Writing in Saveur magazine, David Rosengarten, an American chef, author and television personality who also has hosted or co-hosted more than 2500 television shows on the Food Network from 1994 to 2001, explains that “the earliest kinds of paella were products of purely local ingredients and eating habits.
“The dish exists because of rice, and rice has existed in Valencia and its environs ever since the Moors planted it there more than 1,300 years ago, in a lagoon called Albufera, where the grain is still grown today. Saffron, that precious and earthy spice, brought to Spain by Arab traders in the tenth century, was the Moors’ preferred seasoning for rice, and it remains a traditional paella ingredient. Local game like rabbit, and foraged foods like snails, as well as various legumes and vegetables, found their way into rice dishes during the Moorish occupation of Spain, but pork (which was prohibited under Muslim dietary laws) and shellfish did not.”
The earliest paella was made with all local ingredients and eating traditions. It’s main ingredient is rice and Valencia is known for their rice, planted by the Moors over 1,300 years ago in a lagoon called the Albufera, now national park where the grain still grows today.
“Saffron, that precious and earthy spice, brought to Spain by Arab traders in the tenth century, was the Moors’ preferred seasoning for rice, and it remains a traditional paella ingredient,” writes Rosengarten. “Local game like rabbit, and foraged foods like snails, as well as various legumes and vegetables, found their way into rice dishes during the Moorish occupation of Spain, but pork (which was prohibited under Muslim dietary laws) and shellfish did not. “
That certainly has changed today when many think of paella as being a seafood dish with sausages as an added ingredient.
While the Moors vacated Spain in 1492, the passion for rice dishes remained. What the Valencians ate during the reign of the Moors and afterwards for almost four centuries isn’t exactly known, but one of the first printed recipes we have dates back to 1840 and calls for such ingredients as rabbit, snails, beans and saffron cooked in a shallow pan called a paella. It was typically prepared over open fire composed of dried vines and branches from orange trees,
According to Rosengarten, paella remained a regional food for a good long while. Back when that original paella recipe was first published, Spain wasn’t a popular destination on the tourist track, and its cuisine was little known beyond its borders. But the 20th century—the century of Picasso, Dali, Buñuel—saw a burgeoning interest around the world in all things español. Epicures were eager to discover the country’s rich, rustic flavors; in 1950, Elizabeth David, the cookbook writer who delivered England from its wartime gastro-dreariness, published A Book of Mediterranean Food (John Lehmann), which included a recipe for paella containing the hitherto non-traditional combination of chicken and shrimp. (Before long, gourmands in England, America, and beyond were serving all kinds of variants of the dish out of brightly colored Dansk paella pans along with goblets of sangria.
For those who want to make the dish to celebrate World Paella Day, buy a bottle or two of wine from the Ribera del Duero and Rueda Wine Regions of Spain and try the recipe below courtesy of James Beard Award-winning chef Jamie Bissonnette of Toro restaurants in NYC and Boston.
But first a little about wines from Ribera del Duero or Rueda (follow the links to find out more).
Spain’s most popular white grape is Verdejo, and it is native to the region of Rueda in Castilla y Leon.
Full-bodied without going Godzilla-overboard, Ribera del Duero tempranillos are about as food-friendly as red wines get.
Toro Paella Mixta, serves 4-5
2 tablespoons garlic, minced
1 cup Spanish onions, diced and sautéed in a generous amount of olive oil
1/2 cup scallions, white parts only, diced
1 cup sliced Spanish chorizo
1 cup red bell pepper, diced
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 cup chicken breast or thigh meat
1/2 cup tomato paste
2 cups Calasparra or Bomba rice
10 threads of saffron
Canned Spanish seafood conserva (optional)
1 1/2 cups lobster stock (any combination of chicken, vegetable, lobster or shrimp stock will work)
1 1/2 cups chicken stock
1 1/2 cups vegetable stock
6 to 10 top neck or count neck clams
4 to 5 shrimp
1/2 cup English peas
Olive oil, 1/4 cup sliced scallion tops, and lemon wedges for garnish
Combine garlic, sautéed onions, white scallions, chorizo, red pepper, salt and black pepper to taste in a 17-18″ paella pan and sauté over high heat for 4 to 5 minutes. If you don’t have a paella pan, use a shallow copper or enamel coated steel pan (important to create the socarrat — or crust of crispy rice that develops on the bottom of the pan).
Add the chicken, tomato paste, rice and saffron, and stir, making sure to evenly coat the rice. Toast for 4 to 5 minutes. Add a can of conserva, if using. Evenly distribute and flatten out rice in pan.
Add all stocks. This should be the last time you stir the paella. Once boiling, add the clams and cook 5 to 10 minutes, until they open and rice grains are clearly visible.
Add mussels, and reduce heat to medium. Once the mussels open, add shrimp and peas. Cook over medium heat until shrimp and rice are cooked and have created a crispy bottom called “socarrat,” watching and smelling closely for burning.
Add small amounts of stock as necessary during cooking if all the liquid has evaporated and paella looks dry. Start to finish cooking time is approximately 30 minutes, 20 minutes to cook after adding stocks to chicken/rice mixture. Texture of rice when done should be soft on the outside but retain some bite/texture in the center. The rice on the bottom will be crispier (socarrat) from sitting on the bottom of the pan. Let the dish rest about 5 minutes before serving.
Garnish with olive oil, scallion tops, and lemon slices.
Pair with an unoaked Rueda Verdejo or a fruit-forward Ribera del Duero Joven.