Borrowing Bravery: Making Paella in Chile

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A picture I took in 2008.  The pueblo is Pego, Spain.  The flat area in the upper left show the rice fields where  bomba rice is cultivated.  Finally, the Mediterranean looms in the distance.

Perhaps the souls of my other ancestors are floating around somewhere, disappointed that once again I’m going to write about Yaya.  I’ve been writing about Yaya since I knew how to write, and while it’s thanks to all of those who came before me that I was born in a wonderful country to wonderful parents, she gets 95% of the credit.  For having lived so long and loved so well, she lives large in my memory.

Yaya was my bisabuela, or great-grandmother, who immigrated from Pego on the coast of Spain over 100 years ago.  She came to the U.S.A. at age fourteen to look after her father, leaving behind her siblings, mother, friends and relatives.  She lied about her age in order to work, and followed children to school until she was placed in the 1st Grade to learn English.  Well into her nineties she would tell these stories as though they happened yesterday.  A piece of her heart never left Spain, and it showed most of all in her cooking.

The family would gather in her yard around a large picnic table on a summer day, the smoky flavors of a wood fire hanging in my hair as my little great-grandmother stoked the flames and fussed over heat distribution on the paella.  When finally Yaya wasn’t there to make the paella, my father or my uncle would attempt it, intent on replicating her recipe as closely as possible.  It wasn’t possible–the aromas, colors, and flavors lived larger in our memories than they ever could on our plates.

I had the honor of presenting this dish to our hosts in Chile last weekend. I jump at the opportunity to please these generous people, as well as the chance to spend a pair of hours thinking of my little Yaya, and borrowing her bravery while I make my way in Chile.

As a child I was always underfoot in the kitchen, wanting to be helpful.  Instead of working with a recipe for paella, I jog my memory by reading articles written by chefs who swear by this or that timing or ingredient.  My nostalgia awakened, I recall the ingredients lined up in preparation, the consistency of the sofrito before rice is added, and stress over the modern heat source I’ll be using.

When I make paella, I use the best ingredients I can get my hands on, or what is at my disposal.  In this way, I honor the tradition of the fishermen pueblos like Pego.  The making of a paella is riddled with rules, and the first of those rules is that a proper paella is one made by a Spanish man.  Since Yaya and I are throwing that rule out the window, I feel liberated to adjust everything else as I please to get the result I want.

As such, this is more of a rubric than a recipe, but I hope you enjoy the Llama’s photos.

PROTEINS:

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This paella contains chicken, calamari, machas, shrimp, mariscos and chorizo, because that’s what sounded good to our hosts.  Normally I’d recommend 2 to 3 different proteins, perhaps one from each protein group.  For example, chicken, mussels, and meatballs.  Or chorizo and shrimp.  As for how much, I’d recommend enough that each person you’re serving can have at least one “portion” of each protein. This can and should be adjusted based on what your audience likes!

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Calamari and Shrimp simmering in the stock, chicken on the paellera.

The first thing I do is prepare these ingredients in such a way that they are safe to eat, but on the riskier side of “done.”  I recommend cooking them either in the liquid you’ll be using, or on the paellera or pan you’re cooking in, so that the fats and flavors of these ingredients are not discarded.  Once cooked, they should be set aside so they don’t continue cooking and get tough.

 

SOFRITO:

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For the sofrito, I recommend a mix of onions, garlic, and peppers, tomato puree, and a dash of liquor.  I loosely follow this process:

  1. Saute the onions, garlic, and peppers together until the onions are clear and the peppers are mostly soft.  At this point I pull out 6-8 pepper slices that I’ll use later to present the paella.
  2. Add a dash of liquor.  Most recipes I’ve read use a dry white wine, but you could use red wine or port too.  In this version I used pisco since I’m in Chile and that’s what I had.
  3. Once the liquid disappears, add the tomato puree.  I use about half a tomato per person and extract the puree the way my madrileño host mother did.  Just dicing the tomatoes very small should work too, or use canned tomatoes.
  4. This is when I add seasoning.  Smoked paprika, salt, and pepper and maybe rosemary would be the most normal.  Instead of smoked paprika, for this version I used Chilean merkén.
  5. The tomatos will take a while to give off their liquid and soften up.  What you’re looking for here has been described as a “jammy” texture.  I usually characterize this by looking pretty cohesive without large chunks of anything.  It has a beautiful rich red color, and smells amazing.

While the sofrito is getting friendly, I place the azafrán in a little tin foil pocket and hold this over the stove flame for a couple seconds to toast it.  Then I place it in a bowl with a little bit of warm water to extract its gorgeous color.

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RICE:

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People feel very strongly about what kind of rice should be used in making a paella.  I use short grain rice because that’s how paella looks in my earliest memories.  If I can’t find “bomba” or Calasparra rice imported from Spain, or if my wallet can’t justify it, I am fine with using arborio or risotto rice.

