Monday, May 31, 2010

Paella and Spanish Flavours

Paella is a Valencian rice dish that originated in its modern form in the mid-19th century near lake Albufera, a lagoon in Valencia, on the east coast of Spain. 

According to the Guinness Book of Records the largest paella ever made was on 8 March 1992 in Valencia, Spain. It measured 20m in diameter and was eaten by 100,000 people. Imagine that!

The name paella comes from the ‘paellera’ pan what is used to cook the dish. The pan is round, flat and shallow, and is made of polished steel with two handles.

On the weekend I decided to try cooking a paella. Firstly, I deliberated on whether or not to buy a paella pan. Some recipes will tell you that you can use a large frying pan but a paella pan has a thin base made of steel/iron to distribute heat evenly, and is wide and shallow to allow the rice to cook relatively fast and evenly. Considering that the name of the dish is derived from the pan that it is cooked in, I decided that it would be a good idea to invest in a paella pan and it would feel a bit more authentic too! I like to use the right equipment to cook things. Cooking without a paella pan would be like cooking a stir-fry without a wok, or cooking rice in a microwave or a saucepan, may produce relatively the same outcome but it’s not really the same is it ?!

To make paella, I needed to buy some chorizo. Apparently, a true Valencian paella would never have chorizo, but chorizo is delicious and included in many modern paellas. (A traditional Valencian paella contains chicken, rabbit, duck, green beans, snails, and fresh lima beans.) A google of ‘best place to buy chorizo in Perth’ brought up as the first search item a blog entry by Abstract Gourmet and I went to check out Spanish Flavours Wembley. 

Spanish Flavours is situated at the end of a food court at the Cambridge Forum and it’s tiny but has everything that you would need to cook Spanish foods. The lady who helped me was lovely too. I bought some chorizo, Spanish saffron ad sweet smoked paprika.

There are many different versions of paella. I looked at a number of different paella recipes and here is how I cooked my paella with some tips that I have picked up from my readings.

A paella shouldn’t have too many ingredients – it is all about the rice and the ingredients are there simply to flavour it. Don’t bastardise it and swamp it with ingredients!

olive oil
prawns (6-8) raw with shells, heads removed
fish fillets (200g) cut into bite sized pieces
chorizo  (1) sliced diagonally
sofrito – finely diced shallots (1-2), garlic (2 cloves), tomatoes (3 peeled and deseeded), roasted red capsicum (1)
sweet smoked paprika powder (2-3 teaspoons or to taste)
hot paprika or cayenne pepper powder (1 teaspoon or to taste)
Spanish saffron ( ½ teaspoon crushed with a back of a spoon into powder in a small bowl and add 2 tablespoons of water, mix and let infuse for a few minutes)
stock (you can use chicken or fish stock) or water (1 litre)
peas ( ½ cup) 
Calasparra rice (400g)
Parsley (2 tablespoons, finely chopped)
lemon wedges 

(Some special ingredients - calasparra rice, Spanish saffron and sweet smoked paprika)

Paella needs a gas flame, do not use an electric cook top as it will make a hot spot in the middle and burn the rice. You need to use a large heat source which is almost as big as the paella pan you are using. Most paella pans are wider than the typical stove burner, so you need to continually move and rotate the paella pan around to distribute the heat and keep the temperature of the pan constant. 

A short-medium grain rice should be used (such as Calasparra or Bomba) as it absorbs and holds the flavour and cooking liquid well, better than long grain rice varieties. When making paella, don’t wash the rice as it needs its outer coating of starch to keep the grains separate when cooking.


Firstly, I made a simple seafood stock with some prawn heads, fish bones, a bay leaf and onion. I put all of these into a pot of water and brought it to boil, and then simmered for 20-25 minutes. I strained the stock with a sieve and set aside.

Heat the paella pan and add some olive oil, and fry the chorizo for a few minutes until golden and season with a little salt and pepper. Remove and set aside. Sear the fish and prawns a little (don’t cook all the way through) and set aside.

Make the sofrito. Add some more olive oil to the paella pan and cook the shallots until they have softened and turned golden. Add in the garlic and cook for a bit, and then add in the tomatoes, season with salt and pepper and cook until the tomatoes have reduced and there is no liquid left (around 15-20minutes). Then add in the roasted capsicum and cook for another 5-10 minutes. The sofrito should have a concentrated flavour and pulpy consistency. The ‘sofrito’ provides the flavour base for the paella, it is Spanish word referring to a sauté or braise of aromatic ingredients which have been cut into very small pieces.

Then add to the sofrito mixture - the Calasparra rice, sweet smoked paprika powder, hot paprika powder and the saffron water mixture. Add in a pinch of salt and pepper. Stir everything together until the rice is coated and sauté for a bit, even out the rice in the pan.

Add in the stock and bring to boil, then turn the heat to low.


Simmer the paella for 20 minutes or until the liquid has reduced and the rice is plump and almost soft. At 10 minutes, add in the peas and place in the chorizo, pieces of fish and prawns over the rice and poke them in so that they can cook. As the paella cooks, the rice will start to appear through the liquid and dry out.

At the end of the cooking time, cover the paella pan with a piece of foil and increase the heat to high for 1-2 minutes and cook until you can smell the rice toast at the bottom (but be careful not to burn it!). You will hear the rice crackle and pop as it caramelizes at the bottom of the pan and forms a dark crust which imparts a slightly smoky flavour. This crust is called the ‘socarrat’ and is the most highly prized part of the paella, and is a sign that you have made a good paella. The socarrat is also the reason why you should not stir the rice while it is cooking so that it can develop.

Remove the paella pan from the heat and cover with the foil for 10 minutes, then remove the foil and allow to rest for another 5-10 minutes before serving. This resting time is crucial so that the flavours can settle in and be absorbed into the rice.

Squeeze over some lemon juice and sprinkle with chopped parsley. 

Eat the paella straight from the pan!

The rice grains should be al dente, loose and not mushy or creamy like a risotto. Therefore, it is important to use a short-medium grain rice like Calaparra and not a risotto type rice eventhough some recipes say that you can use a risotto rice. There should only be a thin layer of rice and it should be spread out over the entire base of the pan, the key is to maximize the amount of rice touching the bottom of the pan because that’s where the flavour lies.

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