Cooking traditional Spanish dishes at home: Paella

February 4, 2013
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For my first cooking attempt, I made a dish Spain is known for: paella. Some American Spanish restaurants compare paella to jambalaya. Each region of Spain has different takes on paella, but I made a standard recipe I based off of this website. Parts of the site were actually in Spanish – which I had to crudely translate – so I thought it must be pretty legitimate.

The recipe called for short grain rice, chicken, artichokes, red peppers, tomatoes, black pepper, salt, garlic, parsley, saffron, olive oil, lemon, rosemary and thyme. Instead of measuring in cups, this recipe used grams, an interesting difference from American recipes. Another interesting difference is that the recipe gave no measurements at all for the spices – I had to go by taste, and I used many assumptions in how the recipe was supposed to go.

I found all the ingredients with ease in a typical American grocery store – all except one, that is. I tried three different grocery stores, but I still could not find saffron anywhere. Since I wasn’t totally sure what saffron was, I looked it up when I got home and found out it’s one of the most expensive spices in the world. After I read that, I didn’t feel so badly about not finding it; I probably couldn’t have afforded it anyway on my poor student budget.

Onto the actual preparation: this was not an easy recipe, but it wasn’t complicated. My only problems were with the recipe’s ambiguity.  The first thing it said to do was fry the chicken in some olive oil. My first alteration: I used more chicken than the recipe called for – it said to use half of a chicken in pieces, which I assumed meant half of a chicken breast—I used two whole breasts. The recipe then says to put the browned chicken into a pan with eight glasses of water, bring it to a boil and leave it simmering for 30 minutes. My second assumption: that eight “glasses” meant eight cups.

The next step said to cut the artichokes and red peppers and fry them. Sounds simple, right? Not if you’ve never cleaned artichokes. The recipe gave very vague directions on cutting them, so I found a YouTube video with directions. It ended up looking like this:

 

A quick note on artichokes – they will stab you, so be careful! While I was cutting them, I held one too tightly, it pricked me and almost drew blood.

Next, I fried the tomato and garlic in olive oil in what was supposed to be a “paellera,” or special paella pan. I do not own a “paellera.” I do, however, own a very large wok, so I made do with it. After this, I added the chicken, chicken stock, artichokes, red peppers, the lemon juice, black pepper, parsley, thyme and rosemary. More alterations: I was supposed to use fresh thyme and rosemary, but, respecting my budget issues, I used the dried thyme and rosemary I already had on hand. Also, this point was when I was supposed to add the omitted saffron. After looking up suitable substitutions, I found that there are none, so I didn’t replace it with anything.

 

After this, it said to raise the heat to maximum and boil for about 10 minutes. Then lower the heat and simmer for another 10 minutes. After this, all the liquid should have evaporated. Cover, let stand for 5 minutes, and voila! You have paella!

It tasted phenomenal. The artichokes gave the paella an almost smoky flavor. They were crunchy and a little hard to chew, but not in a bad way—they gave the dish a satisfying change of texture. As a whole, the dish looked like a winter comfort food, but the varied spices freshened it. One thing I messed up: when I added the majority of the spices to the final pan, I forgot to add salt, which it definitely needed. But after I corrected my mistake, everything was great. Overall, it was very filling and satisfying.

 

If I may be so bold, I would do a couple of things differently in the future if I were to make this again. First, I would add more chicken. Even though I quadrupled what the recipe called for, to me, it still could have been much meatier. Going along with that, I would also have added a sautéed chopped onion and maybe some spinach. While all of the rice was delicious, it definitely overwhelmed most of the other elements, so some simple vegetables added would bring a good balance.

Over the next few weeks before we travel to Spain I’m going to continue trying my hand at traditional Spanish dishes. My next dishes will include tortilla Española, gazpacho, and perhaps crema catalana, though not in any particular order.