Cook On: Pride and Paella

By Mary Ann Ebner

Darlings of the dining scene come and go, but the Spanish dish paella is an appealing rice dish that consistently holds its place.

Essential components include rice and saffron seasoning. Saffron, the aromatic spice Crocus sativus, can be costly, but its production demands a dear price tag. The dried stigmas of hundreds of thousands of the flowering saffron crocus plants are gathered to produce tiny amounts of saffron.

But there’s something special about saffron that lifts the humble paella from a simple one-pan creation to an elegant wonder. It’s worth a few extra dollars to purchase decent saffron, which gives the dish its yellow shade and laces it with a deep flavor.

Saffron threads
Saffron threads

If you’re hoarding a miniature bottle of ground saffron that you received in a boxed set five years ago, pitch it. Aside from exceeding its shelf life, ground saffron won’t deliver nearly as well as quality threads. Skip ground or powdered saffron completely and splurge on saffron threads. It may prove difficult to come by Persian saffron, considered by many as the premier grade of the spice, but you’ll find other selections on the market to be good substitutes.

My current supply of saffron comes from La Mancha, a region of Spain renowned for saffron growing. Made by the Antonio Sotos saffron company, my little compact holds 4 grams of saffron. Sure, you can pick it up the next time you’re out and about in Spain, but you can easily buy it online through numerous vendors. Visit the company’s website, antoniosotos.com, learn more about their spice production and polish your Spanish culinary vocabulary.

Serve paella in its pan.
Serve paella in its pan.

The country’s signature rice creation requires only a pinch of the deep red spice for each meal preparation. A small purchase should leave you with plenty of threads left over for more rice dishes or saffron-enhanced soups. Find saffron on the market shelf in Cold Spring for as little as $7.19 for Spicely Organic’s 0.007-ounce product.

The recipe that I rely on to transform a little rice and a little spice into paella comes from a generous Spanish host. My husband and I were visiting Spain, not too far from Valladolid, to catch up with our friends Cissi and Andre. Their neighbor Marius and his family hosted us all for an evening meal, perfect paella. We had enjoyed restaurant paella but never experienced it made at home by a fun-loving Spaniard. He took pride in his centuries-old underground bodega — amply stocked with wine — as well as his cooking.

Plated paella
Plated paella

My attempts at the recipe will never match his variation, studded with fresh cuttlefish and giant prawns still in the shell, but that’s what makes the meal so forgiving. Every cook creates a different take on it, adding sausage, eliminating seafood or preparing seasonal vegetarian versions. Stick with high-grade saffron and a good choice of rice, and not just any old rice, but a short grain, and if you can source it, bomba rice. With its high absorption rates, the bomba rice traps all the flavors.

If you don’t have a paella pan, use a flat-bottom, shallow skillet (Marius insists on iron; I use a 13-inch paella pan). Once you complete preparations and cover the pan, don’t rush to serve your paella. Let it sit so the rice fully absorbs the mix of seasoning and ingredients for the fullest flavorful dish.

Paella

Serves 6

fresh prawns (1 large or two small prawns per person)

half a chicken (cut in small pieces)

1 cup roasted red or piquillo peppers, chopped

1 pound squid (or cuttlefish if you can locate a miracle fishmonger)

1 teaspoon sea salt

4 ripe tomatoes (seeded, peeled and crushed)

stock (2 ½ times the volume of rice)

pinch of saffron threads (crushed)

1 bay leaf

1 pound frozen peas

mussels (2 to 3 per person)

2 cups short-grain rice

3 tablespoons olive oil

2 cloves garlic (diced)

½ cup flat parsley (coarsely chopped)

Heat the olive oil in a paella pan (or wide, flat-bottomed pan with handles). Add prawns (or shrimp) and cook evenly over medium heat 3 to 4 minutes. Remove prawns and set aside. Add chicken and pepper. Once chicken is cooked through, add squid and stir with salt. Add the tomatoes and simmer 10 minutes. Add the stock. Crumble and crush saffron threads in hand and sprinkle over ingredients in the pan. Add the bay leaf and peas and bring to a medium bowl.

In separate pan, boil the mussels so that they open up on the side. Remove from heat. Take one half of the shell away. Add the rice to the paella. Distribute evenly because where you place it is where it stays — do not stir the rice. Lower heat and cook for 20 minutes until liquid is absorbed. Add garlic, parsley, mussels and prawns. Cook for an additional 5 minutes without stirring.

Remove from heat. Cover and let stand 10 to 15 minutes. Serve from the pan.

Photos by M.A. Ebner