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
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
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.
The dish I was really inspired to make after my French excursion was ‘moules marinères‘. I had never had mussels before, but when my friend ordered them, I was instantly jealous. Though there was subsequently no hesitation to order them as part of a Fruits De Mer linguine over the next couple of days, I still longed for a big bowl piled high with glistening black mussels, resting in a creamy, garlicky sauce. As I said, I have never really been interested in sampling fish past the traditional battered type that arrives with chips, and as a consequence, my skills somewhat reflect that limited fish repertoire – I have little idea what I’m doing when it comes to seafood. But it turns out, that despite how impressively posh ‘moules marinères‘ looks and sounds, the cooking is relatively easy, and the results are unbeatable.
A lot of people I know seem to have fallen out of love with fish – its sustainability can be a concern, and it’s often expensive. But mussels ought to be in vogue; although they are shellfish, a renowned expensive treat, they lack a corresponding price tag – they look fancy, but their price is undeniably far lower, making them a far better value option for seafood dishes. The kilo of mussels I used cost just £3.79 – compared with 300g of prawns at the cost of £3.00, mussels have the upper hand; the benefit of 700g ‘extra’ volume, without sacrificing taste or quality. The reason why they’re so cheap is their plentiful nature – unlike some seafood, they are not endangered nor at risk of becoming so. In fact, mussels are the most environmentally friendly shellfish – they are numerically in abundance, and their farming is sustainable across the coastal waters in the UK. This means their price is able to reflect the ease of their farming, making each mouthful guilt-free, and a portion size not restricted by cost! They’re also incredibly healthy – nutrient rich, they contain Zinc, Vitamin B12, Selenium and Iron. This means that as a seafood, they help support a healthy immune system (Selenium), the growth of red blood cells and proper development (B12).
TIP: quickly assessing the bowl of mussels before you, you may notice that using a knife and fork will present some difficulties.Courtesy of my mussel mentor, the trick to eating mussels with ease is so: find a first shell that is slightly open, and scoop the inner mussel out with a spoon. Then, use the empty shell as ‘tongs’ to eat the rest of the mussels, discarding each empty shell aside from the first one into a bowl!
500g fresh mussels
50ml white wine
60ml double cream
1 clove of garlic, thinly sliced
½ white onion, diced
Sprinkling of parsley
Sprinkling of thyme
Crusty bread, to serve
Begin by washing the mussels. On most of the mussels, you’ll find a brown protruding fibre which is called its ‘beard’. Remove these beards, pulling them until they fall out from the tight shells.
Knock off any barnacles with a large knife, and then scrub and rinse the mussels until they are clean. Ensure that any mussels whose shells are open are thrown away – an open shells means that the meat will be rubbery, as the mussel is no longer alive.
Heat a large pan or wok, which has an accompanying lid, over a low heat. Soften the onion and garlic in a knob of butter, along with some thyme and parsley to taste.
Add the mussels, and coat in the garlic and onion infused butter. Stir in the wine, and place the lid on the pan.
Turn the heat up to medium, and allow the mussels to steam for around 2 minutes. You will notice that the mussel shells begin to open as they steam.
Shake the pan. Remove the lid, and add the cream. Add a sprinkling more of parsley, a crack of black pepper, and allow to warm through. This must be done quickly, as the longer the mussels cook for, the more of the enzymes will break down, and the less palatable they will become. To ensure the mussels remain juicy and not rubbery, do not allow them to overcook at this stage!
Serve immediately into bowls, with an extra bowl per person for the discarded shells, and serve with crusty bread. Bon appetit!