by Kate Heyhoe
When I was young, recipes that required their own special cooking equipment intimidated me. Like Bundt cakes, Moroccan tagines and even waffles. I was afraid if I didn't have that particular cooking vessel, the dish wouldn't turn out. But such thinking, I've found, can be nonsense.
Sure, many dishes turn out best when cooked in equipment created especially for them, but the difference is sometimes a matter of degrees. In cases where you seldom make the dish, the pots and pans on hand may function just fine. Even if I could afford every specific type of cookware called for in every culture around the world, I'd need another house to store them in. And if not having the cookware prevents me from making the dish, then my cooking repertoire would be stiflingly limited. So my advice is to use what you have and be flexible. Life, as Helen Keller said, is an adventure or nothing.
Take paella, for instance—a Spanish dish traditionally made in a shallow, flat, wide pan known as a paellera, or in English, as a paella pan. Spanish cookbook author Penelope Casas says such a pan is "of utmost importance" to the proper making of paella, and I don't argue that the pan's characteristics affect the way the dish cooks. But if you don't own a paella pan, is making a good rendition of the dish out of the question? (To use another example, when a waffle batter cooks on a griddle, I still enjoy the pancakes.)
Spaniards may be insulted by calling a dish "paella" if it's not made in a paella pan. So let's call it something else, like "Spanish Risotto." Or perhaps "Moorish Casserole," as it was the Moors that introduced rice and saffron, among other ingredients, to Spain. The pan itself, by the way, evolved from the Romans.
A paella pan consists of a flat bottom and low sloping sides of about 2-inches depth, and two looped handles. The pans come in various diameters, from 4 to 35 inches, though 14-inches is a common size for everyday use. The pan is designed to enhance the rice's absorption of liquid, and also function as a frying surface for other ingredients. One book I consulted suggested a paella pan could also be used as a gratin pan or fry pan. Using that logic, I've cooked paella in gratin pans, fry pans, and even Dutch ovens.
If you can make risotto, you can make paella. In fact, while other ingredients and even the pan can vary, paella must be made with a flavor-absorbing short-grain rice to give it the characteristic chewiness and texture. Italian Arborio rice (the kind used for risotto) makes a fine substitute for traditional Spanish rices like Bomba or Calasparra.
Aside from the rice, other ingredients are flexible. While most of us associate paella with a hearty mix of seafood, sausage and meats, the Valencia Spaniards from where the rice dish originated avoid mixing seafood and meats. For them, paella should contain one or the other, but not both.
My recipe for paella below started off with ingredients I had on hand, and yours can do so too. But do pay attention to the ratio of liquid to rice. At the end of cooking, you want the liquid to be absorbed and the rice to have a slight bite without being mushy. Carry-over heat will finish cooking the rice to perfection.
Paella is considered an ideal party dish—it's actually very simple to prepare, requires little clean up, and needs only a salad on the side to make the meal complete. It's also an easy week-night meal that can be revived later in the week. At times where I've ended up with more rice than meats in the dish, I freeze the excess rice and serve it with cheese as a "Spanish rice" side dish with tacos or enchiladas.
Kate's Global Kitchen for January 2002:
01/04/02 Food Forward: Predictions and Observations for 2002
01/11/02 A Cozy Night with Larousse: Good Reading, Fine Eating
01/18/02 Paella in a Pot
01/25/02 One Potato—and Many Potatoes More
Copyright © 2002, Kate Heyhoe. All rights reserved.
This page created January 2002
Copyright © 1994-2017,