The toughest test for chefs in Valencia is making the perfect paella,” says chef Miquel Lajarin. A Valencian who has been taught by the likes of the legendary Ferran Adria and Martin Berasategui and now teaches at a catering college himself, Lajarin should know. “Everyone claims to have eaten the best paella at home,” chef Leon Benmergui pitches in. I wonder if this Venezuelan who has worked in a series of Michelin-starred kitchens in Spain, including El Bulli, La Arquería and LaVinia, has been bowled over by the Valencian “national” food himself. It’s like everyone loves their mother’s cooking, I venture. “Their dad’s,” I’m promptly corrected.
Lesson No. 1:The paella, much like the American barbecue, is a Sunday tradition lorded over by the men of the house. “It’s usually made in large quantities; the whole family’s involved. The women do all the arrangements, getting the ingredients ready, etc. The children run errands between mom in the kitchen and dad in the garden. But it’s cooked by the men,” Lajarin says, with an eye on the pre-dinner preparations at the live counter at Savilla, the Mediterranean restaurant at The Claridges, New Delhi, where the two chefs from Spain were visiting recently.
Rice plate: (above, right) Chefs Leon Benmergui (left) and Miquel Lajarin; and paella gets its name from the distinct, wide wok-like pan it’s cooked in. Photograph by Pradeep Gaur/Mint
Lesson No. 2: The Paella Valenciana did not originally include seafood. A rustic dish, it was made with inexpensive meats, such as rabbit and chicken, beans and mushroom. “In the summers, seafood was plentiful along the long coast, so meat was substituted by fish,” says Lajarin. There is no fixed recipe for paella; as its popularity grew, the versatile dish readily accommodated the change in seasonal produce, tastes and culinary traditions. “The rich man’s version of the paella has chorizo, pork belly and lobster,” Benmergui adds.
Lesson No 3: If there is no fixed recipe, what is the trick to getting the seafood paella right? First, do not overcook the prawns. “Lightly sauté them and take out. Prawns should be succulent, not rubbery,” says Benmergui. If using soft meat, lightly brown it and then add vegetables.
Lesson No. 4: Choose the rice carefully, Lajarin says—medium-short grains, with high starch content to allow it to absorb the flavours, but not so high in starch as to break down. “The paella differs significantly from risotto in texture. Risotto is creamy, paella dry. Chefs prefer senia rice, because it can absorb a lot of flavour. But it’s delicate, and a slight variation in the fire or the amount of stock would ruin it. A safer choice is bomba,” he says. Once all the ingredients are put in, do not stir, never mind if the rice sticks to the bottom. “It helps in caramelization. Too much stirring also breaks the rice and releases more starch,” Benmergui adds. The best rice is at the bottom—the slightly burnt, crunchy, sticky grains, infused with all the spices and flavours, are the most rewarding
Lesson No 5: Don’t bother to plate it. “It’s meant to be a shared meal,” says Lajarin. And, remember to scrape the bottom, vigorously.
200g bomba rice (or any medium-short grained rice)
1 tsp Valencian pimentón (or smoked paprika powder)
3 tbsp olive oil
1 medium tomato, peeled and grated
2 medium onions, minced
4 garlic cloves, minced
100g assorted seasonal vegetables (peas, bell peppers etc), diced
100g assorted seafood (squid rings, fish fillets, prawns, clams, mussels etc, washed and cleaned. If using mussels and clams, lightly steam them beforehand)
3 cups seafood stock
A pinch of saffron (lightly roasted and soaked in 1tbsp olive oil)
1 lemon, cut into wedges
Salt to taste
Heat oil in a wide, shallow wok. Add all the seafood except clams and mussels and lightly sauté over a low heat. Take the prawns out so as not to over cook and keep aside. Add the vegetables, sprinkle some salt and sauté. Add the minced onion and garlic and sauté. When the onion turns translucent add tomato and paprika. Mix well. Add the saffron soaked in oil, put in the rice and mix well. Let a rice cook for a couple of minutes, then add the stock and salt to taste. Cook for about 10 minutes. Put in the clams and mussels, lightly fold them in and let the rice cook. Do not stir the rice after this stage.
Use short grained rice varieties like bombaand vegetables and seafood in season in your paella.
Once the rice is cooked, turn up the heat and let all the stock evaporate. Let the rice crackle for a minute or so—or, as the Valencians say, ”speak to you”— then take off the fire. Drizzle a tablespoon of allioli (garlic and olive oil), decorate with prawns and lemon wedges and serve hot.