Humble foods go into regal dish Inventive: Spain's famous pilaf might have been created for a princess, or it might have more prosaic origins. Even its recipe is open to the cook's interpretation.

March 31, 1996|By Anne Marie Weiss-Armush | Anne Marie Weiss-Armush,DALLAS MORNING NEWS Universal Press Syndicate

Spanish folklore offers a charming tale about the origin of Spain's glorious national dish. Surprised by the unexpected visit of a princess, a country innkeeper was unprepared and unprovisioned. What dish could a commoner concoct from the humble ingredients on hand that would please such a majesty?

In the kitchen, his clever wife quickly combined bits of this and that -- snippets of vegetables, sausage and seafood -- with saffron-yellow rice simmered in chicken and fish broth.

"Pa'ella!" (which in Spanish means "for her"), she announced proudly, as she carried in the steaming pilaf with its topping of pink shrimp and green peas.

The tale might well be true, for nearly any seasonal vegetable will lend color and flavor to paella (pronounced pa-EH-ya). Along Spain's extensive coast, chefs add seafood, while in the interior, chicken, pork, ham, sausage and beef are more available.

Food historians, however, point to Spain's 800-year Arab heritage as a more likely source for the dish. It was the Arabs who introduced rice and risotto to Europe through their kingdoms in Andalusia and Sicily. The word paella is itself derived from the Arabic root bakheya (pronounced ba-KHEH-ya), meaning "leftovers."

Many cooks might consider paella too expensive and too troublesome to prepare at home. But the dish relies as much on imagination and thriftiness as it does on the foundation of rice, saffron, chicken broth and olive oil-sauteed onions.

Traditionally, paella is prepared with short-grained arborio rice, the type used to make risotto. But you can substitute converted rice or any uncooked rice.

In Spain, paella is made in a wide, shallow pan with two handles. But a skillet or other wide, flat pan would work nicely.

Saffron gives the dish its signature yellow hue. The spice is quite pricey, but a recipe that makes six servings calls for only 1/4 teaspoon. Safflower, available at some ethnic groceries, is an economical substitute.

Beyond those basics, you can experiment with any type of meat, seafood or vegetable.

Paella a la Valencia bursts with the catch of the day, whatever it happens to be. To prepare this family favorite, I sometimes buy a can of clams in their flavorful juice and tiny quantities of a variety of seafood. Lobster, squid, shrimp and chunks of crisp grilled fish all work well as toppings for the rice.

More often, however, I prepare it the day after we've enjoyed a bouillabaisse or seafood-laced salad, planning to recycle the excess shrimp or squid.

A slightly different flavor is produced when portions of meat rather than seafood are used.

A leftover length of cooked sausage or surplus broiled chicken breast may be cut into bite-size pieces and added five or 10 minutes before the dish is finished. Cubed smoked ham or turkey are equally delicious. Or you can slice the meat into ribbons, reheat it in a microwave and arrange it over the rice just before serving.

Your refrigerator may yield all sorts of treasures to add to the rice; leftover green beans, frozen peas or extra asparagus spears provide dramatic contrast.

Those last few artichoke hearts or bottoms lingering in a can produce authentic Iberian conditions, but a piece of bell pepper and a super-ripe tomato are inexpensive variations that are almost as delicious. Sliced mushrooms, either fresh or from a can, harmonize nicely with meat and poultry.

If you discover an unused portion of cauliflower or a forgotten eggplant, you can deep-fry them and use them as a garnish.

Remember that canned food items or those that have already been cooked require only heating. These should be added to the rice toward the end of cooking. Small quantities of raw meat or fresh vegetables must be mixed in with the boiling chicken broth to ensure that they are cooked.

Paella theme and variations

Mediterranean paella is a dish made for leftovers. So once you have the basic ingredients in place, mix and match any of the suggested seafoods, meats, vegetables and garnishes, especially bits of this and that you have left over.

All items should be cooked.

Basic ingredients: rice, olive oil, onions, saffron

Seafood: shrimp, squid (steamed), fresh clams, canned clams, octopus, mussels

Meats: sausage, chicken, turkey, ham, pork

Vegetables: onions, green beans, artichoke hearts, asparagus, mushrooms, tomatoes, bell peppers, pimientos, cauliflower, eggplant, zucchini

Garnishes: peas, sliced pimiento-stuffed olives, seafood, chicken or meat

Basic paella

Makes 6 servings

6 chicken legs or thighs

salt and black pepper

1/4 cup olive oil

1 onion, chopped

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 large ripe tomato, chopped

2 cups uncooked rice (see note)

1 (12-ounce) can clams

chicken broth

1 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon saffron (or substitute 1 teaspoon safflower)

3 to 4 squid with tentacles ( 1/3 pound) or 1 to 1 1/2 cups cubed cooked sausage or ham

1 1/2 cups optional vegetables

12 shrimp in the shell

12 mussels (optional)

1 cup frozen peas

1/4 cup pimiento-stuffed green olives

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