What makes paella ‘authentic’ seems to be a contentious issue. Scroll through the comment section of almost any online recipe, and you won’t struggle to find the dispute. Lid versus newspaper, paella rice versus long grain, versus even risotto rice! Everyone’s having a go. One comment criticised a recipe’s authenticity, staking their claim to knowledge on their ex-partner’s brother’s father-in-law who was from Alicante. I have a friend who went to Alicante on holiday once (and doesn’t refrain from mentioning it), so maybe I too now understand Spanish cuisine. It isn’t the first time I’ve encountered these arguments, either: my first paella used a recipe branded as unauthentic.
But having made paella several times now, I have to come to a conclusion. What korma means to Britain, to Asia it does not. Do we squabble about it? No! Because we love the creamy, mild taste and savour those toasted nuts. And we still call it curry, even if it’s not really. If you’re still unconvinced, take a line from Shakespeare: “what’s in a name?“. The dish still uses rice, vegetables, meat or fish with largely the same cooking technique, whether in Britain or Spain. And it still tastes amazing. Paella is just the name attributed to dishes like this so people know what you’re on about! A name is by no means the most central part of a dish; that surely, would be its flavour. So very much in that vein, I urge you not to argue over whether the below is truly authentic paella. I’ll save you the trouble – growing scared of the ferocious rice-debate, I modified the paella I already knew how to make as I went along. Instead, focus on what it tastes like! And if you still can’t resist, I’ll let you call it Seafood Rice. If it makes you feel better.
- Short grain rice, roughly 3 handfuls per person
- 1kg mussels, cleaned and de-bearded
- 300g prawns
- 750ml fish stock
- 2 cloves of garlic, sliced
- 1 red onion, finely sliced
- 2 bell peppers, sliced into thin strips
- 5 salad tomatoes, diced
- A pinch of saffron, soaked in 1 tbsp of boiling water
- Smoked paprika, 1 tbsp. (or a little more, to taste)
- 1 lemon, cut into wedges
- Fresh parsley
- Heat oil in a large, deep frying pan over a medium heat. add the sliced onion, and cook for 5-8 minutes until it begins to soften. Then add the garlic and paprika, and fry for a further minute. Fry the prawns until slightly browned, and then remove to a plate.
- Add the rice to the pan, and stir to coat well in the oil and spices. Add the hot stock and the saffron along with its water, stir to ensure all the rice is submerged, then cover. Reduce to a low heat, and leave to simmer for 10 minutes.
- Then, add the sliced peppers and quartered tomatoes to the pan. Simmer for 5 minutes, until the vegetables are slightly al dente. Stir the rice. It should have absorbed the majority of the stock, but a small sauce should still remain. If the rice has no sauce, it is in danger of sticking to the bottom of the pan, add a little more stock or hot water.
- Now add the mussels, peas and return the prawns to the pan. Check the level of stock, and if not too dry, replace the pad lid. Simmer for 4-7 minutes, steaming the mussels open. It’s important to monitor the mussels at this stage, as the longer the mussels cook for, the less palatable they will become. To ensure the mussels remain juicy, do not allow them to overcook!
- As soon as the mussels have opened, remove them from the heat. Season, and scatter with fresh parsley. Serve with a wedge of lemon to squeeze over.
Blackberries are a wonderful late-summer treat. What makes them exciting (and cheap!) in comparison to other fruit, is their wide availability outside of supermarkets. That is to say, growing wild on brambles in woods. Going out on a sunny day with a wariness for the stinging nettles that seem to spring up near every good patch of juicy blackberries and a small basket for collecting puts a sense of rural enthusiasm back into cooking. Finding them yourself puts you right into the framework of this dish, seeing the fruit go from branch to crumble. They are in season right now, bursting with flavour and waiting to be picked from their resident woodland paths! Keep an eye out and pick some if you can, because this recipe showcases them brilliantly, eschewing apples and focussing solely on their amazing flavour and texture.
But no matter what delicious filling you choose, the crumble topping itself can sometimes prove difficult to make – the perfect crumble mix relies on a lot of ‘volatile’ factors, and as a result the process can easily go wrong. The temperature of the ingredients, the butter especially, is crucial – when the fat is warm, its softer consistency means that it instantly melts into the flour and sugar, creating pastry rather than a breadcrumb-resembling topping. This can be made worse by having hands that are hot, as they not only warm the butter, but help mould the dry ingredients into a pastry ball. Once this happens, it is impossible to rework the ingredients into fine, soft crumble, as rubbing the mixture at this point pushes it further into the territory of pastry. Appreciating these difficulties, when the original recipe suggested mixing the crumble ingredients in a food processor, I was intrigued to see if this would go some way to solving the problem. Although I was unable to fit all the ingredients into the food processor at one time, this turned out to be to my advantage – the half placed in the food processor promptly became thick and stodgy, and was ruined as crumble.
