Route 79 : Paella

The effects of feeling hungry on the way home


September 22 2007

Route 79 Paella

Since I've been spending too much time in Spain lately I figured that there's no excuse not learning how to make this classic Spanish dish. However, it's not without some challenges back here in London. This aint Madrid: most housholds in Spain have a collection of specially-designed paella pans of different sizes depending on how much to be cooking for, and most households cook their paella on a big gas burner in the back garden. Oh my, if only we had the weather for such a thing! So, the question in my mind was how to make it without these things?

Well, here's the Route 79 method, which I have to admit turned out quite nice, and thankfully involved only a single "standard" frying pan on a "standard" stove top. And for those wondering how "authentic" this preparation is, let me assure you that this was narrated to me thoroughly by a Spanish lady in Madrid last week, and she told me she does it exactly this way at home when she is preparing just for two or three persons, bacause a standard frying pan full of paella will not hold enough to be the centrepiece for an extended family get-together, but is perfect for dinner for two. There are a couple of things she told me to do (or NOT to do) which I haven't done (or HAVE done), but I've explained them at the appropriate points below.

So, first get your bits and pieces together. You can see mine all posing together on the worktop below:

This is plenty to be the main plate for a dinner for two or three people. Here's what you need:

The rice: this is the focal point of the dish. Everything else in a paella exists purely and selfishly for the rice. And herein lies the first deviation from the" authentic". When I went out shopping earlier I looked from some Spanish rice. Of course, I shouldn't have been too hopeful as obviously your common-garden supermarket is NOT going to carry Spanish rice. In fact it was only whilst browsing the rice section in Morrisons that i realised how dire the situation is. For a start, we in the Route 79 household consume masses of quantities of rice, and the local supermarket is a no-go area for rice purchases as it is all just too expensive. Instead we buy in bulk at the local Indian shop (20Kg bags), and we ONLY eat basmati rice. Yes, you could call us "rice snobs" but that's the only rice we eat. Now, as you know, basmati is a very long grain and naturally fragrant rice that is ideal for serving with Indian foods, but it is NOT ideal for Spanish Paella, in fact any form of long grain rice is NOT suitable for paella. So what's available at the supermarket: rows and rows of long grain rice, easy-cook rice, Uncle ben's rice, converted rice, arborio rice (way too short), overpriced basmati rice, brown rice (yuk) and packets and packets of boil-in-the-bag or microwavable rice by Ainsley Harriet! I hadn't realised just how badly we British eat our rice. So I reluctantly picked up a cheap bag of Morrisons own-brand regular white rice (whatever you do don't buy the "easy-cook" or "converted" versions), which although is a long grain, is not as long as basmati, and will soak up the flavours of the paella OK in my opinion. So, rule number one of authentic paella broken! Hey ho.

So: for the rice:

Measure one small glass of rice to the brim. Rinse and drain a few times and set aside until it's dried naturally (takes about half hour in the sieve that you use to drain it).

For the flavour sauce:

Half a large onion, chopped finely chopped.
Half a green pepper and half a red pepper, again; finely chopped
Some flat leaf parsley, coarsley chopped
A half-thumb sized lump of pulped garlic from your freezer (thawed). (Or else a few cloves, crushed)
One third tin of chopped tomato
Half-teaspoon of paprika

For the cooking broth:

A chicken stock cube
Exactly twice the amount of water as rice (plus a little bit more)

For the meats/fish:

You could use whatever you like here, but I used:
Around 150 grams of bite-sized raw chicken
Around 150 grams of raw king prawns (Aldi have a fantastic value packet in their freezer)

For the decoration and garnish:

Six crevettes - these are simply just whole, cooked king prawns - i.e. heads on, shells on etc.
One roasted, pickled red-pepper from a jar of the stuff that you can pick up in any mediterranean shop, cut into long thin strips.
One lemon - for squeezing over by dinner guests.

And now for the next point of deviation from the authentic. The use of long grain rice was a serious one. Well this one even more serious. It's the use of haldi (turmeric) for the colouring. Yep, this is considered heresy by the purist paella-cooking Spanish, who use saffron. Well, not everybody can afford saffron so yellow food colouring is commonly used instead, but most definitely NOT TURMERIC! The Spanish say that turmeric is just too strong a flavour to use in Paella. However, if you're like me and you don't like the idea of cooking with E numbers (especially those containing the word tartrazine) then turmeric it is. And if you use it sparingly you will get the lovely yellow colour you want. And here is a great tip - if you get your half teaspoon of turmeric out of the airtight container and leave it to sit on a plate for a while then it will lose some of the strong aroma that it has, and instead shouldn't impart much of a flavour into the rice. And for those of you who don't mind the warm, delicate edge of turmeric well then it's an excellent substitute. I just thought I's warn you that it is not considered authentic and there is no acceptable substitute for saffron.

So here goes:

Get a large frying pan going with a tabelspoon of olive oil (not extra virgin). When the oil is hot, chuck in the chopped onion and peppers and stir ocassionally until they go all soft. Whilst that's happening you can prepare the cooking stock, which is twice (and a bit) the volume of hot water with a chicken stock cube dissolved in it. Use a good quality stock cube, one made from bouillon.

When the onions and peppers have gone soft, add the garlic pulp and stir it a little to get the oil in the pan flavoured. Then throw in the tinned chopped tomato. You only really want about 1/3rd of a 400g tin in here as you don't want too much moisture at this stage. Stir everything up in the pan to let excess water evaporate off. When the paste is getting thicker add the paprika, turmeric and about half of your chopped parsley.

Mix about and then add the chicken pieces. Stir around and turn the pieces over until it's all coloured. Simmer it like this until the chicken has just cooked. The flame should be on medium burn up to this point.

Then add the prawns. Raw prawns only take a few minutes to cook so only give it a minute after this and then add the rice.


Make sure the rice is fully coated in the mixture of the sauce before adding the stock broth.

I forgot to mention another ingredient: a handful of frozen peas. At this point throw these into the pan and turn up the flame until you get a semi-aggressive boil. Use this last opportunity to stir the contents of the pan so that all the meat/fish is in a single layer and the rice and veg are evenly distributed. Then lower the flam gently until you get a mild simmering going. At this point you MUST NOT TOUCH THE CONTENTS OF THE PAN. The rice should be left to absorb the broth without a lid on - that's why you needed a bit more than twice the water to rice.

It should take about 20 minutes to get done completely from this point. So after about 10 minutes decorate the pan with your sliced roasted peppers and the cooked crevettes. Just press them into the rice into a pattern of sorts and then cover the pan with foil so that the topmost layer of rice gets cooked properly and the prawns on top get warmed through gently.

After the time is up, switch off the gas and leave the paella pan covered with the foil for around 5 mins or so. After that it's ready to serve! Just sprinkle the remaining chopped parsley over the pan and take the pan straight to the table with a few wedges of the lemon. It is considered unauthentic to eat paella out of anything other than the pan it was cooked in, so this is a great way of sharing a meal intimately, e.g. with family or partner etc. It also keeps the paella hot, and saves on washing up afterwards!

So that's it! A one-pan, stove-top method of cooking Spanish favourite paella! Let whoever you're sharing with squeeze the lemon juice on their side of ther pan and both of you get stuck into breaking the heads of the prawns and getting messy with the peeling. This is a really tasty dish!

Paella is a really easy to make and tasty dinner.

Have you tried this? Even if you haven't - let me know what you think!
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