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Paella is a cornerstone of traditional Spanish cuisine, originating in Valencia, although it is served all over the nation, especially on Sundays and holidays. Superficially, it resembles a risotto, since the dish is made with rice, meats, and vegetables cooked together in a large pan, also called a paella, or paellera in some regions of Spain. However, the cooking process for a paella is slightly different than risotto. Primarily, the rice is never fried in a paella, although it is to make risotto. It can be made at home for a dinner party, but prepare to put some serious prep time into it, as there are a lot of ingredients in a good paella.
A traditional paella is made in a broad, shallow dish with sloping sides. It is usually around 13 inches (33 centimeters) in diameter. First, the vegetables and meats are sauteed in olive oil, usually separately to ensure that they are cooked all the way through. Next, water is added, followed by rice. The mixture of meat, vegetables, and rice is stirred and then simmered slowly for approximately twenty minutes on low heat before the heat is raised to high to make the soccarat, the deliciously toasted bottom which is a delicacy in Valencian cuisine. After the soccarat has formed, the paella is removed from the heat, allowed to cool slightly, and served.
Almost anything can be used in a paella, and it is very easy to make vegan or vegetarian friendly paella which is equally scrumptious. Common meats include seafood such as lobster, mussels, clams, and shrimp, along with sausages, chicken, ham, and pork. Vegetables such as artichoke hearts, potatoes, peas, tomatoes, onion, and garlic are also used. The rice should be short grain, not long grain, as short grain rice holds shape very well through cooking, and will absorb the flavors. A traditional paella is also scented with saffron, lending a delicate flavor, scent, and rich yellow color to the paella.
To achieve the soccarat which is the distinguishing feature of a truly excellent paella, the cook turns the heat up and listens closely. The paella will start to crackle, and a toasted odor will emerge from the bottom of the pan. Testing with a fork will yield a slightly bumpy bottom, and the paella can be quickly removed from the heat before it burns. Paella is designed to be a communal style food, meaning that everyone finds a place around the pan and eats directly from it. If group dining is not an option, individual portions can be spooned out onto separate plates for service.
Surprisingly some of the best paella I ever had was on a ski trip to Vermont. I went to a little tapas bar in Stowe where I had a savory Paella Valencia loaded with chorizo, clams, mussels, shrimp, and chicken (am I forgetting anything?) It was served with crusty grilled bread. Fried olives stuffed with drunken goat cheese, and grilled fresh sardines stuffed with an olive tapenade rounded out our meal. It was at that point that I found out I love Mediterranean cuisine. Just thinking about it makes my mouth water. It’s amazing how a few simple dishes could turn a cold winter night into a memorable evening reminiscent of a Spanish fiesta. Its not often that I have a meal this memorable.