Paella en El Maestrat

In the Valencian communidad, every woman worth her salt, and yes modern man too, measure their culinary skills by their ability in producing the perfect paella. I have been invited to many a home, and it always has been delicious and yet each host has made an excuse as to its apparent shortcomings.

Mary’s paella is talked about all over the Maestrat. It is the custom to order paella “to take away” if you are having a fiesta. A dish of the size in the photo below will typically feed about 50 people. Mary’s mother told me a not so little secret – traditionally, the lovely yellow colour of paella comes from the spice saffron. But saffron is very expensive so they use food colouring in the form of a yellow powder – you can buy pots of it in any supermarket and the better paella colorants have a little bit of real saffron added to it! We both had a good laugh. The main thing, she told me, is to simmer it over a real wood fire, and to stir it frequently. And of course, to use the correct short-grained Bomba rice. This make-shift set-up in the vacant lot next to Ramon’s is ideal. And the paella is absolutely amazing, with just the right amount of socarrat (burnt bit!) at the bottom.

I recently had an amazing paella from El Portoles restaurant in Castellon. The owners, Rafa and his wife Elena came up to my masia and cooked especially for me and my guests! It was quite an experience and the flavour and texture of the rice was perfect. However, for those perfectionists, there was no socarrat at the bottom. Though I actually thought it all the better for it.

It was the first time I saw a paella being made from start to finish and the simplicity of its execution impressed me, so much so that I requested the recipe. This was also very simply written, I guess typical for a chef who assumes a profound knowledge of techniques. So here is Elena’s recipe – – the photos are actually of a 12-person paella, but the quantities below are for 4. It did not take too long because all ingredients were prepared beforehand. Just use your cooking experience and fill in the gaps!

First of all you need a flat-bottomed pan. It has to be flat, and preferably a real paella pan. The size of the pan will depend on how many people you are cooking for. Place it on a trestle outside with either a wood fire underneath or, much easier, but not for purists, on a gas ring.

Heat up the pan, pour in olive oil (Elena says oil, but I assume it is olive oil. I don’t know any Spanish person around here that would consider anything else) and brown on low heat until cooked through:

¼ chicken with bone, roughly hacked

¼ of a large pork cutlet, on bone, roughly hacked

Now add and stir:

a red pepper, coarsely chopped

8 artichokes – cleaned, tough bits removed and quartered (although Elena’s looked liked they were smaller!)

250 grs of large green beans, cut in 2 inch lengths

When you think they look about like the photo above, add:

2 garlic cloves, chopped

stir first, then add:

1 large creamed tomato

This is THE moment – the moment to add HALF the water, and watch out because you are using genuine paella rice – too much water and your paella will be mush, too little and it will be like eating bits of, well, raw rice! I have had both experiences.

So add and let boil for 20 to 30 minutes:

1.5 litres water (for the 500 gr rice which is coming later)

Wen it has reduced, add:

Another 1.5 litres water

Let this reduce once more to a lovely thickened sauce and add:

50 grs of large beans like in the photo below -they are not the same as the first lot of beans and if anyone can give me exact names I would be more than pleased!

Now, yes, it is true, there is yet another kind of bean:

8 tirabeques – look at photo below again because I have no idea what the English name is!

Next you add:

colour for paella – you can find it in absolutely EVERY supermarket.

A note on this. I always thought it was saffron, but aparently no, not any more. A good colourant will have a bit of saffron in it however. The main point of the colourant is to add visual appeal

Finally, and most importantly, let the remaining water evaporate (note this is Elena’s instructions, but I felt she left quite a bit of liquid still) and then add:

500 gr bomba rice – this is small and round – no other rice will do

Cook as follows:

Highest heat – 5 minutes

Medium heat – 5 minutes

And finally low heat – 8 minutes

It should now be done and soft, but with a little bit of bite. Elena’s was! Let it sit for 10 minutes before serving.

You can get find out more about Restaurante Portoles here

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