Paella, arguably, is the perfect dinner-party dish. It is exotic (well, sort of), colourful, flavoursome and fun (all those different ingredients in one pan!). Nevertheless, I suspect that it isn't cooked very often outside Spain because it is, on the face of it, an intimidating dish to attempt. As Nicholas Clee admits in his informative and entertaining new compendium of cookery advice, Don't Sweat the Aubergine (Short Books): "This dish makes me nervous." The authentic way to cook paella is in a caldero, or paella pan. But, as Clee points out, these are much wider than the hotplates on cookers. How do you prevent the rice from being underdone round the edge and burnt in the centre? Clee's solution is to use a casserole or large frying pan, and to cook the paella in the oven, covered with foil. He seems unbothered by this method's inauthenticity. "Clearly, I lack the essential machismo - in Valencia, home of the most famous recipe, making paella is a man's job."
On a recent holiday in Spain, I bought a large caldero. Last
Saturday, my girlfriend and I gave a dinner party, for which I was
to cook paella. I read Clee's words a few hours before starting. I admit that they made me nervous. Still, there is nothing like an extra-culinary agenda to add an edge to proceedings. In deciding how to cook my paella, I felt that it wasn't just that evening's dinner but my masculinity that was on the line.
With this in mind, I decided to proceed with the authentic - but high-risk - stove-top method. After experimenting for a while, I discovered that my caldero was just large enough to straddle all four hotplates. That way, I reasoned, the heat would be dispersed widely enough to ensure that the rice cooked evenly. I now got down to cooking the thing. I am not about to provide a recipe, because paella isn't (or shouldn't be) that kind of dish. There are hundreds of different varieties, and the important thing is to be flexible. Authentic paella is made with rabbit. I couldn't find any, so I bought chicken thighs and drumsticks, as well as a poussin, which I divided into four pieces. Again, recipes will tell you that stock is "essential". I didn't have time to make any, so, after browning the chicken and poussin, and frying the chorizo, onions, garlic and red peppers, I added a litre and a half of water, and simmered everything for 20 minutes (thus creating a sort of stock and ensuring that the chicken would be cooked through). I now added saffron and 500g of rice and left the thing to bubble for 15 minutes, before adding mussels, cockles and unshelled prawns. In another 15 minutes the paella was ready. It wasn't perfect: because I'd added too much liquid, the rice was still a bit wet (it should have a crunchy flavour). Still, overall, the dish went down well. And, just as importantly, I felt like a man.