How Spain Eats at Home: A Lesson in Real Paella

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Juan Alcón


To view a slide show of Elena Martí preparing traditional paella, click here, or click here to try her paella recipe.

Elena Martí—pioneering woman journalist, noted television news personality, mother of three and, it turns out, master paella maker—receives us at the door in a fried-egg-print apron. After scolding her daughter Laura for having brought us late, she hustles us into the kitchen of her well-appointed Madrid apartment. Straight to business.

This is our first incursion into kitchen anthropology and we're kind of awkward, my trusty photographer and I. What are we doing invading this family's lovely home? Why have they offered to let us snoop around their kitchen and watch them cook? Are we here as friends? As reporters? We fumble around, wondering how to start.

But Elena is used to cameras and to questions, and doesn't miss a beat. She has already laid out all the ingredients on the kitchen table, and is ready to expound upon what is and what is not truly paella.

In the last couple of years Spanish food has become increasingly fashionable in the U.S., but often what makes it across the lake is either bar food—tapas, pintxos, hams and cheeses—or else the metaphysical concoctions of celebrity chefs like Ferran Adriá. And yet in Spain (like almost anywhere) the best eating is at the kitchen table, in homes where recipes have been passed along for generations, adapting to new circumstances in a rapidly changing society.

What better way to know a country than though its inhabitants? And what better way to know people than through their kitchens? So here begins a rough portrait of contemporary Spain as seen from the kitchen. For the next couple of months I will be introducing folks from all walks of life and various parts of the country, who will invite us into their homes, show us how to prepare some favorite recipe, and share their stories.

Let there be no mistake: paella may be associated with leisurely Sundays at the beach, but it is a serious food. Perhaps the most widely known Spanish dish, it has suffered the indignity of imitation and adaptation. But Elena, like most paella literalists, does not recognize most of what gets dished out under this august name as true paella. There are other rice dishes, she says, and they can be very good. But they're not paella. The "paella mixta" (with chicken and seafood) served at lunch joints all over the country is to her an aberration, both for its casual attitude towards rice texture and for its hodgepodge of ingredients: "I consider it a personal offense that they put red pepper in paella. Or peas! If someone serves me a paella with peas I just get up and walk out."

So what is paella? A very simple array of ingredients: chicken, rabbit, green beans, garrafó (not unlike a butter bean or large lima bean), tomato, rosemary, garlic, and saffron, cooked with rice in a large flat pan. This is the classic, original version, its vegetables plucked straight from the gardens of inland Valencia, its rice from the Albufera wetlands. Sometime in the 19th century, when the Valencian coast began to attract wealthy vacationers, a seafood version was invented to give the local specialty a bit more caché. Paella orthodoxy admits the seafood version, but with certain chagrin. Needless to say, what follows is the garden version.

Elena tells us how everything she knows about cooking she learned from her mother, who made a mean paella despite not being from Valencia. She grew up in Madrid, the daughter of immigrants from Murcia. But when she married Elena's father, a Valencian transplanted to Madrid to serve as engineer in the aviation of the doomed Republic during the Spanish Civil War, she took it upon herself to learn from his family on holiday visits to his village. Eventually she became an ace at the many rice dishes of the region, passing them along to her daughter and granddaughters, who continue to vacation in the village and bear both regional identity and cuisine with palpable pride.

As she recounts this family history, Elena is lighting the fire. Paella must be made over a very broad, evenly distributed flame, the intensity of which can be raised or lowered. In an urban apartment building that means a diffuser rigged to the gas range or—as in Elena's house—to a butane tank brought out specially for this purpose. In the village it would be a very meticulously tended wood fire, lending a magical smokiness to the rice. The meats are browned in the pan, slick with olive oil. Tomato and garlic are added, forming a sofrito, then saffron and pimentón. Elena explains that she has always enjoyed cooking, but when she was working she didn't have much time for it. But since the national television channel made major cutbacks a few years ago she has been in early retirement, and has time to experiment with more elaborate dishes. Her husband, Enrique, also likes cooking—indeed as we speak he is roasting some red peppers for an appetizer—though she confesses that she does most of it. "But he's great at cleaning up!"

NEXT: The final steps of Elena's traditional paella recipe

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Maggie Schmitt is a freelance researcher and translator based in Madrid.  She is currently working on a book called The Gaza Kitchen with Laila El-Haddad. Learn more at gazakitchens.wordpress.com.

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