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.
If you’ve read my previous risotto post, then you’ll know that I’ve discovered a way to help present this rice dish attractively – the secret, is to use colour. I spent a good deal of time researching into the best way to produce pretty risotto, and eventually decided upon using a puree of the main ingredient to allow the rice carry the primary colour of the dish, thus making it stand out against the plate. In this particular risotto, turmeric and saffron are used to give the rice a bright yellow hue, which contrasts brilliantly with the red tone of the sweet, garlicky, slow-roasted tomatoes.
As a result of the way it is grown, saffron is an expensive spice – reputably the costliest in the world. Picked by hand and almost weightless, accruing enough saffron strands to weigh in as commercially ‘worth it’ pushes the price up considerably. Although the flavour of saffron is strong enough that it can be used sparingly, for this recipe, the small quantity does not provide sufficient colour to dye the grains of rice. To counteract this, I used the spice turmeric – it is considerably cheaper than saffron, and was even historically referred to as ‘Indian Saffron’ as homage to their similar properties without the similar price. It is commonly used outside its native Asia to lend its bright colour to an array of ingredients – the warm, rich, mustard-y qualities of turmeric gives this dish the tint it needs to look inviting and appetising. Moreover, the peppery taste of turmeric means that it does not interfere with the flavour of the saffron, instead complimenting it wonderfully, to give a full-flavoured risotto dish that pairs excellently with the tomatoes.
- 4 salad tomatoes, halved
- A handful of cherry tomatoes on the vine, left whole
- Arborio risotto rice, approximately 100g per person
- 250ml hot vegetable stock per person
- 2 cloves of garlic
- Parmesan shavings, to taste
- Knob of butter
- 1 tsp turmeric
- A few strands of saffron, slightly crushed between fingertips before added
- Dried chili, to taste
- Salt and pepper
- Olive oil
- Heat the oven to 180 degrees. Place the tomatoes on an oven-proof tray, and drizzle with olive oil. Season with salt and pepper, and a sprinkling of dried chili. Toss gently to ensure all the tomatoes are covered in the oil and seasonings.
- Using a garlic press, squeeze the cloves evenly over the tomatoes and drizzle lightly with a little more oil. Put in the oven, and allow to roast for 12 to 15 minutes, until the tomatoes are soft and the garlic is sweet.
- While the tomatoes are roasting, begin the risotto. Heat in a large saucepan a little olive oil, and add the risotto rice. It is important to remember pan must reflect the amount of rice – keeping it on ‘one level’ during cooking ensures half doesn’t out-cook the rest, resulting in an unevenly cooked meal! Stir the risotto rice in the oil continuously, until the edges of each grain become slightly transparent.
- Add a ladle of hot stock, and stir. It is incredibly important to add the stock gradually – as it is added, it is absorbed by the rice, cooking it. If it is added too quickly, it will evapourate away but the rice may remain slightly raw. As it is added, it should begin to form a small sauce, and the rice should be tender but with a slight ‘bite’ in the centre. Add ladles of stock as the previous one is absorbed almost fully – if you run out of stock, just use boiling water. This process should take around 20 minutes.
- After the 15 minutes for the tomatoes, remove them from the oven and discard any garlic that is brown or burnt; keep the tomatoes warm.
- Add the turmeric and saffron, and season. Keep on the heat for 5 minutes more to ensure it is all warmed through. Risotto is not meant to be thick, but creamy and spill onto the plate – if yours is too stodgy, add a little more hot water.
- Once the risotto is cooked, take it off the heat, add a knob of butter, and place a lid on the pan. Leave for 2 minutes, and add the shaved parmesan.
- Leave the risotto with a lid on again for around 5 minutes, to allow the flavours to combine, absorbing the butter and cheese for extra ‘ooze’.
- Pour the risotto into a deep bowl, and top with the warm roasted tomatoes. Drizzle a little of the oil the tomatoes were cooked in over the top if it needs further breaking up to ‘ooze’. Season, and serve!