This classic of classics usually contains hard-to-find land snails for which rosemary sprigs are often substituted (don't ask me why). For a simpler version, you can use all chicken: 6 boneless, skinless thighs. If using rice other than Calasparra or Bomba, use only 4 1/2 cups liquid.
- 2 boneless, skinless chicken thighs, each cut into 2 pieces
- 3/4 pound rabbit meat, cut into 4 pieces
- 2 small duck legs, separated into drumsticks and thighs, or 1 duck breast, cut into 4 pieces
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
- 1 1/2 teaspoons Spanish paprika, preferably Pimienton de la Vera
- 7-8 cups chicken broth
- 1/2 teaspoon saffron, toasted and pulverized in a mortar
- 5 tablespoons good virgin olive oil, preferably Spanish
- 1/2 pound broad beans or green beans, trimmed and cut into 2-inch lengths
- 2 frozen, quartered artichoke hearts, thawed
- 1 cup fresh or frozen and thawed lima beans
- 1 small onion, minced
- 6 cloves garlic, crushed through a press
- 2 medium tomatoes, grated on the large holes of a four-sided grater, skins discarded
- 2 cups Calasparra or Bomba rice or Goya medium-grain rice
- 1 sprig fresh rosemary
- 1 red pepper, broiled, peeled and cut into strips, for garnish
1. Rub the chicken, rabbit, and duck pieces generously with salt, pepper, and 1/2 teaspoon of paprika and let stand until ready to use.
2. Place the broth in a medium saucepan and bring to a simmer. Add the saffron and keep warm until ready to use.
3. In a 15- to 16-inch paella pan set over one burner, heat 4 tablespoons of the oil over medium heat until it starts to smoke. Add the chicken, rabbit, and duck (the oil might splatter) and sauté, turning once until golden and half-cooked, about 7 minutes. Add the beans, artichokes, and lima beans, and stir for another 2-3 minutes. Push everything to the periphery of the pan where the heat is low. (You can also remove the meat and vegetables and replace them in the pan later but their flavors deepen and concentrate nicely as they sit in the pan.)
4. Add the remaining 3 tablespoons of the oil to the center of the pan and sauté the onion over medium-low heat until it softens, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic, cook for 1 minute, then stir in the grated tomatoes. Turn the heat to low and cook, stirring several times, until the soffritto turns dark and thick, about 7 minutes. With two wooden spoons, push meat pieces and the vegetables towards the center of the pan and mix them up with the soffritto. Add the remaining 1 teaspoon paprika and stir everything for 30 seconds.
5. Add the rice and stir it gently to coat with the pan mixture. If using Calasparra or Bomba rice, pour 6 cups of the simmering broth into the pan (if using other rice, add 4 cups, keeping a little aside for later.) Set the pan over two burners, tuck in the rosemary sprig, shake the pan lightly to distribute the rice evenly, and cook over medium-high heat until the liquid is level with the rice, 8 to 10 minutes. Do not stir the rice but constantly move and rotate the pan so that the liquid boils evenly.
6. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Reduce the heat to low and continue to cook until the liquid is almost absorbed and the exterior of the rice softens but the center is still hard to the bite, about 12 minutes. Keep rotating the pan as the rice cooks. If the liquid is absorbing too fast and the rice still seems raw, keep adding more liquid, 1/2 cup at a time. Cover the top with foil and cook over very low heat for 3 to 4 minutes.
7. Remove the foil and taste the rice. If it doesn't seem right—either too wet or still undercooked on top—place the paella, covered with foil in the oven, sprinkling it with a little more liquid beforehand if it seems dry and undercooked. After 5 minutes, remove the foil and cook for another 5 minutes. To create a socarrat, the crunchy burnt layer of rice on the bottom, set the pan, covered with foil, on high heat for 2-3 minutes, rotating the pan as you cook. Let the paella stand, covered with foil, for 10 minutes before serving.
8. To serve, decorate the paella with roasted pepper strips and lemon wedges, if desired. Serve it straight from the pan.
For their paellas, cooks in the Levante region always rely on the local short-grain rice—the perfect sponge for soaking up flavors of other ingredients. Among the best is the Calasparra grown in the nitrogen-rich soil between the Sierra de Murcia and the Seguera river valley where rizoculture has flourished since the Middle Ages.
