Last weekend my mom, our friend Gloria and I learned how to make paella at La Tienda, the sole retail store of Latienda.com, located in Williamsburg, Virginia. The family-owned internet business has distribution centers in Spain and Williamsburg (one in each), and partners with artisanal and small family businesses in Spain to sell foods, wines, cooking implements and other specialties from that country.
I read on their web site that the American family who owns La Tienda fell in love with the country while living there in the 70s, and still travels back and forth. I’m not sure how the employees at the retail store are connected with the family, but they all appeared to be Spanish natives who warmly welcomed us to the shop and class.
The classes are relatively new to the store, and are held in what was once the bar area of the now-closed Italian restaurant the shop took over. I was slightly disappointed when we discovered upon arrival that the class was demo-style rather than participatory. But as soon as our charming chef instructors Lordes and Carmen welcomed us with glasses of Tinto de Verano I knew it was going to be a fun time. (Tinto de Verano, roughly translated to Red Wine of Summer, is similar to — but lighter than — sangria. Make it by combining one part lemon soda with two parts red wine. Serve chilled in glasses with a couple of ice cubes and slices of orange.)
Lordes and Carmen assured us we’d leave class with a written recipe, but I’m sure glad I took copious and detailed notes. The printed recipe is devoid of the many, many tips and techniques we witnessed. Nor did it include the recipe for the delicious garlic aioli we spooned over the finished paella.
Below you’ll find my attempt at explaining how to make what most of the world considers the national dish of Spain. (I would highly recommend experiencing the La Tienda class for best results, however!) I was always intimidated at the thought of cooking paella myself. And while it is indeed a time-consuming, multi-step, many-layered dish, I learned it’s nothing to be scared of.
At the same time, making it well takes experience — including trial and error. Though Lordes and Carmen provided specific times for each step, I never saw them even glance at their watches. They prepared the dish by instinct, carefully eyeballing it and adding ingredients when they felt the time was right.
As Carmen warned us, we paella virgins might consider making our first batch without inviting company over to avoid the potential of having to order pizza!
A bit of background
- It’s best to prepare the dish in a paellera, the recognizable shallow and flat pan. Stainless steel versions cost more but don’t need special care or seasoning. The more traditional steel pans must be carefully dried to avoid rust and seasoned with oil after using and cleaning (like American cast iron cookware). These more inexpensive pans are what Lordes and Carmen prefer, by the way. Both types are available in a huge array of sizes, from the smallest 10-inch, two-serving pan I bought at La Tienda to huge party-sized versions that can hold in excess of 20 servings.
- Speaking of parties, paella isperfect for them. Lordes and Carmen recommend doing all the prep work beforehand, then cooking the paella outdoors over a special burner (or gas grill) while socializing with guests.
- In Spain, paella is a regional dish with flexible ingredients. People who live inland tend to use ingredients from the land such as meats and vegetables. People closer to the shore favor — you guessed it — seafood. Use any meats you like: chicken, pork, beef, lamb, rabbit. Most seafoods work well, but make sure your fish is thick and hearty, since thin or delicate fish won’t withstand the cooking method. Most veggies are fine for paella, except for those that get too soft and liquidy when cooked, like zucchini. Chorizo, though prevalent, is not necessary for good paella. If you don’t use it, however, add extra pimenton (Spanish smoked paprika).
- If you want your dish to be truly authentic, use white — not black — pepper. (That’s a tradition I believe I’ll break with. I find white pepper, which is used extensively in Europe, pretty wimpy when it comes to flavor and heat.)
- Use Bomba rice if you can get it. It’s Spanish, of course, and is a very short grain rice with a high starch content that is capable of quickly absorbing a large amount of liquid. In a pinch, you can substitute arborio or other risotto rices.
- In Spain, everyone has their own particular ways of making paella. Its creation can be very competitive, particularly among men. But I say go for it, everyone!
This — and any homemade mayonnaise, to be honest — was something I’ve been scared to make. But seeing how easily they whipped it up made me eager to try!
In a blender or food processor, place 3 eggs, 3 T. (or lots more) jarred chopped garlic, salt and a little canola or other mild-tasting vegetable oil. (They warned against using olive oil — too flavorful.) Turn the machine on. With the motor running, slowly drizzle in more oil and watch it emulsify. Stop the motor when it has the texture of a loose mayo. You can add a little vinegar or lemon juice if you prefer a bit of acidity.
Now for the paella
This is the version that was made in class — a typical Valencian preparation.
- Heat oil in the pan over medium heat.
- Add chunks of boneless, skinless chicken thighs (breasts are too dry) and pork loin.
- After that cooks a bit, add the “cooking” (raw) chorizo. Continue cooking the meats, but not completely through.
- Push the meat to the edges of the pan and start cooking chopped onion and sliced garlic in the middle.
- After a bit, add chopped red and green bell pepper, and continue cooking in the middle of the pan.
- Mix the meat and veggies and cook together for a bit, then push it all again to the edges of the pan.
- Next, add Spanish pisto, which is prepared (jarred) sauteed vegetables. You can also use canned diced-and-spiced tomatoes. Or finely chop and slowly cook down in olive oil your own veggies like onion, eggplant, zucchini and piquillo peppers, adding a bit of salt and sugar. Whatever you use, heat/cook it a bit in the middle of the pan.
- Mix all together. Add de-tailed, peeled shrimp and cook until they start turning a little pink.
- Using a mortar and pestle, crush a couple of bay leaves. Add sweet smoked pimenton, jarred garlic, salt and pepper, continuing to crush. Finally, add a little stock (they used chicken) and a bit of good saffron — Spanish, preferably — and grind into a paste. I asked, and they said to avoid the cheap kind of saffron you can often find in the Mexican sections of some grocery stores. (I would make this mortar-and-pestle spice preparation before I started cooking.) Stir into the paella.
- Crush a little more saffron and stir it into stock that’s waiting to go into the paella later.
- Sprinkle the Bomba rice on top of the paella — about 1/2 cup per person/serving. (In Spain, some people pour it onto the dish in the shape of a cross, to bless the food.) Stir the rice in well, and cook a tad. Note that this will be the last time you stir the paella!
- Add enough broth to just cover the paella. Do not stir from this point forward. Instead, occasionally shake the pan back and forth in a circular-type motion using the handles. Cook a little.
- Sprinkle on some peas — fresh or frozen.
- Add some clams, lip side down, as if you’re planting them. Add salt, increase the heat a little and cook until the paella starts simmering. Then turn the heat down again, keeping the dish at a slow simmer and shaking the pan occasionally. Plan to simmer it for about 25-30 minutes.
- While it’s simmering, “plant” some mussels, lip tips down. Next add strips of fire roasted piquillo peppers. And finally, quartered lemon slices.
- Simmer until there is only a little liquid left (you might have to poke a spatula or big spoon down into the paella to view the bottom of the pan), turn off the heat, cover the pan pretty tightly with foil and let it sit for 5-10 minutes.
- Sprinkle dried thyme or oregano on top, mostly for looks. Serve with fresh lemon slices, dollops of aioli, crusty bread and more wine.
Good luck! (Wish me the same. My new pan, Bomba rice and saffron await. I think my friend Nancy and I are going to try our hand at it together soon.)