Thursday, 28 February 2008

Med in England

Considering the number of risottos (risotti? Risottums?) I’ve made and the variations thereof, I was slightly surprised by the realisation that I’d never made a paella. Not surprised in the conventional sense, as it can be rather difficult to be taken back by something of one’s own creation, rather I was surprised in the manner by which you may react to finding a long forgotten boiled sweet in the pocket of a jacket you haven’t worn since last winter. It wasn’t through any conscious decision, I’d not written paella off my culinary repertoire in the same sense that I shall never, ever cook a nut roast or use Quorn (or any meat substitute manufactured in a laboratory, for that matter) but it was just one of those dishes that hadn’t been on my radar for so long that it remained forgotten and neglected like a copy of Descartes’ Mediations on the Beckhams’ bookshelf. But my memory was triggered by the discovery of a bag of Spanish paella rice waiting patiently in the back of the cupboard and my curiosity nodules were aroused to a degree that warranted further investigation.

Aside from tapas, paella is probably Spain’s most famous contribution to global cuisine. Much like its Italian counterpart, risotto, it was originally a dish created to use up leftovers and make an edible meal on a tight budget (rice is cheap and filling). It has since risen above such lowly origins and additions such as prawns, mussels, squid and rabbit can turn it from peasant food into a real treat.

After some diligent research I found a recipe that claimed to follow an authentic Valencian method although I am almost certain that paella is one of those dishes, much like bouillabaisse or minestrone, that has as many variations as there are people willing to cook it and no such definitive recipe shall ever exist (personally, I think that this is one of the most exciting things about cooking a dish such as paella: there are no rules and you can experiment as much or as little as you wish allowing the finished article to evolve and change as it must have done over the last few hundred years). The key ingredients are rice and stock. Nothing more. From this point on feel free to go off-road, take a few chances and do as you wish. Go on, you know you want to.

For me, as a first-timer I wanted to keep it as simple as possible to try and allow each specific flavour to shine. I simmered the fish stock with some chopped garlic and two generous pinches of saffron whilst softening a couple of finely diced shallots and more garlic in plenty of olive oil (any large frying pan will be fine, this is a two pot dish, tops). A handful of finely chopped cherry tomatoes then went into the mix to cook off slightly just before the addition of a teaspoon of paprika and the rice which can be liberally scattered over the onion, garlic and tomato mixture. A stir at this point would be wise but this is one meal that should have the minimum amount of fuss lavished upon it because excess movement will break up the rice creating a soupy mess rather than a mass of tasty individual grains, each ready to burst in the mouth and release a barrage of flavour. Finally I added about ¾ of the stock, holding some back in case the pan needed topping up with liquid before the rice was cooked. I cheated with the seafood and bought a frozen cocktail of mussels, prawns and squid which I defrosted and fried off in a little olive oil, lemon juice and garlic before adding to the finished paella along with a couple of handfuls of steamed sugar snap peas and a squeeze of lemon. For a meal that required minimum effort, the result was superb and certainly one to do again – the perfumed saffron was subtle but added a vibrant deep yellow colour, the rice retained a nice amount of bite and the taste was readily reminiscent of the warmer climes of a Mediterranean summer as opposed to the cold damp of north-west England in February.

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