Looking into making crumble toppings, a simple solution widely suggested is to cube the butter; the butter does not have a chance to melt into the flour as one entity in this form. This, combined with running your hands under a cold tap before beginning the preparation process, widely prevents the crumble going awry. Finally, to create the correct pressure for rubbing the ingredients together, try not to get the mixture above your fingertips. And hopefully with this advice, your crumble will be perfect!
- 120g plain flour
- 120g unsalted butter, cubed and refrigerated to ensure its cool temperature
- 75g brown sugar (muscovado or demerara)
- 400g blackberries
- 50g caster sugar
- The zest and the juice of 1 lemon
- Preheat the oven to 180 degrees. Place the blackberries in an oven-proof casserole dish, and finely zest the lemon over the berries.
- Cut the lemon in half, and squeeze in the juice of each half. Shake the dish gently to move the lemon flavours around. Sprinkle over the 50g of caster sugar to sweeten the berries, and then set aside for later.
- In a cold, clean bowl, place the cubed butter. Sieve over the plain flour, and with cold hands, gently rub the two ingredients together until fine breadcrumbs are formed.
- Sprinkle in the brown sugar, and gently shake the bowl to combine. Do not be tempted to use your hands or a spoon to bring the mixture together, as this could risk turning the crumble into pastry!
- Scatter the crumble mix over the blackberry filling, and place in the oven. Cook for 20 to 25 minutes, until the crumble is brown and the blackberries are seeping out the sides and through the topping.
- Allow to cool slightly before serving with a helping of ice cream or cream.
Cous-cous is a really handy thing to have in your cupboard. Considered ‘the‘ traditional dish of North Africa, its wide geographical spread across the continent (especially to Morocco and Algeria, where it is known as a national culinary staple) has contributed to its popularity in the West; a result of both cultural assimilation and the increase in travel abroad. Its arrival in the West ought to be celebrated perhaps far more than it is, taking advantage of its versatility as an ingredient without the labour intensity undertaken by traditional producers of cous-cous. In its North African home, cous-cous is made by rolling semolina with water to form the fine, recognisable grains of cous-cous before steaming; whilst most of this is now done by machinery, the previous production by hand conjures amazing images of individuals sitting around for days rolling the semolina in huge batches. Our ability to buy a strand of cous-cous that is ready in a matter of minutes with the addition of only boiling water provides us with a speedier, and healthier, alternative to other carbohydrates such as pasta and rice. And for those reasons we definitely ought to use it more than we do!
It is the cooking process of cous-cous that provides us with a frame for flavour that pasta and rice either do not, or cannot, to the same extent. Whereas a pasta and rice accompaniment will give a plain component to the meal that is complementary whilst ensuring the main focus of the dish remains on the spaghetti, or curry, for example, cous-cous is cooked by, as afore mentioned, the absorption of water. This means that although plain water can be used and the cous-cous serves as a speedier alternative, stock from the dish can too be utilised, manipulating the cous-cous to serve as a tastier alternative as it too shares the flavours of the main dish. In this recipe, the cous-cous absorbs the reduced stock (which has simmered with lamb, garlic, onion and the seasonings), topped up with boiling water and finished with both lemon juice and zest. Fluffing the grains through with all of these fantastic flavours leaves only one question – who is the star of this dish? Arguably, it is the cous-cous.
Ingredients (serves two)
- 4 lamb chops
- Smoked paprika
- 3 garlic cloves, finely sliced
- ½ bell pepper, cut into squares
- ½ red onion, sliced
- Zest and juice of ½ lemon
- 1 cup of cous-cous to 1.5 cups of liquid
- 250ml vegetable stock
- Fresh flat leaf parsley, finely chopped
- Lightly pierce the skin of the lamb chops, and season with some smoked paprika and some salt. Heat a small amount of oil in a large frying pan, and sautee the chops until beginning to brown on both sides. Add the onion and garlic, until soft and golden.
- Stir in the pepper squares, and fry for a further few minutes until soft.
- Add a further sprinkling paprika, and season with black pepper. Pour over the vegetable stock, and add a lid. Turn the heat down to low, and simmer for fifteen minutes until it has reduced.
- Lift the lamb chops out of the pan once the sauce has reduced, and keep warm on a plate.
- Take the pan off the heat, and add the cous-cous. Top up the simmered stock with boiling water if necessary, and add a good squeeze of lemon juice. Replace the lid on the pan.
- Allow the cous-cous to absorb the water, and then add some butter and stir through to ensure the grains don’t stick together!
- Fluff through chopped parsley after the butter, and some lemon zest.
- Nestle the lamb chops against the cous-cous once served, and squeeze over some more lemon juice and sprinkled parsley.