Getting to know a foreign country through its traditional flavors is a whole-body experience. In Spain, the scent of sofrito—a mix of garlic, onion, peppers, and tomatoes sautéed in olive oil—can open the mind to Spanish culture just as quickly as a visit to Sagrada Família in Barcelona. Throw in a carefully made seafood stock, Spanish paprika, and Valencian-grown rice, and you’re getting closer to experiencing one of the main components of Spain culture: paella.
Paella is best served with a party. It’s a dish that can be difficult to make in small quantities, takes at least an hour to prepare, and should be eaten family style. In general, paella can be prepared in three ways: with meat, with seafood, or a combination of the two.
Don’t stir! This was the first advice given to me by bcnKitchen, a food-and-fun-loving group that offers English-language cooking classes to travelers in Barcelona. The crust that forms on the bottom of the pan is called in the socarrat (similar to the la religieuse that forms at the bottom of a fondue pot, and it is highly prized for its texture. Daniel Jiménez, who opened bncKitchn with his partner Monica, also explained that “Spanish cuisine is a ritual. For the Spanish people, eating not only means filling our stomach, it means talking, enjoying, and, above all, sharing and learning.”
With paella, it is all about the rice—even more so than about the seafood and meats used—so it may help to think of paella as the Spanish version of risotto. In fact, some chefs say that you can use Arborio rice—the rice used to make risotto—to make paella (although chefs in Valencia will argue with you about it all day long). In any case, short-grain rice, especially Spanish bomba, is mandatory, and the stock should be the best quality possible.
At bcnKitchen, which has the atmosphere of an immaculately outfitted home kitchen, Daniel shares the secrets of Spanish cooking with people from all over the world. He strives to create an atmosphere filled with sharing. “You can find people from different cultures all cooking together with a glass of wine and speaking about their countries, Barcelona, monuments, and so on.” Along with a glass of wine or three. Paella is commonly served on Sundays, during a meal that can last several happy hours. In addition to helping foodies prepare complete Spanish meals, some bcnKitchen classes include tours of Barcelona’s Born outdoor market.
Daniel provided me with a recipe for paella that I adapted slightly to include American measurements (note that you’ll need a large, oven-proof pan).
Seafood and Chicken Paella
8 servings (Ravenous Traveler tested and approved)
- 5 turns of the pan olive oil
- 2 cloves garlic, chopped
- 2/3 cup chopped onion
- 2 green peppers and 1 red bell pepper seeded and chopped
- 4 teaspoons Spanish paprika (smoked paprika)
- 4 large tomatoes peeled and chopped
- 2 cups Spanish bomba rice or Arborio rice
- 4 cups fish stock
- 1 tsp saffron threads
- 2 lbs prawns (with or without shells depending on preference)
- 2 lbs boneless chicken cut into bite-size pieces
- 2 lbs mussels washed
- Prepare and chop all ingredients.
- Preheat oven to 350°F and meanwhile heat fish stock on medium-low in a pan with saffron until it begins to steam.
- In a sauté pan, pour one turn of olive oil and then brown the chicken on all sides. Set aside.
- In a large, flat, ovenproof pan (a paelle!), heat 4 turns of the pan olive oil and sauté the onion, garlic, and bell peppers on medium-high heat until softened.
- Add paprika and stir for 2 minutes. Then add the tomatoes, bring to a simmer, and then simmer vigorously for 10 minutes.
- Next, add the rice, mix thoroughly, and then level everything in the pan. Evenly add 3½ c fish stock, then reduce heat to medium low and simmer for 15 minutes.
- Push the chicken, prawns, and mussels into the rice (here, you can be creative to produce a beautiful presentation). If necessary, add more fish stock and then put the paella in the oven.
- Finish the paella in the oven for 10 or more minutes (occasionally, check to make sure that there’s enough fish stock left in the pan). This is the real trick of paella: Paella should not be soupy, but the rice shouldn’t be too crispy either. After ten minutes, taste the rice. It should be just a little less cooked than you want to serve it. If it needs more time, return to the oven and continue cooking, adding fish stock as necessary.
- If finished, remove the paella from the oven and cover it with tin foil. Let the dish rest for 5 or 10 minutes (“Paella must rest after being removed from the oven, during which time the final cooking takes place,” explained Daniel). To serve: Put the dish on the table and let everyone dig in. You can also serve it on individual plates, but that might diminish that elusive flavor of Spanish culture.
Going to Barcelona? Here is information on Barcelona’s neighborhoods to help you choose where to stay.
Written by Mattie Bamman, The Ravenous Traveler, for EuropeUpClose.com