Spain's national dish, says food editor, is 'all about the rice'

Paella: Ingredients can vary, but the quality of the grain and its tomato-onion flavoring are what give the recipe a personality.

October 28, 2001|By Nadia Lerner | Nadia Lerner,Special to the Sun

In 1989, during the first semester of Sarah Jay's senior year in college, the former Westport, Conn., resident lived with a family in Southern Spain. Every Sunday, the family's matriarch, Isidora, would prepare a lunch of paella for her children, their spouses and her grandchildren.

Jay would observe how Isidora sauteed the various ingredients, setting them aside until all were cooked. Then she would assemble them in the paella pan with a layer of rice and other ingredients for the final stage of cooking. The payoff? A succulent chicken and vegetable dish served over rice flavored by a deeply colored tomato and onion compote called "sofrito."

"It was kind of a joke that I was interested," recalls Jay, now managing editor of magazine Fine Cooking. "[The family] would never think that I could possibly make paella or, in fact, that anyone other than Isidora could."

Jay prepares paella not only for her Spanish-born artist husband, Isidro (they met in this country) and friends on a regular basis, but also gives occasional classes and cooking demonstrations on the traditional way to make the dish. She and Isidro developed the Web site Paellapans .com, offering authentic paella pans and related items, including recipes.

While the tomatoes and onions used in making the sofrito are fairly standard, "everything else," she says, "can vary."

But the recipe is really about the rice, she says, noting that medium-grain rice is preferred. It can absorb three to four times more liquid than long-grain rice, which intensifies its flavor when cooking in the sofrito plus a saffron-seasoned broth.

Nadia Lerner is a reporter for the Stamford Advocate, a Tribune Publishing Newspaper.

Paella With Chicken, Red Peppers and Artichokes

Makes 4 servings

3 1/2 cups chicken stock

15 threads saffron, warmed, crumbled

salt to taste

1 / 4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

4 skinless chicken thighs, seasoned with salt and pepper

1 red bell pepper, cut in wide strips

2 fresh artichokes or 1 cup frozen, quartered hearts

3 ounces green beans (about 16), trimmed

1 small onion, chopped or grated to a coarse puree

1 ripe tomato, chopped or grated to a coarse puree (discard the skin)

6 medium cloves garlic, peeled

1 1/2 cups medium-grain rice

1 lemon, cut in wedges for garnish

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