Paella is one of Spain’s iconic dishes, as Spanish as Roast Beef is to the English or Coq au Vin is to the French. It is The Huntsman’s signature dish: when he goes to The Cape, the Italian and Afrikaner in-laws and friends all want to know when he will be performing.


Catalonia, and neighbouring Valencia both claim to be the home of paella and each is fiercely protective of their version of paella, each in turn claiming that theirs is the best and most authentic.


It began in the marshlands surrounding Valencia, to which the Moors introduced, around the 8th. or 9th. century AD cultivation of rice. Here farmers would cook dishes with rice and whatever was to hand in large flat pans, usually outdoors over a wood fire. The region also abounded in market gardens, so tomatoes, peppers and beans went into paella as well as wild rabbit, pork and snails, or if made near the sea it would include fish and shellfish.


Whilst Valencia lays claim to the invention of paella, it is Catalonia which claims to have perfected it. The Catalans think of themselves as having a more sophisticated cuisine and culture than the rest of Spain and with access to a wide range of ingredients began to make ever more elaborate paella dishes.


The Huntsman is convinced that this dish owes much to the Moorish influences and his own executions tend to include more spices than might appear in the modern versions. Paella actually can come in an almost limitless set of variations. The Huntsman has seen versions with chicken only, fish only, fish and shellfish, chicken and fish, chicken and shellfish, rabbit and shellfish, rabbit only, quails and asparagus, shellfish only,lobster and quali, pork with ham and shellfish, snails here and there. On one occasion he recalls: “One notable essay came not at all the way most of us imagine paella – in a steaming-hot paella pan decorated with bright green peas, red peppers and prawns – but served with nothing more than a few pieces of rabbit and chicken, some broad beans and yellow butter beans. It was, however, delicious.”


Once you have mastered the general idea for this wonderful and versatile recipe, you will find it repays buying a genuine caldero or paella pan, though this is by no means essential: a thin-based pan as wide and shallow as possible will work as this allows the rice to cook relatively fast and evenly. Always use the widest gas hob you can as one of the secrets is to apply modest heat as widely as possible to the pan base.


Here is a basic chicken and shellfish paella for six people. Over coming weeks The Huntsman will look at some more elaborate ideas.


12 good sized chicken thighs

18 big fresh prawns

300 g chunk of Chorizo

2 Red peppers

1 Lemon

Peas (fresh or frozen)

Garlic

Rice

Saffron

Cloves

Bay leaf

Nutmeg

Fennell seeds

Chili powder or fresh dried chili

Olive Oil

Chicken or fish stock

Mussels or clams


Chorizo is a term encompassing several types of pork sausage originating from the Iberian Peninsula and known as chouriço in Portugal, which have in common the use of dried, smoked red peppers (pimentón/pimentão) to colour them red. It can either be a fresh sausage, in which case it must be cooked, but in Europe it is more frequently a fermented cured sausage, in which case it is usually sliced and eaten without cooking. Spanish chorizo gets its distinctive smokiness and deep red color from pimentón, smoked Spanish paprika.


It is made from coarsely chopped fatty pork and usually seasoned with chili and paprika. The mild Spanish paprika used gives this sausage its characteristic flavor. The Chorizo itself can be found as either picante (hot) or dulce (mild). Only the spicy variety incorporates chiles guindillas secas (small dried hot chiles). Some varieties are hung in cold dry places to cure, as happens with jamón serrano (ham). The Pamplona variety grinds the meat further. It is widely available in The UK and one is sure it can be found in good US Delis, particularly those specializing in Hispanic food. Doubtless there is something very similar in Mexican cuisine.


Ideally the rice should be Calasparra: a unique short grain rice grown in the mountains of the Spanish province of Murcia, where it enjoys pure mountain water irrigation, unlike the usual rice fields by the Mediterranean Sea. The aqueducts delivering water from the mountain streams were first engineered by the Romans, and then improved upon by the Moors over 1,000 years ago! But Arborio is a good substitute and Italian Easy Cook rice does nicely too.


If you can find packets of ground saffron, this is perfectly good. Some delis may also have packs of premixed Paella spices which are perfectly OK and to which The Huntsman would add some clove and nutmeg. Use the picante version of chorizo.


Method

Brown the thighs in olive oil, then remove and save.

Dice up the red peppers and the chorizo. Fry gently together with plenty of garlic for about three minutes then add rice to suit appetite (too much rather than too little: this dish is delicious cold the following day!). Add about half a dozen cloves and a half teaspoon of freshly ground nutmeg and stir.


Stir the rice in with the peppers, chorizo and garlic until coated and allow to cook gently for a couple of minutes.


Meanwhile peel the zest of the lemon and add it to the mix. Squeeze one half of the lemon and add the juice.


Then add sufficient stock for the amount of rice you have used. Add the saffron (if using whole saffron, put it in a small quantity of warm milk to start getting it to deliver up its colour), a couple of bay leaves, some fennel seeds and half a teaspoon of chili powder. Add the thighs back in. Bring the dish to the boil and then lower the heat to a minimum. This is to allow the stock to be absorbed nice and slowly to give all the flavours plenty of time to get into the rice and the other ingredients. This process should take about 15 to 20 minutes.


Taste the rice to get it to your preferred consistency. Add the peas prawns and mussels after about ten minutes (if using fresh peas, add them with the thighs). Discard any mussel that does not open. Just before removing from the heat add the juice from the other half of the lemon. Avoid stirring.


Remove from the heat and cover for about eight minutes then serve with a robust red wine: Rhône, shiraz, malbec, Barolo. In summer, a nice Cape Chenin Blanc or a Viognier.

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