PROCLAIMING A DISH "the king" is begging for contradictio -- or combat.
But generations of Spanish gastronomes have revered paella as the king of all rice dishes, and with little quarrel. Anyone who has tried the marriage of a humble grain and the seasoning generally avowed to be Earth's most rare, saffron, would agree.
But preparing paella, a dish that is frequently little more than rice, saffron and olive oil mixed with whatever morsel the field, shore or sky provides, is another matter. Some say everything but the kitchen sink must be included to make a great paella, for example. Or a proper paella takes hours to prepare; first time out, you're bound to ruin a load of costly ingredients and without authentic cookware, you may as well go heat a TV dinner.
Let's burst some bubbles, one by one.
*Culinary grandstanding is not the sole aim of paella-making. Since paella is a concept more than a set piece, there are about a zillion versions. You do the dish your way. True, the grandest paellas often contain a half-dozen kinds of seafood in addition to bacon, poultry, and meat -- plus vegetables, legumes and booze. But while a paella can contain anything and everything, as one discovers touring the dish's native homeland, it can also be the simplest of amalgams. Satisfaction can be achieved in the most basic versions, little more than starch, protein, fat and flavoring.
*Time-conscious cooks skip paella for the wrong reasons. If you choose the right recipe and shop smart, the dish can be ready to serve in less than 30 minutes. More elaborate versions can be comparatively quick to complete if you prepare things in advance -- clean seafood, scrub and cut vegetables, and have everything measured and organized for efficient work flow.
Novices needn't worry. If you understand the basic tenets of preparing paella, you'll get the hang of it. Again, by starting with the simplest recipes, you master the techniques before moving on to dicier versions.
*Fancy, schmantzy. Use a big, heavy frying pan. Sure, toy fanciers will scurry out and buy magnificent copper paellera, the customary shallow, double-handled pan with gently sloping sides -- but sturdy steel versions can be had for under $20 (or carry one back from Spain for less than $10, air fare not included).
What you feature in a paella is entirely a matter of palate and pocketbook. The earliest versions are said to have contained little more than rice speckled with wild beans and snails. In Spain's central, and landlocked, plains, paella con perdiz (partridge) is a kind of classic. Quail often substitutes. Poultry is a national staple in paella, and pork versions abound. Coastal dwellers understandably dote on fabulous rice melanges crammed with crustaceans.
Making paella will be more satisfying if you follow these tips:
*HAVE EVERYTHING WELL-ORGANIZED: Many paella dishes actually take very little time to prepare, once you begin cooking. But if you stop to cut ingredients or seek spices midway in the procedure, you not only slow up the process but run the risk of overcooking one element or ruining the rice. Have everything ready to go, and set forth in a methodical pattern before you light the range.
*CHOOSE THE RIGHT RICE: Short-grain, Spanish paella rice is the best version for the accompanying recipes. It holds its shape throughout cooking, absorbs well and gives off minimal starch (which otherwise results in gumminess). Williams-Sonoma and Cost Plus stores are two sources for Spanish paella rice, generally sold in 2-pound bags. Italian Arborio rice is a good alternative. If economy is a concern, you may choose to substitute long-grain "converted" rice, such as Uncle Ben's brand. Should you do so, take care to stir it as little as possible.
*PICK A PAN: Choose a large, shallow pan for making paella. Make sure it has an even, flat bottom -- this is especially important when working with electric stoves, as warped pans may cook unevenly. Ideally you will use a formal paellera, the typical two-handled pan with sloping sides. These are available at Williams-Sonoma, or ask your favorite cookware store to order one for you. But a wide frying pan -- preferably 12 inches or larger -- will work nicely. However, don't overfill the pan; better to use (or borrow) a second frying pan and gingerly work two burners at once.
*TAKING THE HEAT: You'll want a strong and even source of heat. If using a large paellera, try and fit it over two burners for stronger and more even heating. If this doesn't work, stick with one burner and move the pan around during cooking so that all areas receive heat.
*MODERATE HEAT: Once most paellas come to a full boil, reducing the heat helps the topmost rice to cook and avoids scorching the grains closest to the bottom.