SLIDE SHOW: How Spain Eats at Home: A Lesson in Real Paella

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Juan Alcón


The shady streets of an elegant residential neighborhood in Madrid.


Maggie Schmitt learns from a friend's mother and explores Spain's gastronomic heritage in
How Spain Eats at Home: A Lesson in Real Paella .

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Juan Alcón


We are received in this handsome household, walls and shelves thronged with Enrique's collection of antique Spanish ceramics.


Maggie Schmitt learns from a friend's mother and explores Spain's gastronomic heritage in
How Spain Eats at Home: A Lesson in Real Paella .

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Juan Alcón


Elena sets things straight: paella is not just any rice dish.


Maggie Schmitt learns from a friend's mother and explores Spain's gastronomic heritage in
How Spain Eats at Home: A Lesson in Real Paella .

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Juan Alcón


Essential ingredients: rabbit rubbed with rosemary, garrafó , and green beans.


Maggie Schmitt learns from a friend's mother and explores Spain's gastronomic heritage in
How Spain Eats at Home: A Lesson in Real Paella .

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Juan Alcón


What makes a paella a paella is the pan in which it is cooked. But what makes a paella perfect is the flame it is cooked over. This is a gas diffuser, specially made for this purpose.


Maggie Schmitt learns from a friend's mother and explores Spain's gastronomic heritage in
How Spain Eats at Home: A Lesson in Real Paella .

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Juan Alcón


Elena browns the meat in the paella pan.


Maggie Schmitt learns from a friend's mother and explores Spain's gastronomic heritage in
How Spain Eats at Home: A Lesson in Real Paella .

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Juan Alcón


Tomato puree is added, thickening and coating the meat.


Maggie Schmitt learns from a friend's mother and explores Spain's gastronomic heritage in
How Spain Eats at Home: A Lesson in Real Paella .

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Juan Alcón


A tiny dish of precious saffron is crushed between the fingers and sprinkled into the pan, perfuming the air.


Maggie Schmitt learns from a friend's mother and explores Spain's gastronomic heritage in
How Spain Eats at Home: A Lesson in Real Paella .

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Juan Alcón

Elena adds water just to the remaches , where the handle joins the pan. This will simmer for half an hour until the meat is cooked. More hot water can be added to compensate for evaporation.


Maggie Schmitt learns from a friend's mother and explores Spain's gastronomic heritage in
How Spain Eats at Home: A Lesson in Real Paella .

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Juan Alcón


Elena's daughter Laura is the honorary arbiter of the broth. It should be slightly salty and very flavorful.


Maggie Schmitt learns from a friend's mother and explores Spain's gastronomic heritage in
How Spain Eats at Home: A Lesson in Real Paella .

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Juan Alcón


Let the game begin! Elena adds the rice to the broth. It is important that it be evenly distributed around the pan.


Maggie Schmitt learns from a friend's mother and explores Spain's gastronomic heritage in
How Spain Eats at Home: A Lesson in Real Paella .

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Juan Alcón


She checks her watch. The next 20 minutes are a crescendo of tension.


Maggie Schmitt learns from a friend's mother and explores Spain's gastronomic heritage in
How Spain Eats at Home: A Lesson in Real Paella .

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Juan Alcón


The table is served. This is, without a shadow of a doubt, the best paella I have ever eaten.


Maggie Schmitt learns from a friend's mother and explores Spain's gastronomic heritage in
How Spain Eats at Home: A Lesson in Real Paella .

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Juan Alcón


The rice has swollen and the liquid reduced. Elena controls the flame carefully using the diffuser's little dials.


Maggie Schmitt learns from a friend's mother and explores Spain's gastronomic heritage in
How Spain Eats at Home: A Lesson in Real Paella .

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NEXT>>
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Juan Alcón

The satisfied chef and her beautiful paella.


Maggie Schmitt learns from a friend's mother and explores Spain's gastronomic heritage in
How Spain Eats at Home: A Lesson in Real Paella .



The broth is what gives the paella its flavor, but the real psych-out begins once the rice is added. The inimitable, the singular and ineffable texture of the paella comes from the anxious balance between flame and liquid in those fateful last minutes:

Elena: When everything is cooked, you check the salt and add the rice. From there it's 18 to 20 minutes, praying that it comes out right.
Laura: 20 minutes of absolute concentration.
Elena: In my case, I'm a little hysterical. Since I became a mother 30 years ago I'm a little hysterical. And I get kind of worked up.
Laura: No, really, it's a very delicate operation, the rice can get overcooked in a heartbeat, and then you have to do the socarrat ...

The trick is this: once the broth is made that's it—no more liquid. You add the rice (always short grain, arborio-type rice), sprinkling it uniformly into the bubbling broth, moving the pan around a little so it distributes evenly, and then do not touch that either. No adding, no stirring: from here on out everything depends upon controlling the level of the fire. For the first five minutes, the rice cooks at full tilt, the water evaporating, the grains swelling. For the next 10 minutes, the cook watches the flame carefully, lowering it to slow evaporation, raising it if the mix looks too brothy. Around the 15th to 17th minute there should be no liquid visible, the rice grains evenly swollen. It looks done.

But no: this is the moment of the socarrat, the moment of truth. Says Elena, "The cook experiences serious psychological agitation. You can't say anything, no way, nor interrupt ... it's like an extreme unction. No opinions!" The flame is turned up. You think its going to burn. You want to turn it off. You have to resist. You can hear it, the socarrat, the rice beginning to stick to the bottom of the pan, beginning to brown. You are sure it's too much, too long ... then suddenly a rich nutty odor sweeps over you, and you turn the flame off. A sigh of relief.

The paella must rest, covered, for two minutes. Traditionally the cover is a sheet of newspaper. "If it is a progressive liberal paper, that's best. Otherwise it tastes rancid!" It smells divine. In the village, this is when you would open the windows to make the neighbors envious. The cook gloats. And when at last the paella is served it is a glory of perfectly individual grains, each gleaming with grease, mingled with the chewy browned grains of the socarrat. It is served with a simple salad of lettuce and tomato and a solid red wine. And perforce it is followed by a siesta.

Recipe: Elena's Traditional Paella

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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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