The Great Paella Debate! by David and Paquita


  • Introduction:

    David has been a good friend since our high-school days. He is a history professor and loves all things Spanish. At the top of that list is his lovely wife Paquita. Paquita has many talents, among them a wonderful voice for Spanish song and a talent for Spanish dance. David is also wonderful Flamenco guitar player. They are both great cooks!

    I joined them in Madrid after numerous invitations to visit during one of their trips to Spain.

    The following notes were taken after a fine meal in David and Paquita's Madrid home. It is not intended as a recipe but rather as a way of explaining the importance of Paella and food in Spanish life.

    Is this deck food? For a Spaniard there is no doubt about the answer. Paella is the quintessential Spanish deck food! Its outdoor preparation is part of the whole experience. - George

    Sunday, March 30, 2003, Madrid

    Got up late, its raining, went with David to the Museum of Anthropology and then returned home by about 3:00 for lunch.

    class="caption">Dama de Elche, Museum of Archeology, Madrid

    Paquita has prepared a great pasta sauce made out of very small octopus, fava beans, onions and olive oil. Her brother Javier joins us. A great bottle of Rioja is served with the lunch.

    The conversation is about all sorts of things. We try to avoid talking about the war. There is some discussion about the merits of various destinations for David's and my two-day trip this Tuesday and Wednesday. At some point in the meal there is some talk about Paellas. I may have started the whole thing when I asked about the contents of "a real" Paella.

    It was all very calm up to this point. It seems that there are all sorts of Paellas and that the content does depend on the region. David told of going with friends to a place with a "black" Paella. The black color is the product of the "ink" from the squid in the Paella.

    Now the discussion started to be more animated. David explaining that he likes to brown the chicken and rabbit pieces in the olive oil before he starts to "sofrido". He then removes the meat and sets it aside. Paquita interrupts and corrects David's method. One must start with the sofrido, saute the garlic in the olive oil (I don't think that there is any other kind of oil in Spain), add the vegetables and when they are done move them to one side of the pan and then brown the meat in the pan.

    Measuring the rice -

    Paquita:it has to be 1/2 cup per person. Both, it has to be the short Spanish rice. David: likes to measure the rice before he starts cooking by pouring the dry rice into the pan and filling the pan with the dry rice to 1/3 of the height of the pan. (P. rolls her eyes) He then measures the rice in order to decide how much liquid he will need.

    The liquid -

    Paquita: "3 cups for every 2 cups of rice!". David: If you are making the Paella in a place where you can heat the liquid than you should add it after the rice, if not then before the rice. Both, the liquid should be a good broth made with the parts of the chicken or rabbit or at least a good canned stock. The amount of liquid may have to be adjusted if the meats and vegetables used are very dry or for that matter very wet.

    Vegetables -

    Here there was little debate, just animated discussion. Flat green beans (Roma Beans), roasted and pealed green and red peppers. At this point P. runs into the kitchen and comes back with a box of purple colored dry peppers. They are a good addition to the Paella. They need to be soaked, pealed and seeded. It is also possible to add some green peas part way through the cooking process, i.e. sprinkled onto the rice. Tomatoes are ok if they are pealed and seeded. Paquita: if you use tomatoes you must add some sugar to offset the acid in the tomatoes. Artichokes (young tender ones) are ok.

    Onions? Absolutamenti No! There is no place for onions in a Paella. Not in the Sofrido and not in any other part of the dish. Why? We are not sure but it might harm the rice in some way. No onions! No! No! No!

    Saffron? Yes! No debate here! It should be pulverized in a mortar and pestle. If you like, you can use some prepared saffron containing Paella spices. They are available in all the Spanish grocery stores.

    The meat -

    Rabbit is a must, and chicken is also a very good idea. Paquita: some people add pieces of pork, yes, that's ok too.

    Buying Meat in Europe: Meat in most US markets is incognito. Not so in Europe. The ubiquitous dry cured hams in Spain hang from the hooves and the various foul in French stores comes with some identifying feathers, heads and feet.

