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On an overnight train from Paris to Barcelona in 1958, George Hoover and I met a young lady named FranÁoise. That evening after tapas and martinis (the first she'd ever had), FranÁoise led us from our hotel across the Ramblas to her favorite cafť in a dusky cave-like cellar in Barcelonetta, where she ordered paŽlla (the first we'd ever had). About halfway through our second pitcher of sangrilla, our mojo brought to table a gargantuan pan filled with shrimp, mussels, clams and lobster, all beautifully arrayed atop a bed of golden rice decorated with a sunburst of red pimentos and scattered bright-green peas. This was the most beautiful dish I'd ever seen. Although it appeared enough to feed a small army, we managed to consume it all with room to spare. It was so delightful George and I had paŽlla every day that week.
PaŽlla, like bouillabaisse, cassoulet and many other regional dishes, is always hotly contested. Everyone swears theirs is the authentic version: "Valencia makes the only true paŽlla!" "°Absurdo! The Moors brought it to MŠlaga several centuries ago!" Those who reside in the interior proclaim, "It must have rabbit!" "No!" say those who live on the seashore. "Langosta is the prime ingredient!" "°Basura! There must be chorizo or ribs!" "°Mierda! You cannot bake it in the oven; it must be simmered outdoors over a fire of pine branches!"
The only things everyone agrees upon is that paella is a stew containing several diverse ingredients all perfectly married and must include rice and saffron. Everything else is up for grabs. Also, that this is a perfect dish for a party or festive occasion. Due to the number of ingredients it is nearly impossible to prepare for one person, so the more the merrier.
PaŽlla varies from village to village, restaurant to restaurant andhouse to house depending on what is caught in the net or snare, or which ingredients are available on any given day and what one can afford. The paŽlla served us near the bay in old Barcelona cost less than $1.00. But that was long ago and far away; I recently made one for six persons that ran 100 times that. Following is the first and finest version I've ever had. Please feel free to add or subtract ingredients depending on availability , personal preference and, of course, pocketbook.
3-4 large shrimp or prawns 3-4 mussels 2-3 small clams 1 squid ľ cup scallops
1 chicken leg, thigh or breast ľ cup cubed pork, veal and/or ham 1 chorizo*
Ĺ cup rice 1 cup water (approx.) Ĺ peeled and seeded Roma tomato 1 clove garlic
1 T. olive oil 2-3 strips pimento 2 T. green peas ľ bay leaf salt
a few strands of saffron
Cut the chicken (or rabbit) into small pieces. Place it with the 1" cubed meat(s) and bay leaf in a saucepan with enough salted water to barely cover. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer uncovered for 10-15 min. Remove the meat and discard the bay leaf. Skim the broth, add chopped tomato and saffron, and maintain the broth at a slow simmer.
Warm the olive oil in a paŽllero** over low heat. Slice the chorizo into 1/8" rounds. Distribute them evenly on the bottom of the pan along with the meats and lightly brown. Evenly scatter thinly sliced garlic, the squid cut into Ĺ" rings plus their tentacles, the unpeeled shrimp (or crayfish or prawns) and the scallops. Sprinkle the rice over all then arrange the mussels and clams (and/or lobster or langostinos) around the edges. Decorate the center with pimento strips, and scatter shelled green peas (or asparagus spears or quartered artichoke bottoms).
Carefully pour in the broth, cover the pan then bring to a rapid boil. Reduce to a simmer and cook on the stovetop until rice is done (approx. 12-15 min.). The rice should be damp but not soupy. If there is too much liquid, spoon some out. Too little liquid, add more broth. Let the paŽlla sit for a few minutes before serving.
Alternate 1: After bringing to a boil, place the covered paŽllero in a preheated 350į oven till done, but no more than 20 min.
Alternate 2: After reaching the boil, place the paŽllero on a charcoal fire with the addition of a few green pine branches. The fire must be hot enough to maintain a constant simmer, but not so hot that it scorches. To my taste this imparts the finest flavor.
The best rice for paŽlla is short grain or medium grain, though long grain will suffice. I've found that a mixture of long and short grain also works well.
Frozen peas will do, but add them just a minute or two before cooking time is up.
Jarred pimentos are available at most supermarkets. It is best, however, to do them yourself. Take a ripe, thick-skinned red bell pepper or a pimento if you can find one and blister the skin on an open flame or under the broiler. A toaster oven also works. When the skin is scorched all over, place it in a brown paper bag for 10-15 minutes to steam. Remove the skin and seeds, then tear or slice into strips. Add the juice to the broth.
*Chorizo is sausage highly flavored with paprika. They can be found dried in most Hispanic groceries, and in some specialty shops and supermarkets. There is also a Mexican chorizo, which is fresh. It crumbles when cooked, so is unsuitable for this dish.
**PaŽlla takes its name from the utensil it is cooked in: paŽllero, a shallow two-handled flat-bottom metal pan with sloping sides. They come in various sizes, and can be found in some houseware shops. I have an 18" pan - ideal for 6-8 hungry persons - which fits perfectly on my 24" round smoker. For fewer folk, I use a 12"copper-bottom stainless steel chef's skillet. It serves 3-4 very nicely, and fits on my 16" smoker. Or you can do as I have many times: build a fire between a ring of stones and balance the pan on top. It is quite dramatic.