The king of Calasparra rices is Arroz Bomba. An heirloom variety presently being revived, it is prized for its miraculous absorption capacity. Not only does it drink up more than three times its weight in liquid, but it expands in width rather than length, remaining firm and plump despite the vigorous initial boiling and large doses of liquid.
The paella rice is high in amenopectyn, the substance that makes it sticky, but the overall texture should be seco, or dry. Paella is not risotto; the rice is never washed or stirred. In the past, I'd schlep back linen sacks of Bomba and Calasparra every time I visited Spain. Today, boutique Levante rices have become available at good shops and through mail-order sources, such as spanishtable.com.
NOTE: Bomba and other Calasparra rices soak up 3 1/2 to 4 cups liquid to one cup rice. Italian risotto rice, such as arborio, is among the readily-available options, but I find the texture rather gummy. For a casual paella, I prefer Goya medium-grain rice, which takes 2 1/2 cups liquid for 1 cup rice. Regular long-grain rice, or Oriental short-grain are not really suitable for paella.
Paella pans are relatively thin, made from carbon or stainless steel, which reacts quickly to fluctuations in temperature. Their wide, shallow shape allows the largest area of rice to come in contact with the bottom of the pan where all the flavor is concentrated; it also helps rapid evaporation of liquid. (Because the rice is cooked uncovered there's no steam to cook the top layer of rice). Paella pans expand in diameter rather than depth so that the rice is always added in a thin layer. While in a pinch you can use a huge skillet—or better yet, divide the recipe between two 10-inch skillets—you should have no trouble finding paella pans at good cookware shops. Or order from paellapans.com, where they come with recipes and instructions from paella expert Sarah Jay. Carbon steel paella pans rust, so scrub them gently after each use, dry well, then rub thoroughly with oil and keep away from moisture.
The boost of flavor in a paella comes from soffritto, a mixture of onion, garlic, and tomatoes cooked down until dark and jammy. Pimienton (paprika) adds that dense smoky note, while saffron lends color. Then, there are ingredients particular to each paella, all the flavors intensifying and caramelizing over the lively heat. Though Valencians fetishize their lime-rich water, the best liquid to flavor the rice is a simple but tasty broth: chicken, or fish for paella marinara. As the water varies from place to place—hard water and soft water will be absorbed differently by the rice—using bottled spring water for broth produces the most consistent results. And I've seen many a paella cook crumble a bouillon cube into their liquid. It works.
There are endless arguments about whether rice should first be sautéed with soffritto (as is done in Alicante) or added directly to the broth (as in Valencia). Both methods are legitimate, though I prefer the former, for it gives slightly firmer rice. Once the rice is combined with the liquid, it is cooked at a fast, uninterrupted boil over vigorous heat, which "opens up" the grains to absorb more liquid. The heat is then reduced and the rice continues to cook until the grains are plump. Because the paella is cooked uncovered, it's a little tricky to get the rice to cook evenly to the right consistency—plump but firm. Follow the recipe closely, and if all else fails, finish the paella in the oven.
Tips for Great Paella:
1. Don't experiment. Paella-making is an art honed by decades and, like any great rice dish, it loves continuity: same pan, same water, same stove, same proportions. Stick to one or two rice varieties (for special occasions, use Calasparra or Bomba, for a casual paella use Goya medium-grain, remembering that the two absorb different amounts of liquid.) When you can produce perfect rice in your sleep, start taking creative license. The only secret to a great paella is practice.
2. The most common mistake is overloading the paella with extraneous stuff; remember that paella is about rice and rice again. The great Spanish gastronome Rafael Garcia Santos decries rice with too many ingredients as "pointless baroque exhibitionism." Besides being an affront to tradition, too much food in the pan prevents the rice from cooking evenly.
3. Do not attempt to double the serving size within the same pan—the pans are designed for a specific amount of ingredients. If planning on making paella often, get pans in two sizes: a 15-inch pan for 4 people, and an 18-inch one to serve 6 to 8.
4. Here are some troubleshooting techniques: If the top of the rice is undercooked while the bottom layer is ready, cover it with foil. Because a paella pan is so large that it has to straddle two burners, always keep moving it. If the rice is still cooking unevenly, sprinkle some water over the "raw" spots. If the rice is getting soft before the liquid is absorbed, raise the heat to cook down the liquid. Some restaurants finish the paella in the oven or let it stand, covered, to cook, the top layer of rice. Technically, paella shouldn't be steamed, but if the rice is refusing to plump, placing it in a 350-degree oven for 10-12 minutes should do the trick.