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Authentic, home-style paella brings Spanish flair to the table
Seattle Times Food staff
When Jeff Koehler first arrived in Barcelona and tasted Rosa's seafood paella, little did he know that he would eventually become the guardian of her family's tradition.
Since that initial taste of his future mother-in-law's rendition, Koehler has eaten his share of Spain's defining dish. And in "La Paella: Deliciously Authentic Rice Dishes from Spain's Mediterranean Coast" (Chronicle, $18.95), he pays homage with a collection of distinctive recipes.
Koehler, recently in town visiting family, talked with passion about the subject of his book. He's a natural writer and storyteller, having been published in magazines such as Gourmet, Food & Wine and Eating Well. He's also a photographer and shot the book's lovely photographs.
Koehler grew up in the Lake Stevens area and graduated from Gonzaga University in 1991, then spent the next four years traveling throughout Europe, Africa, the Middle East and Asia. It was the food as much as the people and places that altered his path.
He eventually settled in London, doing graduate work at King's College London and the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. It was there he met Eva Borràs, and when she returned to Barcelona to do her Ph.D., he followed. They were soon married and now have two children. Having spent most of the last 10 years in Barcelona, Koehler has heard all of the theories and arguments about what makes a true paella.
But the most important element to understand is that paella is a rice dish first, and each ingredient is added to give flavor to the rice.
"Highly absorbent short-or medium-grain rice is at the center of the dish," says Koehler.
The most coveted and famous is Arroz de Valencia, which is protected under the regulatory denominación de origen.
The Matiz brand, although not under that regulatory system, is marketed as paella rice, and is readily available in markets here. Both arborio rice for risotto and short-grained Asian rice can substitute.
Here are Koehler's "Four Golden Rules" for cooking paella:
2. Do not add the rice until everyone is present. (In Rosa's words, "people will wait for rice, but rice will wait for no one.")
3. Do not stir the rice, which disturbs the socarrat, the crusty caramelized layer of rice on the bottom of the pan.
4. Do not cover pan while cooking the rice.
Paella is made in a wide, flat pan. Apart from giving the rice its name, the paella pan's shape lets the rice cook quickly and evenly in a thin layer.
They are most often made of thin carbon steel, which responds to heat quickly. The pans will rust and should be seasoned before using. Pans made of stainless steel are more expensive but easier to care for.
Another option are the steel pans coated with black-and-white speckled enamel, looking much like vintage Graniteware. They're easy to care for and cost much less than stainless pans. Koehler also provides a few substitutes for the traditional pan that may already be in most kitchens. But nonstick cookware is too thick to use, and slower to heat up.
The basic technique for cooking paella goes like this: The meat or seafood is browned in olive oil. Then the vegetables are added and cooked slowly to a pulpy sofrito, the base that's the foundation of almost all Spanish rice dishes. Sweet pimentón (pimento) is added and then the water or stock.
Pinches of toasted saffron are sprinkled in. (In contrast to the bright yellow color that we may associate with paella, most Spanish dishes are a soft golden color. When used with a heavy hand, saffron can become too harsh and medicinal.)
The liquid is brought to a boil, and the rice is added. It cooks, uncovered, for 10 minutes over high heat, then 8 more over lower heat until it is al punto, 'at the point,' with just a bite to it. When a paella is perfectly cooked, the socarrat forms a chewy layer on the bottom of the pan.
After the paella is removed from the heat and covered with paper towels or clean kitchen towels, it rests for a few minutes before being served. This rounds out the flavors and allows the rice to finish cooking.
The traditional method of cooking paella is over a wood fire, infusing the food with a smoky quality that can't be duplicated. But Koehler offers tips for adapting our available heat source to the paella pan's shape.
Because Koehler insisted that the recipes in "La Paella" be authentic, he resisted limiting the book to just paellas. The boundaries and variations for the dish could only be stretched so far.
In addition, some of the soupier rice dishes that are essential to Spanish cuisine were included. They're most often cooked in cazuelas (terra cotta casseroles) and are similar to paella but use much more liquid. Koehler finds them as appealing as paella.
When talking to Koehler, one gets the feeling that it's the communal sense of sharing that also brings family and friends to Rosa's table. It's where important announcements — weddings, the birth of children, future plans — are made. As Koehler says, "everything goes through the paella."
Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company