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Originally published Wednesday, October 29, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Perfecting paella: It's all about the rice

The days are getting shorter, but the sunlight is a generous honeyed gold, and our markets and gardens are a glorious collision of vegetables...

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The days are getting shorter, but the sunlight is a generous honeyed gold, and our markets and gardens are a glorious collision of vegetables. The cooking of Spain is a great place to look for inspiration when it's time to cook all that good stuff. Paella, a classic Spanish dish that highlights fresh produce, is a meal to share with friends. Paella lives in parallel universes: There's the paella that most of us have eaten and enjoyed — a deep bed of rice perhaps flavored with tomato and saffron, garnished with bits of vegetables, seafood, chicken or sausage. All kind-of moist and a tad bit mushy but tasty enough.

And then there's real paella. There are as many interpretations of real paella as there are cooks in Spain, but each of those authentic versions, whether garnished with seafood, duck, sausage or rabbit, is about the rice. Not the quantity of rice, but the qualities — of tender grains that hang onto just a bit of chewiness, of rice that tastes like rice yet is infused deeply with fundamental flavors of Spain: tomato, onion, olive oil, saffron, smoky paprika. And the mercurial quality that seems to distinguish a good paella from a great one: the soccarat — a thin, chewy-starchy crust that forms on the bottom of the pan, but only sometimes, if you're lucky.

I learned to cook real paella from a friend who lived in Spain and married a Spaniard, and I now consider myself a paella traditionalist, though my credentials are based on nothing more than enthusiasm.

Here are the three keys.

The rice

Paella wants rice that absorbs lots of flavorful liquid yet stays separate; paella isn't meant to be creamy like risotto. The ideal is a short-grain rice grown in southeastern Spain, called calasparra, of which the bomba designation is even better. These rices are slow-growing, very dry and will absorb significantly more liquid than a regular short-grain rice. You'll need to go to a specialty store or order some online for these imported varieties. (The Spanish Table, 1426 Western Ave., Seattle, 206-682-2827, www.thespanishtable.com, is a great resource for paella pans and ingredients.) In a pinch, Goya medium-grain rice, which is available at most grocery stores, will do fine. Just be extra vigilant during cooking because the Goya can't absorb as much liquid and will go from chewy to mushy very quickly.

The pan

An authentic paella pan can be a thing of beauty but only for those who find beauty in plain-Jane, utilitarian objects. No gleaming copper or lustrous enameled cast iron here — traditional paella pans are made of thin steel with a dimpled surface (said to distribute heat evenly, but who knows?) and two loopy metal handles. As you use your pan, it will discolor and take on a patina that's not glamorous but is a satisfying testament to some delicious meals. You can make paella with a wide skillet, too; the wider and shallower the better, so that you can spread your ingredients out into a thin layer and the liquid evaporates quickly. Be sure your pan has a heavy base so it heats evenly. You could use nonstick, if that's all you have, but there will be no hope of developing the prized crust on the bottom.

I have a 15-inch Spanish pan, which the manufacturer says will make paella for six, but it never does — mostly because the paella is so good that people want to eat a lot. I usually make two 14-inch pans (one in a T-fal skillet) and it's plenty for six people plus breakfast.

The concentration

By this I mean two things. First, you need to concentrate the flavors of your paella "add-ins" by cooking them to develop flavor before you unite them with the rice. You start with a sofrito, a base of onion, garlic and tomato that adds tremendous flavor, but only if sautéed until thick and concentrated.

If you're using chicken or other poultry, you need to brown it thoroughly to develop flavor in the chicken and on the bottom of the pan, where it will seep into the rice. And other vegetables, such as bell peppers, green beans or artichoke hearts, need precooking to concentrate and sweeten their flavors as well as soften their textures. (Seafood needs a lighter touch, so I tuck it into the rice midpoint, or I cook it separately and add it later.)

The other concentration that's key is the mental kind. When you make real paella, especially the first few times (or in my case, always), you need to concentrate on what's happening in the pan in order to control the absorption of the broth, the texture of the rice, the development of the crust. It's the balance between those simple elements that takes a pan of rice into a universe of deliciousness all its own.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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