Our friend Nieves Alberruche is an artist who can’t help but infuse her creative bent into her cooking. Or her kitchen, I love the entrance to her kitchen.
She hails from Spain (Madrid) and adores Dalì but she would never dream of Dali-fying the dish she makes so well and that we all adore: paella. The paella she made for us last week looked like this:
And was preceded by a delicious gazpacho.
Two years ago, I photographed Nieves as she went about making her delectably more-ish paella. What follows is a blow-by-blow account of how she prepares it … and believe me, it’s worth all the effort. But first a word of cautionary apology: I read just recently via Tracey Macleod that “true Valencians never eat paella at night – that’s really the mark of a rube, like drinking a cappuccino after lunch in Rome.” Sigh. However, hers being a Valencian paella, Nieves did almost stick to tradition, it contains only local seafood; strictly no meat. (It is not supposed to contain vegetables either but Nieves decided otherwise – I told you, she’s an artist.)
Another ‘artist’ friend of mine, the food writer Gareth Jones, who tragically left us two years ago, wrote a very engaging blog about paella and arroz, and I would encourage you to read it, here is the link: http://www.garethjonesfood.com/?p=2362
But now … on with Nieves and HER paella.
It all starts with a dog. You have to have some kind of pet or loved one to keep you company as you cook. Meet Walter. The family dog.
Nieves says that one has to be thoroughly organised and have all the ingredients and equipment at the ready so as to avoid dither. Hence … large clean glass or mug (to use as a measuring cup), a water jug, the rice. Peeled and sliced onions and garlic, olive oil (lots of olive oil!), red capsicum and peas or green beans in one bowl. Sweet paprika (“pimenton”). Cleaned fish in another bowl. Manila clams somewhere else and, last, whole prawns. Also needed are a few pinches of saffron, salt and 6 lemons. Cut 4 lemons into wedges and squeeze the other two for their juice.
One glass of rice per person. Two glasses of water per glass of rice. Pour all the water inside a water jug to make things easier (that way, you don’t have to keep running to the tap to refill the glass).
It is also mandatory, I would say, to use a proper paella pan. Indeed, the pan itself is called a ‘paella’. The Spanish colonization of southern Italy must surely have something to do with the fact that the Italian word for a pan is “padella” ….?
It all begins with a good amount of olive oil spread out over the paella pan. Enough to cover the entire surface of the paella. That means a lot of oil, don’t be afraid !
Switch the heat on, cook the onions and garlic over a low heat, and then scatter some peas (frozen at that) and slithers of de-seeded red capsicum (red peppers). Very low heat, we don’t want to scorch the ingredients, just make them ‘mellow’.
A prodigious amount of “pimenton” is then added, i.e. the sweet paprika.
As you can see, Nieves quickly made sure the paprika combined with the other ingredients. She says it must not ‘cook’ for more than a minute or so at this stage, otherwise it will become bitter. We are still cooking over a low heat. Hence …
In went the rice, all in one energetic go.
And, by the looks of it, Nieves proceeded to spread the rice and let it ‘toast’ for a bit – not unlike the procedure for making risotto. One big difference is that the rice has to be spread very thinly in this case. Sprinkle salt over the rice before spreading it around. Rice, after all, requires plenty of salt if it is to acquire flavour.
Oh and about the rice in question, if it can’t be the Spanish bomba, it should at least be a short-grained one (i.e. the oryza sativa): no basmati or jasmine or other Oriental rice. I expect Nieves used a plain Italian Arborio rice.
Time to add the water to completely cover the dish. Now also add the pinches of saffron. The saffron should not overpower the taste of the delicate fish. A vast (and very expensive!) amount is certainly not required.
Fishy flavour can be called into play now, in order to enhance the broth, with the congregation of mussels and calamari that are introduced at this point into the bubble, bubble, toil-but-no-trouble paella.
At no time did Nieves stir the rice. If anything, the rice must be left well alone until all the liquid has been absorbed, and left to cook longer than one would think. That is because it is supposed to develop some crust underneath, as well as around the edges.
Nieves added prawns too, but later on, after about 15 minutes (they take less time to cook). Her advice is to sink and lightly crush their heads into the rice (using a spoon or toothpick) so that any liquor can also go into making the paella tastier.
When she deemed the dish ready, she infused the paella with plenty of lemon juice. She then decorated it with wedges of cut lemons.
Now is the the last-minute tweak moment: turn up the heat so as to allow the bottom part of the rice to develop a crunchy crustiness. Then, obviously, switch the heat off. And remove from the burner.
A paella should be served just warm … never hot. Squeeze more lemonjuice if you so desire. By the way, you will be surprised to discover that all that oil ‘miraculously’ disappears into deliciousness. Skimp on the oil and your texture will be brittle and horrid.
Walter heartily approved ! Gracias, grazie, thank you Nieves!
P.S. If you are interested in what makes a true paella, you need to read about Guillermo Navarro. It is he who has been behind the wikipaella.org pages.
Guillermo Navarro: http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/food-and-drink/features/how-to-make-the-perfect-paella-guillermo-navarro-says-youre-doing-wrong-heres-why-9549422.html
Link to Wikipaella.org: http://en.wikipaella.org/receta/public/resultados
Tracey MacLeod on paella: http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/food-and-drink/features/how-to-make-the-perfect-paella-guillermo-navarro-says-youre-doing-wrong-heres-why-9549422.html