I have been having seafood withdrawals recently. It has actually been quite a while now since I have really cooked up a decent amount of ocean fair.
This post, you see, is actually out of order. I have a great roast chicken post to do, which actually got “made” before this one. The problem is that there is a video associated with that, which is taking me a sodding age to edit, because I have realized that I am remarkably crap on camera.
Yes, you heard me right, the next post is going to involve some really dodgy video of muggins here!!! Stay tuned… it should be worth a laugh. If anything, you get to see me shove my hand up a chicken’s arse.
When I get withdrawals, I have to do either one of two things. The first is cook up a fantastic piece of fish – normally pan seared and finished in the oven. The second is cook up a big variety of seafood – which has to involve my favorite thing in a shell – mussels! And of course it would then just be rude not to include clams too – since I normally choose mussels over them.
So why paella? Well, I have never actually cooked one, for starters. I am also starting to get intrigued by Spanish cuisine. You can put that partly down to the amazing local restaurant Harvest Vine which has me well and truly hooked (dare I say the best food I have had in Seattle in while?) and focuses on just perfect modern Basque tapas. I have also been looking at a bunch of El Buli articles recently. In short, I want to discover more of Spanish cuisine – and for that, I reckon you have to start with Paella.
Paella has become a complete classic. When most people think of Spanish cuisine they normally think of either tapas or paella. Originally it was normally made with chicken and rabbit and contained a variety of garden vegetables. Today, there are thousands of varieties of paella – each village in Spain I am sure has its own version – much like Bouillabaisse in the south of France.
For this one I wanted to take a step away from meat, and go heavy on the seafood. I wanted it to be light, and keeping focus forward on the great bivalves we have here in Washington. Some of the best mussels I have ever tasted come from Penn Cove, right here in Washington. Not only do they taste amazing, but they are pretty dirt cheap too. If you wanted to buy enough mussels for dinner for two people, it is going to set you back about 4 bucks. Not bad. Not bad at all!
So, with this focus in mind I cut back the basic paella recipe to involve just the main flavor enhancer’s. I start with a sofrito of onion, garlic, celery and fennel – the later I really like with seafood. This all gets deglazed in white wine (another classic with seafood) that has soaked up some saffron (do I need to go on?) To this we add some amazing Spanish chorizo I picked up at a local Spanish market – and finally this simmers in some home made chicken stock (more on that in a bit). The shrimp cooks in this, and the bivalves get steamed open in more white wine, and added towards the end of cooking.
What comes out at the end is an amazingly flavorful light rice dish that just smells of the sea, and looks like a summer seafood extravaganza (I love that word) in a pan. All that remains to add is some fresh lemon juice, and some chopped fresh herbs (in this case basil and parsley).
The result was just what I needed. A light (but yet rich?), flavorful dish of seafood that was a breeze to cook, and not that expensive at all.
A few notes for great Paella:
You really are going to need a paella pan. Thankfully these are pretty cheap. I picked up a carbon steel (the best in my opinion, and most genuine) pan big enough for 4 people from Spanish Table for 17 bucks. Sure, it is carbon steel so you have season it, and take care of it – but in return you get a pan that has amazing heat control and will last you a lifetime for the cost of lunch. Not bad, not bad at all. Of course, you could always go and get a shiny stainless steel Al Clad one for a hundred bucks in you wanted.. but, if you have money to burn I would rather you sent it to me!!
As with both risotto and paella the quality of the broth you use is important. The rice is going to absorb a lot of it, which really effects the flavor. If you have it, use homemade chicken stock (or fish stock). Now, I am not going to harp on about always having home made stock. Bollocks to that. I am a father of a 20month old son, I hardly ever have time to make home made stock – and I wouldn’t suggest to people to be making stock every week. Just find a really decent quality stock to use. I was lucky, I had roasted some chickens a few days before, and used those carcases to make some great stock. You know… those roast chickens that are coming in the next post.
