Paella is one of the most popular and famous of global dishes, to define exactly what paella contains is almost impossible. There are as many variations of paella as there are cooks, with many claiming that their recipe is the best tasting or most authentic. The origins of the dish, however, are quite humble. Understanding a little of its history will help explain why so many varieties exist.
Valencia in Eastern Spain is the undisputed home of paella. It is one of the largest natural ports in the Mediterranean and has been one of the most important rice-producing areas in Spain since rice was introduced by the Moors over 1200 years ago. In fact, the Spanish word for rice is ‘arroz’, which is derived from Arabic, not Latin like most of Castilian Spanish.
Paella was originally farmers' and farm laborers' food, cooked by the workers over a wood fire for the lunchtime meal. It was made with rice, plus whatever was to hand around the rice fields and countryside: tomatoes, onions and snails, with a few beans added for flavor and texture. Rabbit or duck might also have been added, and for special occasions, chicken plus a touch of saffron for an extra special color and flavor. Paella was also traditionally eaten straight from the pan in which it was cooked with each person using his own wooden spoon.
Little by little, as "Valencian rice" became more widely available, paella recipes were adapted with new variations appearing. With Valencia being on the coast, it is no surprise that various types of seafood crept into the recipes over the generations. To this day a "true" Paella Valenciana has no seafood but a mixture of chicken, rabbit and snails with green and white beans.
‘Paella’ – where did the name come from?
It’s a little confusing but "paella"or to be more exact "la paella" is the name for cooking pan itself and not the dish. The word comes from old Valencian (in Valencia they have their own language somewhat similar to Catalan) and probably has its roots in the Latin 'patella' meaning pan.
There are however, some other wonderful (if less likely) theories about the origins of the name. The most romantic of them suggests that the dish was first prepared by a lover for his fiancée and that the word is a corruption of "para ella" (meaning ‘for her’ in Spanish). Like all myths there is a small grain of truth in this and although many women still traditionally do the cooking in Spain, making paella is usually left to the men.
Today not only do families congregate on mass to eat paella in restaurants, but it is often cooked at weekends at holiday homes in ‘bodegas’ or ‘txokos’ (large dining areas where families gather) or at beach or mountain picnic sites where a giant paella is the centerpiece.
It’s easy to see why - paella can create a party, a ceremony and a debate (often over the making of the paella itself!!) - making it one of the most sociable and enjoyable of all culinary occasions.
Being a carnivore, I love the traditional recipe with all it's yummy meats, but today I will break the rules and present you with a most delightful variation utilizing the most colorful and delicious spring vegetables. Buen Provecho!
8 vine-ripened plum tomatoes
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling
1 small onion, finely chopped
3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 1/2 teaspoons paprika
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 teaspoon saffron threads
1 large bulb fennel, cut into 8 wedges
8 artichokes, trimmed and halved
1 large Japanese eggplant, cut into 2-inch pieces
4 ounces shiitake mushrooms, stemmed
2 cups dry white wine
2 1/2 cups short-grain paella rice
4 ounces haricots verts or string beans, halved if large
1/4 cup capers, drained
1/4 cup piquillo or roasted red peppers, cut into strips
Chopped fresh parsley, for garnish (optional)
Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Core the tomatoes, cut into wedges and place in a medium bowl; season with salt, drizzle with a bit of olive oil and toss. Set aside.
Heat 1/4 cup olive oil in a 12-inch ovenproof skillet or a paella pan over medium-high heat. Add the onion, garlic, paprika, cayenne and saffron and season with salt. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the onion softens, about 5 minutes.
Add the fennel wedges and cook until lightly browned on one side, about 5 minutes. Flip the fennel and add the baby artichokes and eggplant to the skillet; cook until slightly tender, about 4 more minutes. Add the mushrooms and cook for 1 to 2 minutes. Pour in the wine and simmer until reduced by about one-third. Stir in the rice and 1 3/4 teaspoons salt; add just enough water to cover the rice completely, 2 1/2 to 3 cups. Increase the heat to high and boil for 2 to 3 minutes. Scatter the haricots verts and 2 tablespoons capers over the rice. Remove the pan from the heat and arrange the tomatoes on top; drizzle with any tomato juices.
Transfer the paella to the oven and bake, undisturbed, for 20 minutes. Scatter the remaining 2 tablespoons capers and the piquillo peppers over the paella. Turn off the oven but leave the paella inside to continue cooking until the rice is tender, 15 to 20 more minutes. Garnish with parsley, if desired.