The first time we moved to Europe in 2011 (we lived in Holland for around 2 years and we now live in Switzerland), I made a list of the European countries I wanted to visit. Spain was on top of that list. We managed a visit to Barcelona for the first time a couple of years ago, and over just 4 days in the city, I fell completely in love. We visited Spain again last year, and stayed in Barcelona, Sevilla and Mallorca. Barcelona felt like a second home to me, and a big reason for this was its food.
In Barcelona, we visited the iconic Mercat La Boqueria, which has stall upon stall of Catalonian fresh produce, stalls that sell fresh fruit juices, cheese, meat and seafood. I thrive on seafood, and living in a land-locked country, my best bet for shrimp and fish is usually found in the frozen aisle in the local supermarket. So for me to be surrounded by fresh seafood, in all shapes and sizes, in the bustling Mercat La Boqueria was a feast for the senses! We also sampled some of the best fresh produce at La Boqueria and brought fresh shrimp from the market back to our apartment and made a fine meal of it with just some garlic and salt to season.
In Seville, we were blown away by the quality of tapas in every tapas bar we went to. We learned to eat the way the Sevillanos do. In every restaurant we ate, we would order tapas-sized portions of most of the restaurant’s specials, accompanied by a glass of the house sherry. The tapas in Seville were beyond excellent. Each plate was better than the other, plated aesthetically and with care. It’s hard to pick a favourite, but I particularly remember one stand-out dish – a cannelloni of confit duck and foie gras with apple and grape sauce. Poetry on a plate! In Seville, we also enjoyed the occasional dry-cured, aged Jamon, carved to order in local tapas bars in Sevilla, where the cured ham held place of pride at the bar table.
I was feeling particularly nostalgic about Spanish food (yes, I feel nostalgic about the food first, and then the place!) and decided to recreate the dish we found ourselves constantly ordering everywhere in Spain. We had set out on our trip, committed to eat like a local, and eat as many varied types of food as we could. But it was hard to resist the charm of the paella! We ate our way through pans of paella in Barcelona, Seville and in Mallorca too! From our very first meal, after we checked in, a seafood paella in Barcelona’s touristy la Ramblas, to that day in Seville, when we ordered a paella after one too many tapas had us craving a taste of the familiar.
For me, rice has always been comfort food. A layered biryani, a rich curry heaped over a plate of rice, I could have these all day, everyday. And so it was but natural that I craved paella wherever I went in Spain. The dish also uses ingredients that are very commonly used in Indian cooking. I learnt that saffron, an essential middle-eastern and Asian spice, was introduced in the paella, thanks to the Moorish influence in the region’s cuisine.
What we know as paella now, in its various forms, with seafood, chorizo, etc, is quite distant from the original paella dish, the paella Valenciana. The original paella Valenciana was made with rabbit, chicken and foraged ingredients such as snail. Since this was my first time cooking paella, I read up on some dos and don’ts. There are a few rules about cooking a good paella. Short-grained good quality high absorbent rice and good quality olive oil are key ingredients. The rice must not be stirred after it is added, giving it that signature caramelized ‘socarrat’ or crust at the base of the dish. The flat paella pan allows the rice to get in contact with the base of the pan, soaking up all the flavour.
Despite the rules, paella is open to innovation and interpretations. Innovation is inherent to the nature of paella. I made my version of paella Valenciana, using chicken and omitting the rabbit, I used a skillet instead of a traditional paella pan, used a generous amount of smoked paprika from Barcelona, and was mighty pleased with the end results.
- 10-15 saffron strands (I used an Indian variety)
- 3 teaspoons good quality extra virgin olive oil
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 5-6 chicken thighs and legs with the skin on
- A few broad beans, cut into 1-inch pieces, approximately a cup of cut broad beans
- 3 garlic cloves, finely chopped
- 2 teaspoons smoked paprika
- 1 grated tomato
- 1¼liter chicken stock (I use stock cubes dissolved in hot water)
- Juice of ½ lemon
- 2 teaspoons chopped parsley
gramsshort-grained rice, such as bomba or even arborio
- A few springs of rosemary
- Start by toasting the saffron - put the saffron in a small aluminium sheet and fold it into an envelope. Place the envelope of saffron on a hot pan, for just around 10 seconds. Once warmed, keep the saffron aside.
- Place a paella pan (or skillet), on high heat. Sprinkle a generous amount of salt in the pan. Add the olive oil. Into the hot oil, add the chicken thighs and legs and let it heat. Turn the chicken over so that all sides are well browned.
- Once the chicken is browned, add the broad beans and stir them gently. Lower the heat a little and add the chopped garlic and smoked paprika. Stir all the ingredients together, gently.
- Add the grated tomato, and cook for a minute more. The chicken and beans should be well browned and evenly coated with the paprika, garlic and tomato.
- Add the chicken stock to the pan.
- Take the saffron out of the foil envelope and crushing it gently with your finger, add it to the pan. Add the lemon juice and chopped parsley.
- Add 250
gramsof rice to the pan, gently. Add the rosemary gently, pressing the sprigs into the rice.
- Cook the paella
onhigh heat for 10 minutes, and lower to medium heat for 6 minutes.
- Place a sheet of foil over the pan, and cook for another 7 to 10 minutes on low heat. Let the dish rest for another 5 minutes before you take off the foil.
- Look for the crusty bits below, formed from the oil and rice starch, the mark of a good paella!