Recipe: Elena's Traditional Paella

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Paella is 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. 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. What follows is the garden version.

Equipment:

Paella has certain requirements. Whereas usually I'm all for improvising with materials and equipment, in this case there are two ineluctable elements: the pan and the flame.

Do not try to make a paella on an electric stove. On a normal gas range you can take your chances. But the results are incomparably better if you use either a gas diffuser (see photos) or—if you're very skilled at controlling the flame—a wood fire.

The name "paella" refers to the kind of pan in which it is made: a large, flat, shallow metal pan. As the volume of the pan determines the quantity of water and therefore how the rice cooks, it is very important to have a pan of the right dimensions for the number of servings you are preparing:

2 to 3 people: 30 centimeter diameter (12 inches)
4 to 5 people: 40 centimeter diameter (16 inches)
6 to 8 people: 50 centimeter diameter (20 inches)

The following recipe is for 5 generous servings.

Ingredients:

    • half a chicken, cut into pieces

    • half a rabbit, cut into pieces

    • 2 cups green beans:
Valencian gardens produce lots of different kinds of shell beans: flat ones, round ones, green ones, reddish ones. Here we use flat Italian-type green beans because they are most widely available in Madrid. But any kind of shell bean would do.

    • 1 cup garrafó:
These beans are also typical of Valencia, and only widely available there. In Madrid we can get them frozen from certain supermarkets. In the U.S., fresh butter beans or Greek gigantes would make reasonable substitutes.

    • 4 tablespoons canned, pureed or fresh grated tomato

    • 3 cloves garlic, sliced

    • 1 teaspoon saffron

    • 1 teaspoon rosemary:
Elena says, "In the village, you break a stalk of fresh rosemary from the bush and place it directly in the broth until you get just a whiff of that mountain smell, then you take it out. Since we don't have a rosemary bush here I just rub a little dry rosemary on the meat before frying it, but its not the same."

    • 1 teaspoon pimentón (Spanish paprika):
Elena says: "The best spice in the world. The only spice."

    • a pinch of yellow food coloring:
Elena avoids mentioning the food coloring. But everyone adds it, always. "A pale paella looks sad. Rice should be yellow," she says.

    • 1 cup olive oil, not extra virgin.

    • 100 grams per person of short-grain Spanish rice. Italian arborio rice makes a decent substitute.

Method:

First, set a large pot of water to boil on a separate burner. Elena says: "The water in Valencia is better for this, it cooks the rice a bit differently. Some people bring jugs of water back to Madrid with them, especially for making paella. I think that's a little excessive ... although we do take water from Madrid to Valencia for cooking legumes."

Rub the meat with rosemary and a little salt.

Pour the olive oil into the paella pan and heat. Add the meats, and when these have browned, add the tomato and garlic. Stir until the meat is coated and the tomato has thickened a bit. Add saffron, crushing the threads between your fingers, and stir again. Add the pimentón, food coloring, and a little salt. Stir until the color is uniform, then add the green beans.

Pour the water (now boiling, or nearly) over the contents of the pan, filling the pan up to where its handles are affixed. Allow this to simmer on a low flame for at least half an hour, adding more water to compensate for evaporation. Towards the end of this period, add the garrafó or substitute.

Taste the broth. It should be saltier than you want the final result to be. Adjust salt accordingly.

Measure out 100 grams of rice per person plus a little pinch more, and sprinkle this into the pan. Taking the pan by the handles, rotate it back and forth gently so that the rice distributes itself in an even layer beneath the surface of the broth. Check your watch. From this moment on, it's a question of timing: cook for 18 to 20 minutes, paying close attention to the flame.

Turn the flame up high for the first five minutes. Then lower it, modulating its intensity so the rice doesn't dry out too quickly. In the last three minutes, turn the flame up again until you hear the rice toasting on the bottom of the pan. Remove from heat and cover for two minutes, then serve.

To read Maggie's account of meeting Elena and learning to cook from her, click here.

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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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