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01.26.2004

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please can i have some more paella?
a paella how-to 
by Yee-Fan Sun
 | 1 2

Perhaps Spain's most famous culinary contribution to the world, paella was originally born in the country's southeast coastal region known as El Levante. There, the genius combination of meats, rice, broth, saffron and a cornucopia of veggies was first thrown together into a shallow metal pan, and paella was born. Today, paella is often referred to as the national dish of Spain, and there are as many variations on the theme as there are cooks who make the dish. Fortunately, you don't have to fly all the way to Valencia to taste a proper paella -- with a few simple tips, you can recreate this fabulous dish in the comfort of your very own kitchen.

As much a feast for the eyes as for the belly, paella is one of my favorite meals to make when I'm having friends over. Although there's a fair amount of chopping and prep work involved, the actual cooking of the dish is fairly straightforward -- and the dish is such a complete meal in itself that it doesn't require much more in the way of accompaniments. Serve with a good Rioja or a pitcher of homemade sangria and you're set.

get equipped
For paella, you'll need a wide pan with shallow, preferably sloped sides that can go from stovetop to oven -- an authentic paella pan is best, but your good ol' cast-iron fry pan will do dandy as well. What's key is that you want to be able to spread out your rice in the pan, and not have to pile it up much more than an inch high. You want the rice to have good surface contact with the pan to achieve the best paella flavor.

rice, rice baby
All rice is not created the same, and for proper paella, you'll want to make certain you use the right kind. Leave the Uncle Ben's alone (actually, this is good advice for just about any dish). Long-grain rice absolutely will not work; you need something that absorbs liquid readily and doesn't get too squishy. This means that for paella, short-grain/medium-grain rice is a must. The most authentic rice to use would be Valencia rice, but any short-grain rice (Arborio, heck, even Asian short-grain varieties) can be substituted with good results.

spice, and everything nice
Paella's distinctive flavor comes largely from the inclusion of two key spices: saffron and paprika. Paprika, of course, is readily available at your friendly neighborhood supermarket, but the pricey saffron can prove more elusive. When a trip to Safeway once revealed no saffron in evidence, I headed over to the organic food market, figuring I'd have better luck there. After finding a label for it on the spice shelves -- but no bottles -- I asked an employee, who said that they had started keeping the saffron behind the counter, because they'd had a few too many instances of people stealing the stuff. Given that a mere oz. of saffron will easily run you over $35 in the U.S., saffron is a valuable commodity. The good news is that a pinch of saffron is generally all that's needed to flavor a dish -- so a little really does go a long way. If you don't think you'll be using the spice frequently, buy a gram (it'll probably cost about $6-7) -- this should be enough to make several paella dishes. Some cooks substitute turmeric for saffron, but I don't recommend it. While the cheap turmeric does yield a nice, saffron-like yellow color to the finished dish, it won't provide that distinctive saffron taste.

cooking paella
The traditional method for cooking paella is over an open fire. As this is probably not the most practical method of cooking for most of us, the more common modern-day method is to start the cooking on the stove, and finish it off in the oven. Just be sure to cook your paella on your largest burner to ensure that your paella pan is heated as evenly as possible.

mosey along this way for the recipe

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