Food Friday: How to make the perfect paella
With bomba rice becoming highly sought after, the dish is suddenly fashionable. Aoife Carrigy finds out why we'll all be eating Spanish fare soon
Spanish folk are easy-going and fun as a general rule. It's one of the reasons we Irish count them as friends. Just don't make the mistake that Jamie Oliver did when he had the temerity to tweet a recipe for a paella containing chorizo.
The #paellagate that ensued showed just how strong Spanish feelings can run about this dish, which has risen from its humble origins in the paddy fields of Albufera just outside Valencia city to become a beloved, if highly controversial, national icon. Be warned: friends have fallen out over less.
Jamie hasn't been the only one to provoke paella purists, as a quick online search of hashtags like #paellafail, Twitter handles like @ComunidadPaella or websites like wikipaella.org will prove. Established in 2013, Wikipaella is a community of like-minded Valencians who are committed to a 10-point manifesto that includes such edicts as "we publicly report any transgressions committed against paella, particularly those taking place within the community of Valencia". Chilling stuff.
The debate over what makes an 'authentic' paella is set to intensify as Quique Dacosta - a Valencian chef whose eponymous restaurant has three Michelin stars - prepares to open InPaella in London's Fitzrovia, the first of an international chain of high-end paella restaurants. Some predict that paella is due the makeover that pizza enjoyed when people rediscovered slow-fermented pizza dough.
Twitter's Comunidad Paella have already been heckling Dacosta from the sidelines, however, retweeting his paella shots with that damning tag, 'Arroz con Cocas' (or 'rice with things'). As any Valencian can tell you, 'La paella, no es arroz con cosas' (or 'The paella is not just rice with things').
For all the disagreements over what should and shouldn't go into a paella, the one thing everyone agrees is the rice itself is crucial. And almost everyone agrees that one particular variety of Valencian rice - la bomba - is, well, the bomb.
Jaime Jambrina of Food Fiesta uses bomba rice imported from Valencia for the Valencian Paella, Seafood Paella, Vegetarian Paella and Arroz Negro (Black Rice) that he cooks up every Sunday at the People's Park in Dun Laoghaire. He also sells bags of Sivaris bomba rice directly to customers who want to try their hand at home. At almost €12 per kilo, it doesn't come cheap, but he explains its appeal: "Bomba rice is short grain and the richest in amylose, which gives it the ability to absorb more stock while holding its structure and qualities and never getting sticky or overcooked."
Ian Redmond of Redmond's Fine Foods agrees. "What makes bomba a stand-out rice for paella is the ability of the rounded and pearl-shaped grains to absorb the broth and flavours in a very special way, achieving an exceptional taste," he says, emphasising how the rice grain doubles in size during the 18 to 20 minutes it takes to cook.
Redmond's supply bomba rice to specialist stores in Dublin like Fallon & Byrne, where it retails at more than four times the price of their regular paella rice. It can also be found in the likes of Lotts & Co in Dublin or Ardkeen supermarket in Waterford (from the end of this month), while Asian food stores are good hunting grounds for this caviar of rice.
Jambrina also recommends keeping an eye out for alternative varieties such as Senia, Bahia or Albufera from Valencia, and for rice from other areas such as Calasparra from Murcia or Montsia from Delta del Ebro, Catalunya.
Ian Marconi from The Paella Guys use a high quality Calasparra rice for the paella that they cook at weekly markets around Dublin or bomba rice for private catering gigs.
A Spanish cook living in Dublin, Blanca Valencia honed her culinary skills while running the El Alambique cookery school in Madrid and the test kitchen in London's Books for Cooks. She tends to buy the Balilla Solana variety of paella rice that was created in a lab in the 1970s and is sold in the likes of Dunnes Stores. She admits its back story is less enticing than those premium varieties with their protected designation of origin, but finds it reliable and easy to use.
Choosing your rice is the first hurdle to jump when making authentic paella. More contentious is the question of what other ingredients go in. Estrella Damn caused huge outrage with their 2013 beer ad featuring lithe Mediterranean party-people preparing a paella - ready yourself, reader - with onions! They clearly didn't take the time to study Wikipaella's detailed statistical breakdown of what they deem to be "authentic paella" recipes as cooked in "distinguished" restaurants in the Comunidad Valencia. Had they done so, they would have known that the jury is split on whether to include garlic, but unanimous that onion has no place in any iteration.
While a seafood paella is considered acceptable by most purists, the true Paella Valencia is a dish that evolved further inland in the wetlands around Albufera. "Traditionally it was rabbit, snails and whatever is in the field," Marconi explains, adding that "the first ones were made with eels and rats". Suddenly chorizo doesn't look like such a bad idea.
Whatever you decree to include in your paella, there are some useful tips to remember. "Use a very flavoursome and highly seasoned stock," Marconi advises. "If you were to taste it as a soup, it should taste too strong." Valencia agrees. "People spend a lot of time planning how to make their stock, sourcing the bones of a Serrano ham maybe, or making a really good fish stock."
For Jambrina, "the 'paella' or the pan is crucial for a great successful paella". With the right pan, the key to achieving that all-important 'socarrat' - the umami-rich caramelised crust in the base of the pan - is to resist the temptation to stir. Marconi explains that it is the opposite of a risotto where you want to release the starch: instead, "you want the starch to stay inside the individual grains of rice".
And if you don't master the socarrat? Or can't resist adding some chorizo?
"When I cook paella, I just call it 'rice'," says Valencia, "and I put in whatever I like. If you say Spanish-style rice, you have so many permutations."
And less chance of falling out with friends.
How to make Paella Valenciana
This is Jaime Jambrina's recipe for Paella Valenciana - add the rabbit for extra authenticity.
- 500g Bomba or Albufera Rice
- 1 litre chicken stock (or preferably Aneto 100pc Natural Valencian Paella Base Stock, optional)
- 1kg chicken (or 850g chicken and 250g rabbit, optional)
- 150ml extra virgin olive oil
- 250g ripe chopped tomatoes
- 250g wide green beans
- 250g large white lima beans (optional)
- saffron (or food colouring)
- fresh rosemary
Heat oil in the pan ('paella') at a medium to high heat and when the oil is hot enough add the meat and fry until lightly coloured. Add the vegetables and, about two minutes later, the chopped tomatoes, keeping the heat medium/high.
Once everything is well fried, add the stock and/or water (4:1 parts liquid to rice) along with the fresh rosemary. Increase the heat to max and add salt and saffron. As soon as it starts boiling, add the rice and remove the rosemary. For a few minutes, distribute the ingredients throughout the pan with delicate but firm movements with the spoon.
Keep at max heat for 8-10 minutes before reducing gradually to a low heat that will help obtain the steamed 'socarrat' (lightly toasted rice). After a total cooking time of 17-20 minutes, remove from the heat and allow to stand for some minutes. Enjoy!