friends here in Beacon. My research tells me that original Paella was made from rabbit so I made sure to use one whole rabbit along with a whole chicken. I cheated a little by cooking with an outdoor gas burner—mainly because I have not yet set up a fire area in the backyard of my new house. I must say that cooking this way is far easier but less thrilling—thrill being the more important factor. Nevertheless, this was one of the best Paellas I have ever cooked and the guests seemed to like it too!
Ingredients: Aside from the rice, I’m leaving off exact measurements because I want you to be able to adjust per the size pan you use. A few guidelines though: give half a cup of rice per person and rice should be cooked in a layer no more than 3/4 of an inch thick to ensure more rice is in contact with the pan and you develop some socarrat (crust). Use 2 1/2 cups of liquid for each cup of rice.
Chicken pieces and livers
Mixed vegetables: artichokes, green beans, fava beans work well
Stock or water
Saffron, quickly toasted and crumbled
Whole garlic cloves
- Level the pan using a carpenter’s level.
- Heat the pan until nearly smoking and then apply a generous pool of olive oil to the center.
- After the oil is hot, add enough chicken and rabbit pieces to cover the bottom with a few inches between each piece. Brown for five minutes.
- Add the livers for three minutes.
- Add vegetables and garlic (5 minutes)
- Add enough tomato sauce to coat the ingredients without having everything swim in it. Stir occasionally until the sauce begins to stick. This will make your sofrito. The longer it takes the deeper the flavor. At least twenty minutes.
- Add stock up to the screws of the paella pan.
- Add several whole rosemary sprigs and bring it all to boil for ten minutes.
- Add a pinch of paprika and a pinch of toasted and crumbled saffron threads per cup of rice. Mix and taste for seasonings here.
- Add rice and bring to a strong boil for ten minutes.
- Remove rosemary and garlic
- The heat should get to a low over about ten minutes. Maintain this until the rice is cooked and the liquid is evaporated. If the paella is dried and the rice isn’t done add SLIGHTLY more stock and wait a little more.
- If it is nearly done and there is no crust (socarrat) at the bottom you can add a little heat at the end.
- Remove from heat and cover (use dish towels, brown paper bags, aluminum foil…) and rest for five minutes.
- Garnish with lemon wedges.
- Either plate it or pass out forks and eat straight from the pan (like they do in Valencia).
Camarón de la Isla
Camarón (José Monge Crúz), was regarded as a god in the flamenco world. He is to flamenco singing what Paco de Lucia was to flamenco guitar. The two played together during the seventies in what was one of the most productive and innovative times in the centuries old flamenco tradition. After Paco went on to focus on a solo career Tomatito served as Camaron’s principal guitarist beginning with the album below. This album is perhaps the pinnacle of the modernization of flamenco that happened in the seventies. It contains more pop and latin rhythms than a more strictly traditional flamenco would. This makes it a bit more fitting to play for a general crowd at your paella party.