A little bit of Valencia, a little bit of Catalunya, a little bit of Inglewood.
If you’ve ever been to Spain — and even if you haven’t — there’s a fair likelihood that you have at some point encountered paella, that rice-based Valencian marvel redolent of saffron and pimentón de la Vera. Believe it or not, the paella you treasure in your taste buds’ memory is likely, in a word, inauténtico. Paella, like pizza and pretzels, rallies a passionate coterie of prescriptivists to its bosom, each claiming that a single path alone leads to the culinary ecstasy prized by gourmands. Yeah, bunk.
The earliest precursor to paella I could find dates to about 1520, when the notes of the master chef to Ferdinand I, Rupert de Nola (who, despite his name, was not from New Orleans), were codified into Libre del Coch (later Libro de Guisados), said to be the first printed cookbook in Catalan (and, some further allege, in Spain). It seems to have been compiled originally in 1477, which indicates that book publishers back then maintained the same sort of leisurely release schedule they do today.
What? A book without pictures? Depends on your edition.
But I digress. According to Saveur magazine, the original Valencian paella was likely cobbled together from local ingredients. Rice was a Moorish legacy dating back to the overthrow of the Visigoths in 711, and Arab traders brought saffron to the region a couple hundred years later. Then, all they had to do was add some veggies and protein, and presto! It’s said that snails (which sound much tastier in Spanish, as caracoles) and rabbits were often featured, as were local beans. [Beans and rice? How is it that there’s no paella burrito food truck in Los Angeles? Maybe this.] In any event, the natives are passionate about what is and is not authentic (even when they disagree on specifics), but what else would you expect from citizens of a town that sports its own rice museum?
In the early 20th century, one Valencian had gone completely heretical, not only adding seafood to paella, but substituting noodles for rice! There are competing legends surrounding the origin of fideuá, one of which portrays it as an accident by a chef who had run out of rice, another concerning a chef who attempted to dissuade a gluttonous sea captain by ostensibly making his paella less palatable with noodles. Whatever the truth, the dish became a hit, though it migrated up the coast into Catalunya for its most elegant expression.
While I have a great deal of respect for the tradition of Spanish cuisine, I’m not above a cultural mashup (I am going to pull together a paella burrito one of these days!), so I assembled a dish I proudly call Fideuà Inauténtico. [I once worked with a multiple Grammy-nominated art director who occasionally said, “Go ugly early.” I’m not sure exactly what she meant by that, but it seems to apply here.] I will note that, as with many of the recipes found on this blog, this is more of a suggestion than an absolutist set of instructions.
Developing the socarrat.
Serves approximately 4 to 6, with a little left over
NOTE: This was made in a 16″ Staub pan designed for cooking paella. Technically, the pan is also called a paella, so saying “paella pan” is as redundant as saying “La Brea Tar Pits.” Mine is rather heavy and thick, while the traditional Spanish version of the pan is thin. The size and weight of your pan will affect cooking time, so have a care. The ultimate goal is for the pasta to absorb the liquid, and to develop a bit of a crust (or socarrat). While the dish as pictured was made on top of my ancient O’Keefe and Merritt stovetop, I often use my outdoor gas grill for this dish, because it produces a superior socarrat, thanks to the larger burners and higher BTU output.
2 packages fideo pasta* (7 oz. / 400 g each)
½ cup / 120 ml extra-virgin Spanish olive oil
1 pound / ½ kg boneless chicken thighs, cooked and chopped
1 – 2 teaspoons / 2½ – 5 g pimentón de la Vera (sweet/dulce if you have it, but bittersweet/agridulce or hot/picante work fine)
1 medium onion, chopped
4 garlic cloves, chopped
2 pounds / 1 kg tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and chopped or two 14-oz / 400 g cans of fire-roasted diced tomatoes
20-24 large shrimp, tail on, uncooked
8 oz. / 225 g link of Spanish chorizo** cut into 20 or so slices
3½ – 4 cups / 820 – 940 ml of stock (I used chicken stock, but fish or veggie or beef would work fine also), heated
⅛ – ¼ teaspoon / .09 – .17 g saffron (not really very much, because it’s super expensive, but you can add more if you want)
¼ cup / 60 ml dry Spanish white wine such as Albariño (optional)
Salt to taste
*Angel hair pasta and vermicelli also work well, so long as they are in broken into short pieces and you adjust the cooking time and amount of liquid so they don’t get overcooked. Spaghetti, on the other hand, is too thick.
**Spanish chorizo, unlike Mexican chorizo, is cured and has the texture of a hard sausage.
Cook chicken thighs in advance, using whatever method you prefer. I braised mine in wine, intending to finish them off with a little browning on the gas grill, but I skipped that step for time’s sake, and it worked out fine. In fact, I made the thighs the previous night, and just chopped them up the following evening. I saved the cooking juices to combine with the stock.
Heat the stock in a saucepan to simmer; you will be adding it in a bit at a time later in the recipe.
In large paella pan (sic), combine olive oil and fideo over high heat; brown fideo to golden colour, stirring frequently (don’t worry if some gets a little too dark, just don’t burn it). Add pimentón de la Vera and onion and cook until softened, about 3-4 minutes. Add garlic and continue cooking about one minute. If it looks like the fideo is getting too dark, splash in a little stock or wine and allow it to evaporate.
Add tomatoes, cooked chicken, chorizo, shrimp, and saffron, arranging them in the pan evenly. Begin pouring stock in a bit at a time (about 40% the first time, then 20% or so with each subsequent pour), allowing it to reduce a bit before adding more. DO NOT STIR, because this will mess with the formation of the socarrat. [You can sample the pasta along the way, checking to see if it has gone from crunchy to al dente. Typically, fideo requires only 4-5 minutes in boiling water.] A couple of minutes after the first stock addition, flip over the shrimp. When they are cooked, they’ll turn from grey to pink and white. You may need to turn them over a couple of times to get them there. Should you run out of stock, you can add a bit of dry wine, such as Albariño, or even a dry rosé. It’s also possible that you may not need to use all your stock. Let your tastebuds be your guide. If the pasta’s done and the shrimp are pink, you’re good to go. Allow the liquid to evaporate, take the pan off flame, and let it sit for a 3-5 minutes to help build the socarrat.
Lift portions out of pan with spatula, making sure to scrape off the socarrat in the process. It is traditionally served with allioli, a kind of garlic mayo that can be made in a food processor or with a mortar and pestle. Possibly due to the number of margaritas I had consumed, I skipped this step. It tasted fine without the condiment.
Just about fork-ready.