For the math, use about half a cup of rice per person.  Make sure that the paellera you’re using will accommodate the correct number of people, or you’re going to find yourself in a jam when it comes to adding liquid.

The rice should be added to the sofrito, and mixed in so that each grain gets covered by the oily-saucy mixture.  Then wait and sniff: after about 2-3 minutes you can smell the rice grains cooking and turning slightly transparent.  Then its time to add liquid!

LIQUID:

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Add everything together, including proteins and legumes or vegetables you’d like. Yaya always used garbanzos, so I’ve ever made a paella without including them. Mix it all in so that it is fairly evenly distributed and will be uniformly reached by the liquid.

Yaya also always had stock she had made from a roasted chicken or innards in the freezer. She never wasted anything, including rain water.  I’ve read that you’re not supposed to use stock in making a paella.  I think you should do what you want.

The night before, I made a basic vegetable stock using garlic, onion, cabbage, and carrots. Then on paella day, I drained this and used it to poach the calamari, shrimp, and machas so that they were nice and tender.  While cooking, the seafood gave lots of delicious complexity to the stock.

Measure twice as much liquid as rice.  Add in the azafrán.  When pouring, all the liquid may not fit at once depending on how much stuff you’ve added to your paella.  Initially add as much as will fit without spilling over.  A good measurement would be to let the liquid rise to the pegs of the handles of your paellera.  As the liquid is absorbed, you can continue to add more until you’ve used up as much as initially measured.

SOCARRAT:

After the liquid has been added, smooth out the surface of the rice to the level of the liquid.  This is the LAST TIME you are allowed to stir!  Instead, pay close attention to your heat source to be sure it is evenly distributed.  I also read the helpful advice to not worry if some of the rice around the borders or at the top is a little dry and crunchy.  It is still receiving steam.

I am also guilty of pulling up the sides a little to let the liquid that is sitting at the top sink to the bottom, and digging a little hole in the center of the paella which is susceptible to burning.  I blame this on modern heat sources. To avoid that this time, in the final stage I actually cradled the paella between two gas burners so that the center was not the main hot spot.  And I rotated the pan regularly so that I didn’t end up with two burnt spots instead of one.

Socarrat is the tastiest, most delicious part of the paella.  But it’s hard to get right. It is the crusty caramelized rice at the bottom of the paella, where the most flavor concentrates. It’s a delicate balance between “toasted” and “burnt.”  And if it burns, it tends to make the whole paella taste slightly burnt, as the flavor steams up into the rest of the rice.

Any time I’ve tried to use an electric stove to make paella, I’ve wound up with burnt paella.  If you’re using electric, you may just want to give up on not stirring for this reason and keep the rice in motion from time to time.  I’m not sure it’s possible to achieve the socarrat on electric.  Perhaps someone will tell me otherwise!

SIESTA:

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Once all the liquid has been added, work on the decorative aspect of the presentation. I push the chicken drumsticks down into the rice, and add the red pepper strips I removed from the sofrito stage.

After about 20 minutes, when there is no soupy consistency left to the paella, remove it from heat and cover it to take a little 5 minute siesta. I use newspaper, which works to keep the heat within the paella and keeps the rice on the top steaming.  Time to set the table and pour a glass of wine!

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For serving, there should be a lemon wedge on on every plate. I advise squeezing lemon over your heaping plate of paella, never salt.

If you’ve got enough wooden spoons and a small enough table, everyone should gather around and dig in with his or her own spoon and eat straight from the dish!  This may be frowned upon in modern American societies, though. For me, taking the dish back to the kitchen after everyone has finished eating and scraping at the socarrat with a wooden spoon is definitely one of my favorite parts.  Knowing that bellies are full and happy makes me feel like I’ve just gotten a hug from my little great-grandmother.

GLOSSARY:

Machas: Machas are a pink clam, or surf clam, native to the coast of Chile.  The are plump and pink, and have a slightly smokey flavor.

Pisco: Pisco is distilled brandy wine made from moscatel or muscat grapes.  Chile and Peru argue heatedly over claiming appellation of origin.  Peru’s argument centers around the name pisco deriving from a town in Peru where pisco has been made for centuries.  Chile’s argument is based on the carbon dating of grape vines used for making pisco, which are older than those found in Peru.  Chile produces more Pisco, Peru exports more pisco.

Merkén: Merkén is a spice with a deep red color and slightly smokey flavor.  It comes to Chilean culture by way of the fierce Mapuche tribe, indigenous to the south of Chile.  The process of making merkén is slow, requiring sun drying a “cacho de cabra” pepper, smoking it over wood fire, and then hanging it to dry again before being ground.  Merkén blends usually contain coriander seed and sea salt.

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6 thoughts on “Borrowing Bravery: Making Paella in Chile

  1. Mary says:

    I remember Rick making us paella in Otis. I enjoyed the passion that went in the making of this more than the meal itself!!! You are a wonderful writer and your blog is wonderful!

    Like

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