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Spanish Fry

Learning to make paella on the grill

By Henry Hong | Posted 8/26/2009

I have to be honest, I've totally neglected my grills and smokers this summer. I blame the amazingly balmy weather we've had. For some unfathomable reason, it takes an oppressively hot day to make me want to get out of the AC and stand in front of fire. So now that it's the end of August and sweltering, I'm in outside-cooking mode. Maybe it's this month of no holidays and almost football, but the standard burgers/dogs/ribs just don't seem exciting. Naturally, I'm thinking I wanna grill up--what else?--rice! Spare me the Asian jokes damn it, I'm talking about paella.

Well, maybe Asian-ness has a little to do with it, because we Koreans value a very specific state of cooked rice--the golden crust that can form on the cooking surface, called "nooroongji" (loosely translated as "brownish bits"). Korean-restaurant staple dol sot bibim bap (rice in a stone bowl) is a dish designed to maximize formation of such a crust, which can be described as a toasty, slightly chewy, savory toffee. It's eaten as a crunchy delicacy as-is (there's even a nooroongji-flavored Cheeto-like Korean snack food), or is sometimes soaked in hot water, which disperses the yummy brown molecules to form a subtly sweet soup of sorts (my mom's method of choice).

In Spain, it's known as socarrat--having an actual word for it is an indicator of its significance--and it's maybe the most crucial element to excellent, or even proper, paella. Yet it's the very attribute that's almost always absent. It took me until my mid-20s to learn this, when I made the dish for my roommate, a medical student from Barcelona. He complimented me graciously, but suggested that it wasn't paella until I put it back on the stove on high heat for another few minutes. Thanks, Carlos.

The perception seems to be that anything with rice and seafood, and, if you're lucky, saffron, can be called paella. The word paella actually refers to the pan it's cooked in (much like a casserole: "Classic Tastes," Eat Me, Jan. 7), which is large, round, shallow, and flat-bottomed, usually steel as opposed to heavy iron--good for portability; fast, even cooking; and eating straight off of in the great outdoors.

The dish itself is a mixed bag of cultural influences--rice was introduced to Spain by the Romans, which Muslims eventually incorporated into their special- and religious-occasion dishes along with vegetables, fish, and spices, notably saffron. The birthplace of Spanish paella is considered to be the province of Valencia, specifically the fruit-growing orchard regions. There, the special-occasion rice dish took on regional ingredients like rabbits or marsh rats, chicken, various types of beans, and snails, which I like to think of as a seafood analogue (they are basically land clams after all). The snails apparently added a very particular flavor, something akin to rosemary, which is the common substitute. I've read that, sometimes, the snails are caught in advance and fed rosemary to further enhance this flavor. So cool. Also worth mentioning is the rice, which is short-grained and highly absorbent, enabling it to cook uncovered, and remain intact and separate as grains. Arborio rice is a readily available substitute.

Also carried over was the practice of men preparing the dish. Whether this was an offshoot of Muslim religious customs, or that making enough for a large gathering was better suited to the outdoors than the kitchen, where women were busy with more complicated tasks, is anyone's guess. In any case, the menfolk would build a fire, put stuff on it, and sit around and watch, with perhaps the occasional poke or prod. Sound familiar?

The basic process is to heat the pan with some oil, brown whatever meat you have, add liquid (usually water), flavorings and beans, then add rice, and cook until the rice is done. The trick is to match up the point at which the liquid evaporates with when the rice is just about done. An open-fire setup is conducive to accomplishing this because you can observe and add liquid as you go. Then, when the liquid is evaporated and rice is on the cusp of readiness, the sound changes from the low murmur of simmering to the hiss and crackle of frying, and you know that the magic Maillard reactions are occurring, turning the bottom layer of rice into crispity, crunchity awesomeness. A final note of smoky flavor is imparted by cooking over a wood fire, which in the case of Valencian paella was often made up of orange branches. But this is simply the Valencian way, and much like chili or barbecue here in the United States, recipes differ greatly by region.

There are common threads, like the rice and saffron, of course, but what makes it truly paella is, again, the socarrat, which is a direct result of the cooking vessel and method. So since it's unlikely that most of us will be building fires out in the middle of an orange orchard this summer, the logical apparatus is a grill, which is actually much easier to use as far as controlling the heat level and evenness. Also necessary is a suitable pan, one with a flat bottom, no handles (or ones that won't burn, at least), and NOT non-stick, since such coatings can be toxic when heated too much. (For a recipe and equipment tips go to citypaper.com/eat.)

