by Janet Mendel
Paella is a golden rice dish which rates with the best rice dishes in the world. In Andalucía, paella is happy food, fiesta food, served for Sunday lunch or a picnic in the country. Beyond paella are more rice dishes which also make tasty eating.
Spanish rice dishes originated in the eastern region of Spain, around Valencia, where rice has been cultivated since the Moors introduced it to Europe after the eighth century. The Spanish word for rice is arroz, which comes from the Arabic aruz.
In this rice-growing region peasants used the grain to cook their midday meal in the countryside. A shallow, two-handled frying pan--called a paella in the local dialect--was placed over a fast-burning fire of wood or dry vine prunings. Added to the rice were other ingredients to hand in the wetlands--eel, snails, frogs, rabbit and wild duck. Seafood was a much later addition, as rice paddies were not near the sea.
Rice farming overlapped with market gardening, so it was only natural to add vegetables to the rice dish. Those early paellas probably included broad beans and onions, but not peppers and tomatoes, vegetables which came from the New World and were not widely cultivated until the last century.
The traditional Valencia rice, the one used for paella, is a round, medium-short grain rice. It has a marvellous capacity for absorbing the flavours with which it cooks--chicken, pork, olive oil, seafood, vegetables. You have to take care not to overcook it, though, so it doesn't become sticky.
Spain today has another rice growing region, in Andalucía. The variety of rice grown here is long-grain. This is the type favored for pilaff. Grown for export to northern Europe, long-grain rice is only beginning to be used in Spanish cooking. Never for paella!
If you don't live in Spain and are searching for the right rice for paella, try Italian arborio rice, the sort used for risotto. It is short-grain like Spanish rice. In fact, the Italians got their risotto dishes from Spain.
Spanish rice dishes are of three types, all of them prepared with medium-short grain rice. Rice in paella, is cooked in a wide, flat and shallow pan, and is always cooked "dry." Rice in cazuela or perol, is cooked in an earthenware casserole or a deep metal pan, and is usually meloso or "juicy." Rice in caldero is cooked in a soup pot and is soupy.
When making paella or any other Spanish rice dish, don't wash the rice, for it needs its outer coating of starch. Add the rice to boiling liquid (or add boiling liquid to the rice) and keep the fire hot so the liquid keeps bubbling for several minutes. Then turn down the heat. Cook paella and other rice dishes uncovered. Unlike risotto, they are not stirred after the first bubbling stage. Some cooks like to shake the pan briskly to keep the rice from sticking on the bottom. Others love that crusty bottom.
The rice cooks in 18-20 minutes. Test it. Remove the pan from the heat when the kernel is just cooked through. Sometimes you will need to add additional liquid. Any rice dish, whether dry or juicy, needs to rest off the fire at least five minutes to finish cooking and absorb liquid. Paella is never finished in the oven--most paella pans are much too large to fit in a normal oven. Don't expect Spanish rice to cook up "every grain separate," like long-grain rice. The grains will cling to each other, but should never be sticky or mushy. Take care not to overcook the rice.
It's best to measure rice by volume so you can estimate how much liquid is needed. Use a measuring cup or a teacup. For example, one cup of dry rice (6-7 ounces/ 180-200 grams) requires two cups of liquid for "dry" rice; three cups for "juicy" rice, and four or more cups for soupy rice. However, take into account that you will probably need additional liquid in which to cook the meat, vegetables or seafood before the rice is added.
Olive oil is basic to paella. So is saffron, a very expensive spice (it takes the stigmas of 75,000 crocuses to make one pound of the spice). If real saffron is not available, use yellow food coloring plus paprika to give it a sunny yellow color (but don't substitute turmeric, which has a distinctive flavor not compatible with paella).
A paella for six people requires a paella pan of 16-18 inches / 40-45 centimetres diameter. These wide, flat pans, invented so the food would cook quickly over a fast-burning fire, are unwieldy on a stove-top hob. In Spain, nowdays, big paellas are cooked on special gas rings. In your kitchen, you will have to either manoeuvre a big pan on two burners, or divide ingredients between two frying pans or use a deeper pan, such as a flat-bottomed wok.
In Andalusian homes, un arroz, a very simple rice dish with bits of seafood, serves--like soup or a pasta course--as a starter. Paella, which is often cooked outdoors, is for fiesta days. Then it's usually the men who are in charge of the cooking.
Update July 2020 by Janet Mendel "The use of artificial yellow coloring is disappearing in favor of real saffron. My paella recipe over the years has been simplified, but intensified in flavor." Here's a recent version.