    Rabbits in Spain come without the fur but with the heads. David explains that one of the best ways to tell if the rabbit meat is fresh is by the condition of the eyeballs. Clear eyeballs, fresh rabbit! (I don't think that we are about to see that in the US).

    class="caption">This is the way chickens (not rabbits) are sold in France (not Spain) but the basic idea is the same.

    Seafood -

    David: Mussels and clams are nice. Paquita: No Clams! Clams don't belong in a Paella! (David puts up his hands in a sign of surrender. I was much too polite to remind Paquita that there were clams in the Paella at the tapas bar in Segovia - see photo.)

    class="caption">Paquita In a Segovia Tapas Bar with a taste of Paella

    Spanish Seafood -

    In defense of Paquita's honor and by way of explanation, a note about Spanish seafood and terminology. The seafood in Spain is quite fantastic, here in Madrid, in the middle of the Iberian Peninsula, one finds a wide assortment of top quality fresh and salt water fish and shellfish. Unlike in the US, the terminology used is much more specific. For example, I saw a chart with a dozen or more illustrations and terms for various types of shrimp and prawns in a neighborhood market. When Paquita insisted that "clams" were not to be used in a Paella, she was referring large clams and assumed that we were talking about Paella Valenziana. The "clams" in the Paella we had in Segovia were very small clams, less than an inch long and have a different Spanish name then the larger ones.

    If muscles are used in the Paella, David suggested that they be added toward the end of the cooking process and inserted hinge end down into the rice.

    At this point there was some discussion about the time it took to cook the Paella. Paquita seemed to be saying that there was a specific amount of time for cooking a Paella and was challenging David to come up with the right answer. I was having too much fun sipping the Rioja and partaking of this great show to ketch the answer to this question. I think that David was also debating with Paquita at this point about the question of stirring the Paella after the rice and broth had been added to the pan. David: Yes, some stirring or at least re-arranging is required in order to make sure that all the rice gets cooked in the broth. Paquita: No!

    class="caption">David with Maimonides, Cordoba, Spain

    Before the Paella is served, it must rest. Paquita explaining that the rice must "perspire" or "sweat". This brought on a discussion of the terms used in Spanish for this part of the process and our tendency not to use such terms when referring to food. Paquita explained that the proper way to allow the Paella to rest, sweat or perspire was to lay two branches across the Paella dish and then cover the dish with a clean towel. After a few minutes, the Paella is uncovered and can than be decorated with lemon wedges.

    Is this the end of the story? No! If you are an expert Paella cook, your Paella will have a light brown crust off the bottom, sort of like the Persian rice. This crust must be brown and not burned. It is scraped off the bottom of the dish at the end of the meal, sort of a dessert.

    The Paella can be served by having everyone eating directly from the dish with wooden spoons are on individual plates.

    Paella is often used to denote a specific recipe but the actual word refers to the flat pan in which such dishes are cooked. So that when I went with David to a famous Paella restaurant, the menu had a section entitles "Rice Dishes" and most of those were cooked in Paella type pans. We ordered the Paella Valenziana at this restaurant. It was great. The menu called it a Paella Valenziana and described it as being made with rabbit, chicken and rosemary. It even came with a twig of rosemary decorating the middle of the dish. David pronounced it good (I liked it a lot, but then what do I know?). By the way, this Paella didn't have a crust on the bottom.

    I am sure that I missed all sorts of vital information. I should have had several video cameras running all of this time and recording every moment and comment. But a great time was had by all.

    Oh yes, I also asked what one serves the guests while one cooks the Paella? Wine and blanched/roasted almonds would be fine.

    Thanks guys, it was a great trip and you made it very special!

    P.S. David just sent me a link to a wonderful Paella cooking demonstration. This one is not on a deck but its a lot of fun just the same.

    I am not sure how long the NY Times keeps these on their web site but for now its well worth watching.

    Thanks you David, Hello to Paquita.- George