I’ve always loved paella. The layers of flavors and the slight crunchiness of the rice on the bottom of the pan made it an exciting treat that I always ordered whenever I spotted it on a menu. But then I traveled to Valencia, Spain and my whole perspective on paella—which I had only eaten in the U.S.—was shattered. I discovered paella as it was originally prepared, in the city where it was born.
From its streets lined with palm trees to its 16th-century architecture and ultra-modern structures by star architect and hometown boy Santiago Calatrava, Valencia is an enchanting city. I biked through the sunny boulevards and glimpsed the cafes, riverside parks, beaches, and plazas that make it such a lively place. As Spain’s third-largest city, Valencia wears its beauty and sophistication very lightly; it’s a low-key town filled with art and culture. In fact, the reason I had come to Valencia was to attend the city’s most famous cultural event: the centuries-old Las Fallas Festival,
Fireworks, gunshots, and gigantic papier-mache figures are the key elements for this distinctive annual celebration. I stumbled through the gunpowder-scented streets in awe, taking in the processions with locals wearing intricate costumes, the towering fanciful sculptures called ninots, and the fiery displays. The Falles is a significant showcase of Valencian heritage and I was excited to find that local foods were also part of the festivities. Stalls were serving up traditional foods like catalanas (large pieces of bread topped with tomatoes and thin slices of Serrano ham), roasted pumpkin, churros sprinkled with sugar, and the official Las Fallas snack, bunuelos de calabaza (pumpkin fritters) accompanied by thick, rich hot chocolate. It might sound basic, but these deep-fried bits of perfection were soooo delectable. Plump and stuffed with lots of pumpkin, the bunuelos were impossible to stop eating, especially when dipped in the chocolate. There were also a variety of rice dishes for sale. Arroz al horno features baked rice with pork, chickpeas and potatoes, while arroz del senyoret is rice studded with seafood. (Valencia is surrounded by acres of rice fields so it’s not hard to figure out why the grain plays such an important role in regional cuisine.) And of course, the almighty paella Valenciana was prominently showcased: giant pans of paella are cooked on the streets, and paella cooking contests are a popular aspect of Las Fallas. I watched the revelers gobble down the dish but I wasn’t tempted to try it—I was scheduled to join a paella cooking class and I wanted to savor the ultimate Valencian dish in its natural setting.
When I arrived at Barraca Toni Montoliu, I was taken by the surrounding rolling acres of land filled with leafy plots and trees. Located just 15 minutes outside of Valencia, I didn’t realize we were on an actual working farm until master chef/farmer Toni Montoliu himself directed me to pick the beans and rosemary for the paella! He explained that traditional paella was created on farms like this (a barraca is the traditional one-story, thatched farmhouse that was integral to Valencia’s rural areas) and he started helping with paella at four years old. Not measuring up to a four-year-old would be the ultimate embarrassment, so I gathered the veggies and took them to the outdoor cooking hut stocked with logs of wood. I was instructed to gently stir the chicken and green beans frying in a big , flat paella pan. As I stirred over the open fire, the lovely smell of oranges floated around me. I didn’t realize it at the time, but this is the key to real paella. Cooking over an open fire of orange wood supplies a sweet and smoky flavor that can’t be duplicated.
Valencian paella features chicken, rabbit, and sometimes snails. It also includes garrofon beans, a wide, white lima bean that’s native to the city. “Garrofon is a key ingredient that stands out for its great capacity to absorb and transmit flavors to the broth,” explains Maximo Caletrio of the Valencia Tourism office. I had never heard of the bean or cooking over orange wood before, but when I sat down to eat the paella hours later (It takes two hours to properly cook the dish), I was amazed. All the ingredients were infused with the smokiness of the orange wood, making every bit of perfectly cooked rice intensely flavored. I tasted the freshness of the beans and meat and the combination with the sweet smokiness made it addictive. Paella means “frying pan” and we ate right out of it, savoring every grain of rice, especially the socarrat, the crunchy, lightly burnt layer of rice on the bottom of the pan.
I felt ecstatic after eating paella in Valencia. It really tastes better than anything I’d experienced in the U.S., but I was also upset because I knew I wouldn’t be able to enjoy what I had previously thought was good paella. Fortunately, there are a few ways to capture the feeling of quality paella back home. Home cooks can consult the Spanish import shop La Tienda, which supplies paella equipment, including grills for outdoor open fires. There are also Spanish restaurants like Jaleo in Las Vegas, which cooks paella over fire pits, and Mama Delia in Chicago, run by Valencian chefs. And for those up for recreating the complex dish in their own kitchen, Maximo Caletrio offers up some tips.
To cook paella, following the recipe step by step is easy; however, you need experience or a lot of practice to get a good flavor, and the perfect cooking point of rice is not easy (it depends on the amount of broth, the amount of rice used, the variety/quality of the rice, the fire/flames, the kind of water used, even the altitude of the location where you are cooking the paella, as it affects the cooking time of the rice).
Some tricks you need to know to get the best flavor:
- Cook the meat until it is browned or a little bit crispy. (Meat has to be cut in little pieces of approximately 2-2.5 oz.)
- Cook the chicken first, then, once it is browned, add the rabbit (because rabbit meat gets browned faster than chicken).
- Fry the green beans first while stirring constantly (otherwise they will get burned) as they need more frying time, then add the white lima beans and keep stirring until they turn a light brown.
- When frying the grated tomato, add a pinch of salt to get a faster evaporation of the water contained in the tomato.
- When adding the water to get the broth, add a sprig of rosemary to the water (as an infusion) and let it boil for 5-10 minutes (then remove the sprig). Thus you’ll get the rosemary flavor on the broth and consequently add it to the rice when the rice absorbs the broth.
- Once the rice has been added to the broth, DO NOT stir the paella anymore. If you do it you will break the grain and rice starch will make it doughy, similar to a risotto, and spoil the paella.
- Once the rice has absorbed the broth the paella is nearly finished. Increase flame to the maximum for 1-2 minutes to get what we call “socarrat,” which is the crispy/lightly burned rice you get stuck to the bottom of the paella pan. This socarrat flavor is to die for!
- When the paella is finished do not serve it immediately. What we do is “dejar reposar la paella” (let the paella rest), we leave it for 5-10 minutes off the fire so it tempers and becomes more tasty.