Here is Lena Dunham ( Girls) in a recent issue of The New Yorker on Spain’s best known dish: “I’ve always found paella kind of pretentious, a food that wants to be everything and is therefore nothing. … But everyone regards the pan of tiny squids and clamshells and fatty sausage as if it were a great work of art.”
Food traditionalists from Valencia, the home of paella, would agree with Dunham’s snarky dismissal, because for them what she describes is not paella at all.
Valencia gastronomes, led by journalist and blogger Francisco Alonso, pronounced 2013 the Year of Paella, with the intention of letting the world know about the true dish. The year is about to end and, frankly, I don’t know how much success they’ve had.
But what is paella? First let’s say what it is not.
I always thought paella valenciana was saffron rice cooked with a mix of shellfish, chicken and, yes, fatty sausage (chorizo). Years ago, in The Food and Wines of Spain by Penelope Casas, I read that a true paella valenciana is not a seafood dish at all, but is made instead with foodstuffs from the Valencia countryside, like duck, rabbit and snails, as well as local varieties of beans.
(Actually, there is such a thing as a seafood paella as well as a vegetarian paella jardinera, but purists insist that only one kind should be called paella valenciana, the rest are arroces, or rices, of which there are plenty of regional variations.)
Eva Alcaraz, from Madrid but with Valencia friends in Miami (they helped inspire her Gazpacho Alcaraz, which I wrote about a few months ago), was cooking one at home for a dinner party. When she insisted on no pimientos on top, a dinner guest from Spain said, “No, that can’t be. Why, some piquillo pimientos are perfect on paella.”
Eva stuck to her guns while she served the paella she had cooked outside over an open fire in the traditional manner, and had acquired the burnt rice crust called socarraet that’s a treat in Valencia.
She referred me to a friend from Valencia, Laura Valles, partner in the new Perfecto restaurant on Brickell, which specializes in dishes from Barcelona. Laura promised me a real paella valenciana. Indeed, it was excellent, made with pork, chicken and rabbit.
“The essential thing is that the paella came from the countryside,” she said. “Families would make it from the products of the garden and the corral, whatever they could find.”
And no chorizo. “When I told my father in Spain that here [Miami] they add chorizo to paella, he said, ‘nooo, that’s incredible!’” However, she conceded that pimiento on top was just fine.
The paella at Perfecto is “the best adaptation we can manage,” Laura said. And they offer a black paella, darkened with squid ink like a risotto nero.
Here is my own rough adaptation of Paco Alonso’s recipe:
First you need a paella, which is what the shallow metal pan is called, paella being a word for pan. And you need Bomba rice from Valencia, available at local Spanish delis – “Valencia rice” from supermarkets is a second-rate substitute.
Make a fire on an outdoor grill with wood, preferably from orange trees, and place paella on it. Cook rabbit and chicken pieces in extra-virgin olive oil until close to done. Add some chopped tomato and cook a bit more. Add broth, preferably homemade from rabbit and chicken parts; a sprig of rosemary to substitute for the traditional snails fattened on rosemary; flat green beans and fresh lima beans; rice; Spanish paprika (mild); and saffron threads that have been toasted a bit in the oven and broken up. Watch so it cooks evenly but don’t stir. Do not cook rice in the oil first (I used to do this). And for the love of Valencia, no chorizo.
If this seems too austere it’s because, contrary to the popular reputation of Spanish cuisine as colorful and fun, most of it is austere. Notice no garlic, onions, green or red peppers, though all of these could have been used to season the broth. And notice as well the likelihood of failure – over- or undercooked rice or meats, unevenly cooked sections of the pan. This is a traditional dish, which means it took generations to perfect it, so don’t be surprised if it takes you, if not generations, at least a few tries.
In the end, blogger Alonso admits, “I question where there really exists the true and authentic paella, the perfect paella, the squaring of the circle, or if it’s a kind of utopia, a totally imaginary gustatory paradise for which all of us valencianos yearn. I have my doubts.”