Paella has always grabbed me. Living in Miami in the 1970s, I ate a lot of it in Cuban restaurants, where it may not have been traditional Spanish paella but it was still a great dinner out to share. We don’t have many Spanish restaurants in San Francisco, but every Latin-American culture seems to make some version of the dish. Alas, I have never been to Spain, although I have tried my hand at recipes from Spanish cookbooks. And earlier this year I got a taste of chef Julian Serrano’s version of paella at his tapas restaurant at the Aria Resort in Las Vegas.
On a recent visit to Las Vegas I had a chance to watch Rafael Vidal, a true paella master from Valencia, make paellas in gigantic pans over open fires at the opening of the new Jaleo restaurant there. I shot the video below because his work was like poetry.
“He is very old school,” explained José Andrés, the owner and chef of Jaleo. “No broth, just water. No seasonings, just the aromatics from the vegetables, the rabbit and the pork and the smoke from the fire. I wanted my chefs to see how it’s done. Then, after the restaurant is open for a while, we’ll do our version, Paella 2.0.”
The photo at the end of the video is of the paella served at the original Jaleo in Washington, D.C. Vidal did not decorate his with flowers. But the vegetable paella was colorful with all the hues of the baby vegetables he used.
I have made a lot of successful risotto over the years, but I have never achieved a great paella in my kitchen. Watching Vidal work, several things impressed me. First was the heat of the fire. It blazed, lapping over the lip of the pan. Next was the pan, very flat and shallow, so the flavors concentrated quickly as the liquid evaporated. No one measured anything. It was all by feel, which makes sense. After all, how can you know how fast the liquid is evaporating? Vidal just added more water to get the right texture.
Here’s the sequence. As the fire grew under the big pans, five of them arrayed around a well-vented concrete hearth in the middle of the restaurant, Vidal first poured some oil and added chopped onions, garlic and bell peppers. Those cooked long enough to get soft and lightly brown. Next came the diced meats. Finally he added the rice, scattering it like chicken feed to a flock, and enough water to barely cover everything. (The cut-up vegetables came later so they would not overcook.) Then he added salt.
Every couple of minutes, Vidal would check the pan for evaporation. No more stirring. As the rice cooked, he added more water to keep it barely submerged. As the rice neared doneness, he dipped in a spoon to taste the broth as it formed, flavored by the meats and vegetables, and adjusted the salt at the end. But he did not taste the rice. He could tell by the color and the look of it when it was done. At that point, he and a colleague grabbed the handles on the huge pan and took it off the heat—where it sat unattended to rest for a few minutes to absorb the remaining liquid before it was dipped up.
I learned early on that it’s not necessary to serve paella piping hot. Traditionally, it’s often served at room temperature. That’s one difference between paella and risotto, the Italian dish cooked by stirring rice with sautéed vegetables and liquid in a pan. Another is the rice. Among the varieties preferred for risotto are arborio, vialone nano or carnaroli. Paella uses bomba or calasparra varieties. To my eye and palate, these have similarities in that they are short or medium-grained and high in starch, which helps the liquid thicken into a lovely glaze.
Warm from the pan, Vidal’s paella was a lesson in textures and balance. I ate a whole bowl, and washed it down with a sip of R. López de Heredia Rioja White 1990. Heavenly.
Chris A Elerick — Orlando, FL — December 30, 2010 10:50am ET
John Jorgenson — Seattle, — December 31, 2010 5:31am ET
Col Hutcheson — Honolulu, Hawaii, USA — January 4, 2011 6:10pm ET
Harvey Steiman — San Francisco, CA — January 4, 2011 6:15pm ET
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