Perhaps no dish conjures up more images of Spain than paella. Steeped in history and distinctive spices, to prepare this dish is to summon the soul of Spain and the spirit of her people.
For the uninitiated, paella (pronounced “pie-AY-ya”) is kind of a rice casserole, traditionally prepared in a special kind of pan (from which it takes its name) over an open fire. And it’s prepared by men.
Food carries a very strong cultural imperative in Spain, and customs are not swept away merely for the sake of political correctness. Throughout Spain, there are exclusive all-male clubs dedicated entirely to cooking and to the pleasures of the table.
Paella has at least 400 years of history, and its origins are in the province of Valencia, on the southeast coast. There, they grow the medium-grain Valencia rice that absorbs flavors wonderfully and is the key to the dish. The first paellas were made by peasants, using their native rice and whatever was available–often snails, onions, and that curious import from the New World, the tomato.
Since then paella has evolved into an enormous variety of dishes in every region of Spain, as well as the Caribbean, Central and South America, and the Philippines. Many use saffron, but not all, and the countless combinations of ingredients include all manner of shellfish, game, fowl, mushrooms, and finfish.
The traditional method, using the wide, shallow, heavy-bottomed paella pan, cooks slowly over a well-regulated fire. Where Americans might have a clambake, Spanish families have beach cookouts where paella is made amid plenty of wine-fueled arguments about the right way to do it. Controlling the fire, stirring enough but not too much, when to add which ingredients so they cook completely without overcooking; all this is debated throughout the process because every Spanish cook claims to make the best paella. This method takes practice and patience, but is quite rewarding for all who partake.
Now for those who are looking for a shortcut, here’s a simpler method that cooks the rice and the seafood/chicken/chorizo mixture separately so it doesn’t require the constant attention of the traditional method. Breaking with tradition is not a sin of which I am often guilty, but I have to admit that this does produce quite a tasty dish … even if I would be shunned by my fellow male chefs in Spain.