Once you have your supplies in place, actual execution is pretty easy, and what you get in return is a real crowd stunner--a paella that glistens with a deep, ruddy burnish, dark, slightly burnt flavors from the socarrat and smoky complexity from adding aromatics to the coals at the last minute (I used rosemary stalks and bay leaves). I had a side-by-side tasting with my humble chicken and sausage (but smoky and socarrat-y) paella, and Tio Pepe's much lauded, delicious, and lobster-sporting (but slightly soupy) seafood paella. While everyone vastly enjoyed both, they agreed it was sort of like comparing apples to oranges, mostly because, as one taster put it, Tio Pepe's tasted "soft-core" compared to mine. Awesome. Nothing better on a hot summer day than hard-core paella.

Paella

Ingredients:

1 1/2 cup arborio or other short-grained rice*
1 pinch saffron threads, steeped**
4-5 chicken thighs
1 longaniza or other spicy sausage***
1 tablespoon sweet paprika
1/2 pound green beans, trimmed
2 tablespoons roughly chopped garlic
1 stalk rosemary, leaves pulled off and chopped (save the stalk)
2-3 bay leaves
salt
pepper
water or stock
olive oil, the good stuff (extra virgin)

Ingredient Notes:
*Any short-grained rice is OK, as long as it is not Asian or glutinous rice, which are sticky. The traditional Spanish rice for paella is called "La Bomba", but it's hard to find and expensive. I've never used anything other than arborio, just out of necessity.
**Choose saffron threads that are all red in color. Yellow threads are worthless and indicate inferior product. Trader Joe's has decent saffron for relatively cheap.
Some recipes call for frying the saffron--don't do this. If you buy good saffron it will only hurt it. There are three good ways to maximize saffron flavor: 1) steep in a little hot water for about 20 minutes 2) steep in a little cold water overnight 3) steep in a little wine for about an hour
***Around here, longaniza or chorizo is almost always fresh, not dried or cured as it generally is in Spain. Mexican-style chorizo (the most common in this area) is a bit too cuminy for me. If using fresh sausage, cook separately from paella and add at the end (see below).

Equipment Notes:
The best vessel is a well-seasoned (a natural nonstick surface created by repeated oiling and heating) paella pan, otherwise a large seasoned cast iron pan is good too. Barring that, I've used aluminum baking sheets in the past, but it's very hard to scrape the soccarat off of them. A large steel pan with a steel handle also works.
Whatever you use, the bottom of the pan will get very sooty, keep this in mind when handling the pan.
A metal spatula is essential for scraping soccarat.

Directions:

Start coals
Salt and pepper chicken thighs
When coals are ready, spread them evenly, ideally in about a 2 coal-thick layer
If using fresh sausage, place on grill away from coals, so it can cook via indirect heat. If using cured/dry sausage, add when rice is added.
Place pan on top of coals
When hot add a liberal amount of olive oil
Brown chicken, skin side down first, for 5-8 minutes, flip and repeat
Sausage should be about done by now, remove from grill and cut into slices
Add the garlic and paprika, cook for about 30 seconds
Add 3 cups of water, sausage, steeped saffron, and half the rosemary, and cook for 10 minutes
Adjust salt in broth (should be fairly salty, the rice will absorb a lot), add remaining garlic and rice (it will look like there isn't enough rice, don't worry there is) making sure it is all evenly spread and sumerged in liquid, add beans on top
Close grill and cook for 10 minutes with vents wide open
Open grill and begin monitoring rice for doneness, adding small amounts of water as necessary. Rice should be slightly firm, but not crunchy. Do stir the rice, just smush around if it needs to be evened out. If the pan is heating unevenly, shift and/or rotate the pan occasionally to compensate
When rice is almost done, no liquid should remain. Sprinkle remaining rosemary over rice. When it begins to sizzle, add rosemary stalk and bay leaves (or wood chips if you have some) to coals, and close grill, with top vent almost closed, bottom vent still open.
After a couple minutes, open grill and inspect rice for soccarat by scraping up with a metal spatula. It should be a nice brown color on the bottom. Don't let it burn. Protip: As the soccarat begins to form, the rice will begin to pull away from the side of the pan slightly
Remove from heat, allow pan to cool, and serve. A good condiment is sofrito (recipe follows)

Quick Sofrito

Ingredients:

1 jar roasted red peppers
1/2 cup good olive oil
4 cloves garlic, smashed
1 teaspoon cayenne pepper or red pepper flakes
1 teaspoon salt

Directions:

Drain peppers, combine with garlic, pepper, salt and oil in a small pot
Fry over low heat (shouldn't sputter at all) for 15-20 minutes, or until solids are soft enough to smush easily with the back of a spoon
Allow to cool
Smush solids with the back of a spoon, or puree mechanically
Adjust salt (should be fairly salty), serve beside paella

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The Meat Generation (2/17/2010)
Reclaiming meatloaf before it becomes extinct

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