Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Backyard Paella


Since my revelation about rice and Spanish cooking in the past year, I have been wanting to try paella, but I've been daunted by all the hype and the special pan. In The New Spanish Table, Anya von Bremzen discusses paella at length and actually makes it sound not so hard. What I love is when she asks a Valencian rice farmer what defines paella, he says it's more an activity than just a dish - the whole family crowds around the pan in the backyard. After seeing an Alton Brown episode where he cooks it on his charcoal grill, I knew we had to do it!

The great thing is that you just fire up the grill as hot as possible, which is where our grill excels - years ago, a friend's dog chewed up the little vents at the bottom that help you control the heat, so now it's just full blast all the time. We like to use mesquite charcoal chunks (from El Mezquite Mexican grocery in ABQ) instead of briquets, because they burn really nicely and don't have a funky smell like some charcoals. I got Dave a paella pan for Christmas, 16 inches in diameter, which makes enough for 4-6 people. It's important that the rice be spread in a thin layer about 1/2 inch deep to cook properly.

The ingredients for an authentic Paella Valenciana include chicken, rabbit, snails, artichokes, lima beans and green beans. I wasn't ready to hunt down rabbit and snails for this little experiment, but we do have frozen lima and green beans, and some lovely little artichokes from Los Poblanos this week. So here goes:

For the stock:
1 whole chicken
8 cups water
1 onion, quartered
1 carrot, cut into large chunks
1 bay leaf
1 tsp salt

Cut the chicken into pieces - thighs, drumsticks, wings, and boneless breasts. Refrigerate until ready to use in the paella. Place the carcass in a large pot with water, onion, carrot and bay leaf. Bring to a boil and simmer for at least an hour. Don't add more than 1 teaspoon salt, because when it cooks in the paella, it will become more concentrated and you don't want it to end up too salty.

For the paella:
Chicken pieces from above
8 cloves garlic
1 tsp smoked sweet paprika
1 tsp salt
2 large tomatoes (yes, I bought these out of season, but next time I'll try canned)
2 artichokes
1 cup green beans, cut in 1-inch lengths
1 cup baby lima beans
20 saffron threads, or a large pinch
Stock from above
2 cups Arborio rice
1 large sprig rosemary, needles stripped off the stem
1 tsp hot paprika (or a little cayenne and more sweet paprika)
Olive oil

Light 2 pounds of charcoal in the newspaper-chimney-thing and wait for it to turn grey on the outside. Rub the chicken pieces with half the garlic, the smoked paprika and salt, and let stand 15 minutes. Halve the tomatoes and grate them on the large holes of a box grater, discarding the skin. Trim the stems and pointy tops off the artichokes and peel away the tough outer leaves. Cut them in quarters or eighths and scrape out the chokes (the hairy part in the center). Add saffron to the stock and keep at a simmer on the stove. Get everything ready in bowls to take outside - the chicken, the remaining garlic, the grated tomatoes, the artichokes and beans mixed together, the rice mixed with the rosemary needles and hot paprika, and half the stock.

Mix the burning charcoal with 2 more pounds of unlit charcoal, and spread evenly in the bottom of the grill. Replace the top grate and set the paella pan on it. Add enough oil to coat the bottom of the pan - it should be really hot. Sear the chicken pieces on both sides. Push the chicken to the sides of the pan, and cook the vegetables for a few minutes, until they start to get tender. Push the vegetables to the sides, add the garlic and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds, then add the tomatoes and cook for another minute or two.


Add the rice and rearrange so everything is distributed evenly across the pan. Pour 4 cups of stock evenly over the pan, washing the rice to the bottom and making sure all the rice is submerged. After this, do not stir the paella. Cook for about 10 minutes, until most of the stock is absorbed. Add 2 more cups of stock, focusing on areas that look dry. Cook another 10 minutes, until most of the stock is absorbed, then taste to see if the rice is tender (it shouldn't be quite done, it should have a little chewiness still). Add a little more stock to any areas that look dry, or where the rice is not as cooked. Remove the pan from the heat, cover with a clean dishtowel, and let stand 15 minutes. Serves 4 to 6.
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