A Dish Worth Celebrating: World Paella Day is September 20th!

Moncho Riquelme de Casa Riquelme con su paella alicantina.

September 20 is World Paella Day, a way of honoring that wonderful Spanish rice dish made with rice and a host of ingredients, is one of the traditional dishes of the Valencia region of Spain

Paella from Don Quijote in Valparaiso, Indiana

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.

Casa Lola desde el Grao de Castellón con su arroz negro con gamba roja
— at Plaza del Ayuntamiento.

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,

Miquel Barrera del Restaurante Cal Paradis desde Vall D’Alba con su “Arrocito de Castellón”
— at Plaza del Ayuntamiento.

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.

The Seafood Paella at The Grove in New Buffalo, Michigan

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).

All About Rueda

Spain’s most popular white grape is Verdejo, and it is native to the region of Rueda in Castilla y Leon.

Tempranillo: Ribera del Duero’s Prized Grape

Full-bodied without going Godzilla-overboard, Ribera del Duero tempranillos are about as food-friendly as red wines get.

Teresa Roig con sus Paellas con Arte dando el toque creativo del evento
— at Plaza del Ayuntamiento.

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
18 mussels
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.

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Bodega Muelas de Tordesillas: A Spanish Wine Adventure

Following the Rueda Wine Trail, a historic route through the provinces of Valladolid and Ávila where the viticulture dates back to the 11th century, leads me this evening to Calle St. Maria, one of the main streets in the Medieval city of Tordesillas.

Helena Muelas Fernandez, one of two sisters who fun their 4th generation winery in Tordesillas, Spain.

My destination is Bodega Muelas de Tordesillas, housed in a tall and narrow stone building dating back centuries where the two Muelas sisters—Helena Muelas Fernandez and Reyes Muelas Fernandez– continue running the winery started by their great, great grandfather. 

“This is where we learned to make wine,” Helena tells us as she leads us down uneven steps cut out of rock to the first level of the vast cave like cellars that lie underneath the building. It is here, she tells me, where they’re aging their Alidobas Vino Blanca in casks of French Oak.

A wine barrel deep in the cellars of Bodega Muelas de Tordesillas.

“This is very cry and crisp,” she says of the wine while we take a taste. “It was a very desert year in 2017, we had no rain which is why it has such a flavor as this.”

I like the taste and allow her to fill my glass once more. There’s a delicate light green cast to its yellow color that match its slight grassy aromas. It is amazing to me that the wines of the Rueda and nearby Ribera del Duero, two grape growing regions with harsh climates, produce such wonderful harvests of grapes. But, Helena explains, the hot summers and long cold winters create perfect growing conditions for varietals of the Verdejo grape.

The wine shop.

As she talks, we navigate the stone steps further down into the cellars which ultimately some 60 feet underground. The walls are carved out of hard stone and I marvel at how difficult it must have been to hew the rock by hand which is how they did it back in the 1700s when the house was built. Each landing is stacked with barrels and wine bottles and each as a significance to Helena who talks about the vintage and the weather conditions the year they were bottled. The caves get darker, the light less bright the further down we go. On the next level, dust covers the exteriors of unlabeled bottles, vaulted tunnels disappear into darkness and iron grates protect rare vintages. We are descending into wine history and the history of a family who has dedicated themselves to making wine.

Now we’ve explored the depths of the cellars, we follow Helena through the shop and up to the second floor.  Here, sunlight streams through the lace curtained windows. We’re in the tasting room where there’s a long table, large enough to hold us all. The cabinets and furniture look original, maybe even dating back to when the house was built which only adds to the charm. Helena passes tapas, those great small plates of Spanish food—who would know I would come to love potato salad sandwiches—and samples of their wines. There’s their Velay Vermouth made from 100% tempranillo, a 2008 Grand Reserve Muedra also from tempranillo grape (that and the Verdejo used for making white wine are the predominant grapes here), a semi-sweet Alidobas and a nice dry rose.

Their vineyards include the La Josa Estate where the Verdejo varietals are planted; their tempranillo are grown at La Almendrera estate, located in La Peña.  At present their production is diversified.

“We make young white wines, white on lees and generous white; rosé wines; young and aged red,” says Helena.

The sisters are totally enthralled to be working in the old family business, in the old family home, using both their great, great grandfather’s wine recipes and developing their own. For those who want to learn some of the secrets of this venerable wine house, they offer several types of visits from tastings to an initiation into understanding the nuances of the wine.

That night, after we’ve said goodbye at the doorway and traveled back along the cobbled streets to the historic Parador Nacional de Turismo de Tordesillas, where we’re spending the night, the moon glows softly over the old stones and gardens, creating a dreamlike quality. Is it the past approaching? But then maybe it was the tempranillo.

For more information, visit rutadelvinoderueda.com