If you get a large paella pan (enough for 8 people or more – because this is party food after all) – chances are your stove isn’t going to have a burner big enough to cover the entire base of the pan (and if it does, I wanna see pictures!) – so either straddle two burners, or make sure you move the pan around, making sure the base gets even heat. Of course, you could also be really authentic and do this over a wood fire in the backyard – or beach (can you do that?).
I steam the mussels and clams open in a separate dish, to make sure they are cooked properly and fully open. I add them at the last minute. If you wish, you could steam them open earlier in the cooking process, and use some of their liquor in place of the stock.
Seafood Paella (serves 3 or 2 really generously)
1 1/4 cups of Spanish Bomba rice
4 cups of chicken stock (or fish stock)
1 glass of white wine (for the paella)
1/2 glass of white wine (for the mussels and clams)
1 pinch of saffron
15 large prawns
1 stalk of celery
1 fennel bulb
2 garlic cloves
8” chorizo sausage – sliced across ways
small handful (total) of chopped fresh basil and parsley
Finely chop the onion, celery, fennel and garlic. Scrub the mussel shells, and debeard. Scrub the clam shells. Peel the shrimp, and de-vein if required. Discard any mussels or clams that have broken shells, or are open and don’t close up tight when you scrub them.
In a small pan, warm the stock over a low heat.
Put the saffron in the white wine, and let it infuse for at least 10 minutes.
Heat the paella pan over a medium heat, and add two tablespoons of olive oil. When the oil is hot add in the onion, celery and fennel. Cook gently until soft – about 10 minutes. Add in the garlic, and cook for another minute. Stir in the rice, and let it absorb some of the oil. Add in the chorizo. Turn up the heat and pour in the white wine. Let this boil for a minute, and then add in most of the stock. Gently stir.
Let this boil gently for 5 minutes. Add in the prawns, and cook for a further 15 minutes. You will want to gently stir this from time to time, to make sure everything is heating evenly. If it looks like the rice is absorbing all the stock too early (before the 15 minutes is up) add a little more in.
For authentic paella you want to stop yourself from stirring the dish during the last half of cooking. Apparently the best paella has a crust on the bottom of the rice (where the rice is in contact with the pan) – this is only achieved through not stirring.
With a few minutes to go in the cooking process, put a large pan over a high heat. Add in the 1/2 glass of white wine, and get it boiling. When it has reduced by about half, toss in the mussels and clams. Cover with a tight fitting lid, and turn the heat down to medium-high. These will take about 3 minutes to steam open. You should be able to hear them pop open, and a lovely wiff of the sea will start to come up from the pan. Discard any mussels or clams that haven’t opened.
Arrange the bivalves in the paella, sprinkle with the basil and parsley. and let sit for a few minutes, off the heat for the flavors to meld together. Serve with the lemon wedges and three forks.
A few notes on buying and cleaning mussels and clams:
A lot of fishmongers really don’t store mussels and clams well. Mussels should be kept in lots of ice – not just sitting on a bed of them. Take a look at the little buggers. They should be closed. If they are open, looking like they are gasping for their last breath – move on. You can also ask to see the “tag” for them. This will show when they were harvested – and thus how fresh they are.
Clams can bet kept on ice for a little bit, but should ideally be kept in moving water, at a specific salt level.
To clean a mussel – first inspect the shell for any visible damage. If it is cracked, or is open (and doesn’t close when you tap it or scrub it under running water) discard the blighter. Gently scrub the shell removing anything that is crusted on. With a firm yank pull off the beard of the mussel (the hairlike bit sticking out the shell join), if one is still attached.
To clean a clam simply scrub the shell. Again discard any that are open or damaged. Clams have much thicker shells than mussels, and the likelihood of damage is slim.
I reckon on about a 10% wastage for mussels – what with damaged shells and all.
It is best to buy mussels and clams on the same day you wish to eat them. As soon as you get them home, take them out of their bags, and put them in a bowl, with lots of crushed ice. Put this in the fridge. Drain the bowl of any melted ice every few hours.