Monday, May 24, 2010

The High-Tech Paella

So this week, I am going to nail down the Spanish paella dish. Paella is basically a rice casserole dish. It was developed on the east coast of Spain, in a strip of Mediterranean coastline known as Valencia. The Valencians use a lot fish and shell fish in their Paellas. The rest of the Spaniards tend to prefer chicken and rabbit.

I am not a big fan of sea foods. I was raised in the desert of California. We don't eat a lot of funky fish products there. For this reason I think I am going to go for rabbit and chicken. I think I ate rabbit once in Germany. It was good. It was breaded with seasoning like shake-n-bake chicken. I enjoyed the flavor.

I have never attempted to cook the old hossenfeffer. This will be a first. I am sure somebody in Los Angeles sells rabbit meat. I just don't know who. This will be a challenge.

Besides the rabbit meat, there are a number of other key ingredients which you have to obtain, or you won't have a legit Paella. Here they are enumerated:

1. Calasparra Bomba rice.

So-called Bomba rice is a variety that was developed in Calasparra under the Moores. It is a short grained rice that takes a long time to grow, vis-a-vis other rice varieties. This stuff is expensive. I just bough 11 pounds (5 kilos) of imported St. Thomas Calasparra Bomb rice imported from Spain. It set me back $70 bucks. Most Asians in California would scoff at that.

It is a big chubby grain. It is the preferred type of rice in Valencia. It has two key characteristics: It can absorb 300% of its mass in water, and it is very non-sticky. Ever since I've been cooking rice, I've added water and/or broth at a 2:1 ratio. Not with Bomba. Bomba requires a 3:1 ratio.

Bomba is unique among rice because it can suck up 150% of the liquid other rices can without getting sloppy. It's the ShamWow of rice. It can absorb more chicken broth, of clam stock, or beef broth, than any other variety of rice. If you intend to use chicken stock, and I do, this means more flavor in every grain of rice. Cooks shower this rice with praise, calling it the rock-n-roll star of the rice world.

2. Smoked Spicy Paprika

I am told that Paprika is the staple spice in the Spaniard's diet. Consider it like black-pepper in our American diet. You throw it on everything. I find Paprika to be very weak, even in the spice form. It adds color, but not much flavor unless you heap it on. Then you should expect everything to be red. I am told you add a full tablespoon or more to a good 15 inch Paella.

3. Extra Virgin Olive Oil (cold pressed)

We like to season a fry pan with butter here in America. Not so in Spain. You do it with olive oil, just as you would in Italian cooking. The Spaniards claim they have the very best olive oil. The Italians dispute that. I cannot tell whether there is a difference between the two. Rather, let me rephrase that. I have cooked with both, and I cannot taste or smell any differences in the end product. I would rather use California olives not exposed to Chernobyl radiation.

I think an olive is an olive. As long as you make sure you get extra virgin cold pressed oil, your good to go.

4. Slow Roasted Roma Tomatoes

I am not buying them canned. I am going to roast them myself. It's pretty easy. You just set the NuWave Oven on low and let it run for 60 minutes. Roasting vegtables has a way of browing the skin, adding flavor, and evaporating water, concentrating the good stuff (sugars and oils). This brings out a lot of flavor.

5. Broth/stock

Paella is not cooked in plain water. Broth gives it distinction. The broth you use depends on the Paella you are going for. Sea food Paella should have fish stock, or clam stock, or something like it. Chicken based Paellas should have chicken stock. A beefy Paella should have beef stock.

6. Roasted Piquillo peppers

Supposedly, these need to be imported from Spain. I don't think so. I think red bell peppers and red Serrano's will work just fine. I might even try an Anaheim here. They're all going into the NuWave Oven Pro. I am roasting them myself.

7. Saffron

Now we come to the real featured performer of the show: Saffron. In their most honest moments, Spaniards will tell you that you can mess around with all the ingredients of the paella except two. Two are sacred. The first is the Bomba rice. The second is the Saffron. Without these two ingredients, you just didn't get it right, and the product cannot be called a Paella.

Just what the hell is Saffron, and why does it cost $300 per ounce? Saffron is a spice derived from the Saffron Crocus (Crocus Sativus). Flocks of Spanish women walk over the hillsides where millions of these flowers grow, and they hand-pluck the stigmas out of the carpel of these flows. Each flower has only 3 stigmas. The stigmas are dry roasted, mostly by hand.

When you buy Saffron, the good vendors will literally send you a bunch of dried out flower stigmas in a tin can or a bottle. Saffron has long been the most expensive spice in the world. Once again, the Spaniards claim they have the best stuff, despite the fact that this flower is native to Asia. Spain is European Union country. They get paid in Euros, and they have a pretty outrageous set of labor laws that make any kind of work, expensive. So get ready to pay through the nose, consumers.

When you throw a bit of this stuff in your Paella (1/4 teaspoon for a 3 quart dish) it will color your entire rice dish saffron-yellow. It also adds a lot of flavor. People who try it, like it. I find Turmeric does a fine job coloring rice yellow, and adds a better flavor, but I wouldn't dare mess with the tradition. My dad claims Saffron is 90% bullshit hype; but you have to put some Saffron in the dish. You can also use some Turmeric.

Traditional Chinese medicine declares that there are 252 medical aliments that can be treated with Saffron in your diet. Consider this a bonus. Western medicine has determined that Turmeric has the greatest cancer-fighting power of any dietary product known to mankind. Consider using them both together. They are good for your health.


Paella is supposed to be cooked out-doors, over an open wood fire. It takes a long time; 3 hours in most cases. They usually use a cheap steel Paella (which litterally means pan). It is typically made out of a low-grade of stainless steel. This is not 18-10 culinary stainless surgical steel.

I'm not going to go that route. I have picked out a 5 quart casserole dish from Le Creuset, which is made out of enameled cast iron... of course. That puppy is going on top of a Fagor portable induction cooktop I have. This sucker cranks at 1600w and turns the entire pan into a heating element. It destroys gas in terms of CO2 output, and crushes electric radiants in terms of energy efficiency.

I am banking that enameled cast iron and induction will combine to produce the best results. A Paella purist would not approve, but I don't give a damn about that. I intend to get better results.


I just found a source of rabbit meat. The source is Harmony Farms 2824 Foothill Boulevard, La Crescenta, CA 91214-3499. The also claim that they have Alligator meat. I suppose that is legal. There are now too many of those critters dwelling in limited habitats in the south. To prevent incursions into human territory, they are issuing licenses to commercial hunters.

Adding some Gator to the Paella would be interesting. According to the rumor, Gators have the most succulent meat.