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Paella Rebel

A Madrid chef who dares to experiment with paella inspires an American cook

On a recent trip to the rice-growing areas of Calasparra and Valencia in southeastern Spain, I learned just how prickly a subject paella can be. People debate every facet of Spain's famous dish: What is the best rice to use? Does hard water or soft work better? Can paella legitimately be prepared in a kitchen on top of the stove or in an oven, or must it be cooked in the field over an open wood fire? What goes into an authentic paella? When is a paella not a paella but an arroz?

A Spanish journalist, in explaining the difference between paellas and the family-style rice dishes called arroces, spoke in terms of gender. Paellas, she said, are "virile" dishes because they were originally prepared in wide steel pans in the countryside by men who gathered snails, hunted rabbits and caught ducks or freshwater eels and then cooked them with rice until the grains were plump with flavor yet still dry and slightly firm. "Womanly" arroces, on the other hand, she told me with a straight face, are meloso, or soft and creamy; they're not cooked in shallow steel pans but in deeper earthenware cazuelas, or casseroles.

"In Valencia, they are absolute fundamentalists when it comes to paella," said Norberto Jorge, chef and owner of the popular Madrid restaurant Casa Benigna. Because Valencia is coastal, its cooks transformed the rudimentary rabbit-and-eel version of the countryside into an apocryphal seafood, chicken and sausage version, then never strayed from the recipe that has since become immutable in many people's minds.

Jorge, a soft-spoken, guitar-playing, singing chef, is famous for his imaginative paellas. He grew up in Alicante, where cooks are not bound by the paella conventions of Valencia to the north. "Where I come from, we don't worry about what's authentic the way they do in Valencia," Jorge said. "We just try and make good food."

Jorge experiments in a freewheeling manner. "Once," he told me, "I angered the Valencians by preparing a series of dishes I called paellas monográficas--single subject paellas." For these dishes he covered the rice with a thin topping. One night it was a layer of lightly marinated fillet of salmon, which gave the rice a beautiful pink color. Another night he used sea bass. I asked him how far he went with this. "Well," he said, "I scandalized the food critics with what I think of as my biggest success, a dessert paella made with black Thai rice, coconut milk and granulated sugar, a variation on arroz con leche, or rice pudding, a specialty of my grandmother Antonia."

Whether you're cooking in a traditional or improvisational style, preparing rice for paella isn't difficult, Jorge told me. But there are a few rules to follow: Never wash the rice. Have the broth or water at a simmer for cooking the rice. Stir the rice for the first few minutes only. Let the paella rest for at least 10 minutes under a towel to absorb excess moisture.

And Jorge doesn't fool around with the kind of rice he uses in his paellas. He stockpiles burlap sacks of Spain's premier rice, bomba, in his restaurant. This squat rice, with a starchy inner core, can absorb vast amounts of flavorful broth without falling apart, so Jorge can perfect the dry, crusty paellas that have made his reputation in Madrid.

In fact, his paellas are so dry and well caramelized that he can actually hold a pan by one handle and carry it into his restaurant dining room like a briefcase. The trick is not only the kind of rice but the ratio of rice to olive oil. Jorge explained: "Once the rice has absorbed all the broth, it should be allowed to fry in the oil remaining in the pan so that a golden crust, called socarrat, forms on the bottom. Thus one delicious grain becomes tied to another, and that will hold the dish together."

The paella recipe here is one that I created after meeting Jorge. It's not nearly so daring as some of his inventions: it's prepared with fresh tuna, mussels and artichokes simmered in a saffron-and-paprika infused broth. I think of it as an innovative paella made using time-honored techniques.

Published March 2000
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