Whenever I watch a travel show about Spain, I always stumble upon a special episode on Valencia. It's the third-largest city in Spain and is located on the eastern coast, forming part of the Costa del Azahar. Of the many things it is famous for, paella is number one. It is practically the national dish of Spain. I've had many paellas before and recently had one at José Andrés' restaurant Jaleo. I've always wanted to make one and finally took it upon myself to prepare one al fresco, much like the Spanish do. Typically the women prepare the ingredients and the men cook the paella. It's a great way to get everyone to participate.
Traditional paella is made with meat (rabbit, duck, or chicken) and snails, but seafood paella, which is a specialty of the coastal area, is now more popular. Paella is always made with bomba rice, a short-grain rice much like Italian arborio. It absorbs more liquid and has more starch than long-grain rice. Fideuà is made with noodles, thin angel-hair pasta, and a mix of fish and shellfish. Any type of paella is a wonderful dish to make for a large outdoor gathering with family and friends, because it sure does feed a crowd. I can't imagine a more perfect meal for an end-of-summer party this upcoming Labor Day.
Here I make an all shellfish fideuà with clams, mussels, shrimp, and squid. I like the little wriggly broken-up capellini pasta more than rice. Just as with rice, the pasta develops the soccarat, the almost-burned crust on the bottom of the pan, which is prized in Spain. Whoever scrapes up the bottom first is paella king. Keep in mind that each shellfish cooks differently. So when placing the shellfish in the pan, start with the clams, then the mussels, shrimp, and finally the squid. The shells open when they are done. The shrimp and squid are cooked once they turn opaque.
In Spain, paella is made outdoors over an open fire in pans that can feed an army. The best way to replicate the traditional cooking method is to use either a gas grill or a barbecue. I purchased a mid-size paellera to make this dish. (In Spanish paella translates to pan. The pan used to make the dish is called a paellera.) In a pinch, use a large flat-bottomed skillet or sauté pan (not non-stick), but most likely you will have to cut down the recipe. The key is having a good pan and powerful heat. Besides that it's simply using really fresh ingredients and making it with love.
Valencian Noodle Paella or Fideuà
1/4 cup olive oil
1/2 pound Spanish chorizo sausage, diced
freshly ground pepper
1 Spanish onion, chopped
4 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 pound capellini, broken into 1-inch pieces
1 cup white wine
2 cups clam juice
2 cups chicken broth
1 medium to large tomato, seeded, diced, liquid reserved
large pinch saffron threads
1 dozen littleneck clams, scrubbed and soaked in water
1 dozen mussels, scrubbed and soaked in water
1 pound extra-large shrimp, peeled and deveined
1/2 pound small squid, cleaned and sliced into rings
1/4 cup finely chopped parsley, for garnish
lemon wedges, for serving
Preheat a grill at medium-high heat. Set 15-inch paellera over grates. Add oil and chorizo, sauté until brown. Remove with a slotted spoon and reserve.
Add onion and garlic, sauté for 3 to 4 minutes until translucent. Add the pasta, tossing and turning until toasted, about 5 minutes. Color will turn opaque and nutty brown.
Add wine, clam juice, broth, and tomato with its juices. Crumble in saffron threads. Add chorizo and stir to combine. Press down pasta and chorizo so that it is just covered by the liquid. Simmer for 8 to 10 minutes.
Once most of the liquid has absorbed and only a few puddles remain, nestle in clams, mussels, and shrimp. Continue to simmer for 8 to 10 minutes without stirring. A gentle shake of the pan now and then is fine. Nestle the squid rings among the shells. Cook until the pasta is al dente and the shells are open and the shrimp and squid are opaque.
Turn heat up to high for last minute to develop the bottom crust, soccarat. Remove from heat and let rest for 5 minutes. Garnish with parsley and lemon wedges. Serve immediately. Yield: 8 servings.