A few months ago, while vacationing in Spain, I visited the historic city of Valencia, founded in 138 B.C. as a Roman colony, gently kissed by the blue waters of the Mediterranean.
As I have a great curiosity for the cuisine of the places I visit, and having been previously informed that Valencia was the true home of the paella, I set out to find the most authentic recipe for this most international of Spanish dishes.
My mother, who was of Spanish origin and a great lover of books, instilled in me great admiration for Spanish literature. At an early age I had the great pleasure of reading Cañas y Barro (Reeds and Mud), a novel by Valencian author Vicente Blasco Ibáñez, in which he narrates the hardships of the rice farmers in La Albufera, a coastal lagoon near Valencia. The story takes place in the small village of El Palmar. To my great surprise, I discovered that it was not just literary fiction; the place actually exists and is famous for its excellent restaurants, which prepare and serve the best paella in the world.
Some friends guided me to Mornell, one of the best restaurants in the city, where its friendly owner, chef José Antonio Torrent prepared for me an authentic paella valenciana. I was excited to discover that paella is cooked on an open fire, using wood from orange trees.
The dish turned out to be a real delight: aromatic, rich, succulent, with a hint of rosemary and rice cooked al dente, Italian style. It bore no resemblance to other dishes I had tasted before, which some have the audacity to call paella. The reason: few people have tried the original recipe outside Valencia. Valencians call those variations of their regional dish, “rice with things”.
A common misconception is that paella is made mostly with seafood. Truth is the traditional paella comes from a very old recipe developed in rural Valencia, not necessarily from the coast. It is made with authentic, local and mundane ingredients: rabbits, garden vegetables and free-range chickens. The one luxurious ingredient that cannot be absent from the perfect paella is saffron.
In fact, the traditional Valencian paella does not include fish. We should note a few exceptions in the cuisine of the Valencian coast that allow the use of seafood, but the original is made with chicken, rabbit and produce from nearby orchards. The main obstacle for those who want to prepare this Spanish delicacy outside Spain is finding a good paella pan, since we wouldn’t dare make this dish in a regular pot or cazuela.
In 2013, we are celebrating the International Year of Paella. The project is open to all citizens, companies, entities, associations and institutions in Valencia, whose purpose is to protect and promote the cultural and gastronomic values of paella. According to the organizers of this initiative, “not all that glitters is paella” and only paella that is prepared in the traditional way should bear that name.
When people ask me which restaurants in Europe and North America serve good paella, my answer is always the same: “you cannot eat a real paella anywhere outside Valencia”. At the same time, as humans we tend to commiserate, so I usually add that if you are far from Valencia and want to try a paella, the best bet is to visit a good Spanish restaurant.
In London, for example, you can enjoy this Mediterranean dish in Restaurante La Paella, located in East Barnet, whose menu boasts tasty “tapas” and four different kinds of rice, including a good vegetable paella.
In United States there are very good Spanish restaurants where you can have a tasty paella. In New York City, go to 718 2nd Ave, where you will find Pote Español Spanish Restaurant. They offer a pleasing seafood paella cooked in traditional Valencian style.
In Los Angeles, the best option is located at 476 South San Vicente Boulevard: La Paella Restaurant. Here we recommend the paella made with squid ink and mussels, typical of the coastal regions of Valencia.
In Coral Gables (Miami) at Delicias de España, 4016 SW 57th Ave or at La Dorada (177 Giralda Ave. FL 33134), which in 2009 received the International Five Stars Diamond Award, becoming the first Spanish restaurant in the United States to receive this prestigious prize. The entire menu is good, including a delicious seafood paella seasoned with saffron.
But I’ll go further and encourage, perhaps dare you, to prepare a traditional paella from the comfort of your home. Here is the original recipe as José Antonio lovingly prepares it at his restaurant Mornell. Bon Appetit!
This recipe is from Mornell Restaurant. Francisco Monleón, 31 – El Palmar-Valencia (Spain).
Ingredient [Serves 4]
½ chicken cut in pieces
½ rabbit cut in pieces
14 oz. rice
5 oz. flat fava beans
5 oz. large haricot white beans
1 grated tomato
1 garlic clove, chopped
1-tablespoon sweet paprika
3 oz. extra virgin olive oil
6 strands of saffron
1. Pour the oil in the center of the pan, spread it, light the fire and heat the oil.
2. When the oil starts to smoke, add the chicken and rabbit, cut in pieces and lightly salted. Brown them carefully over medium heat. It is very important that the meat is golden brown; the success of the paella depends very much on this stage of the preparation.
3. Add the chopped vegetables, and sauté a few minutes.
4. Add the tomato and chopped garlic clove, toss them a few minutes and add the paprika (at this point reduce the temperature to low heat, since the paprika could burn and give the paella a bitter after taste). Let it cook for one minute and add water until it nearly covers the edge of the pan.
5. Let it simmer for approximately 20 minutes, adding more water and salt if necessary.
6. After 20 minutes add the rice. When adding the rice, make sure that the broth in the pan reaches the middle of the rivets of the handles.
7. Spread the saffron over the rice (it could be in strands, roasted, ground or diluted). Mix the rice evenly throughout the pan and try not to leave rice grains on the meat or vegetables. Cook over very high heat for 8 minutes or until the rice starts to look half done, plus 10 additional minutes over low heat.
8. Let stand for a few minutes and you are ready to enjoy it. ■