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Food from Afar: Perfect Paella in Malaga

In our new series we’re highlighting some of the best foods from afar – from fish tacos in San Diego, to the perfect paella in Malaga. In addition to traveling abroad to taste these culinary classics, you can also embark on a mini adventure in your kitchen by cooking them up at home.

Malaga. The sun is setting on the picturesque patio of our school. The air is balmy and smells of flowers and the sea. A handsome Spanish gentleman is playing the guitar in the corner. Romance is in the air.

I have a glass of cool fruit-based sangria in one hand, and an empty plate in the other. With my mouth watering, I stare at a huge pan brimming with golden grains of rice decorated with lemons and paprika. We just made a big paella.

Want to know how we did it? Want your own piece of sunny Spain, no matter where you are today? Keep reading.

1. Have no fear – you can do no wrong

There’s about as many varieties of paella as there are cooks in Spain. This comes handy as an excuse if your paella doesn’t turn out the way you intended or in case you forgot an important ingredient. Make sure it’s not the rice, though, or you will be making soup instead.

It all depends on personal taste, really. Some like it juicy, others prefer it dry with a crispy layer at the bottom. Some cooks like to add either seafood (“Paella de mariscos”), meat or chicken, others like to mix it all together (“Paella mixta”).

2. Time, friends and one huge pan

What do you need when making paella? Plenty of time. Peeling prawns, cutting vegetables, preparing the fish stock, picking rice (for those that don’t have a supermarket nearby or don’t get invited to weddings very often) all take loads of time.

It’s faster and a lot more fun when you have friends to help you out, however. And yes, friends are actually a key ingredient for a good paella. No one should prepare a paella alone. And no one should eat it alone either. In true Spanish style, our favorite dish is one you absolutely have to share with friends and people you love.

You’ll also need a “paellera” or paella pan, a metal pan that is slightly bigger and deeper than the traditional kitchen pan. In Malaga we have a lot of friends so we have a huge one to serve up to 50 people at once.

And contrary to popular belief, you do not need a mustache to make a good paella. It’s optional.

3. Explosive rice and more

The first ingredient on your shopping list should be “arroz bomba”, freely translated as “explosive rice”. Don’t worry, it’s safe! I’m talking about a short-grained, rounded type of rice that has the ability to absorb all the flavors of the other ingredients and to grow in volume, up to three times its original size.

Other indispensable ingredients on my list are:

– Paprika

– Onion

– Garlic

– Tomato

– Peas

– Salt and pepper

– Los “mariscos”: shrimps, prawns , clam

– Chopped-up chicken

– White wine

– Saffron

4. Let the cooking begin!

First, fry the chopped-up bits of chicken in olive oil on both sides until they start getting brown. Then move them aside to the cooler part of your paella pan so you can start making the “sofrito” in the middle. “El sofrito” is a sauce that consists of finely cut peppers, garlic, onion, peas, paprika, and tomatoes (or pureed tomato) cooked in a mix of the juices we kept from frying chicken and a splash of white wine. Wait and stir for about two minutes before pouring the rice in the paella pan in the shape of a cross in order to spread the rice evenly. Move the rice around with a wooden spoon. Give the rice a couple of minutes to absorb the taste and aroma of our sofrito before continuing. Although not a characteristic always associated with the Spanish way of life, timing is actually important here. You don’t want to burn the grains.

While most people would throw the heads and the shells of the prawns in the trash, don’t waste them and boil them in salted water to create a stock to be poured over the rice instead. Then throw in the shrimps, prawns and clams, and throw away your wooden spoon – you don’t stir the paella after this! Just make sure you add plenty of stock, because at one point the “bomba”-effect will kick in. The rice will expand and rise. Let your paella boil for about 20 minutes on a low fire, and then cover it with a table cloth for another 5 minutes.

Smells good already, no? But you forgot something! The star of the spice cabinet is still missing. Add a few threads of saffron just before boiling the rice, and your paella will take on a beautiful golden hue and a bitter honey-like taste.

¡Buen provecho!

Image by Charles Haynes, Flickr / Creative Commons

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