I got a paella pan for Christmas. A proper 40cm diameter, dimple bottomed steel dish that, I’m ashamed to say has done nothing since but hang decoratively on the kitchen wall. At least it hadn’t, until yesterday. At last, almost a full four months into the new year, I can hold my head up. My burden of shame is lifted.
Actually, to be fair, there are a couple of good reasons why the paella pan hadn’t been given a run out before. Firstly, there aren’t that many occasions in any given four month period for which a 9 raciones paella pan genuinely provides the answer to the culinary question ‘what’s the right tool for this job?’ Secondly, my small Hackney kitchen doesn’t contain one of those big, swanky range cookers with the giant central ring, so getting a proper distribution of heat under a 16 inch pan is a bit of a trick. I had actually been waiting for an opportunity to get out on the roof terrace and light a fire in the barbecue to use as a heat source, but not having had an appropriate occasion during the March heat wave, the weather since the turn of April has been, to say the least, unconducive.
Still, sooner or later a paella pan on the wall has to be put to use, and the visit of Becca’s family on the occasion of her mother’s birthday provided the kick in the pants to make it happen. Regardless of weather or issues of heat distribution.
Originally we’d been thinking of a seafood paella, but the distinctly unsummery aspect to the weather, combined with the happenstance of picking up a fistful of fine pork products from Garcias on Portobello Road inspired a last minute change of plan. Along with the chorizo and morcilla from Garcia’s I decided that chicken and wild rabbit from Theobalds (my favourite, and many times previously mentioned butcher) would provide the meat of my paella. Which, I do believe – save for the absence of snails – made it a much more ‘authentic’ (dread word!) paella valenciana than the more familiar, indeed pretty much ubiquitous, seafood version.
Authentic, schmauthentic, as regular readers will know to be my attitude, but one distinct advantage to returning the paella to it’s pastoral peasant (as opposed to littoral tourist) roots, does turn out to be economic. Clams and prawns (of the sustainable North Atlantic variety, certainly) ain’t cheap, by anyone’s standards; wild rabbits at £4.50 each and a bag of six fat free range chicken wings at a quid twenty six, I think really are. Even the fancy Spanish goods didn’t bump the price up very far – two chorizo piccante at a quid and a bit each, and two fabulously gnarled looking smoked morcilla for about the same, kept the cost of the feature meat content for a generously proportioned and celebratory meal for six hearty appetites (with plenty leftover) to comfortably under a tenner.
As it happens, I spent rather more than that. When the butcher showed me what looked like a pretty scrawny (and, it must be said, somewhat Bacon-esque) rabbit carcass I decided to take two, and as well as the chicken wings I took a bag of six thighs too, but when I came to put all my ingredients together it became immediately apparent that it wasn’t all going to fit in the pan, so I’m left with the best part of a rabbit and all the chicken thighs for meals to come. In fact, what with the left over paella as well, I shouldn’t need to be doing any significant shopping this week at all.
To make my paella, first I portioned my rabbit – a simple job of smiting it into chunky bits with my cleaver (maybe a little Polanski-esque too...), then put it in a bowl to marinade, using the earthy, woody flavours of rosemary, sage, thyme and bay to complement its own gamy flavour, plus crushed garlic and chilli, a sprinkle of sumac, the juice and zest of half a lemon, plenty of salt and pepper and a good slug of olive oil. I also marinaded the chicken wings, in a slightly lighter, zestier marinade, heavier on the lemon, lighter on the hard herbs (only thyme) and sprinkling sweet paprika instead of sumac.
While the meat was marinating, I thawed a litre of chicken stock out of the freezer, and coarsely sliced a bulb of fennel, a red pepper, a red onion, cut a courgette and a handful of mini portabella mushrooms into big chunks and thickly sliced my chorizo and morcilla.
When ready to start cooking (about an hour or so before aiming to sit down) I started by browning first the rabbit pieces, then the chicken wings. The meat browned and set aside I added the fennel, pepper and onion to the pan, along with a bit of finely sliced garlic and chilli and a light sprinkling of fresh thyme leaves, and cooked – effectively stir frying - till starting to soften, then I added the chorizo. A couple of minutes later the mushrooms, courgette and morcilla went in. A couple of minutes after that I returned the main meat to the pan and threw in a big splash (the best part of a glass) of white wine (to deglaze the pan as much as anything else).
Once the sizzle of the wine had settled and I’d given everything a good stir together, loosening any bits stuck to the base of the pan, I sprinkled the rice evenly over the pan. The rule of thumb would be to allow about 75g per person, but to a great extent just let yourself be guided by how much space you have in the pan – I probably didn’t use much over 65g a head, and that proved to be plenty with all the other good things in the pan.
Then I added about two thirds of my stock (pre heated, of course) and a splash more wine, and stirred and turned to try and get as much of the rice as possible submerged (don’t be tempted to try and achieve that particular aim by simply flooding the pan – a paella doesn’t need to be ‘kept thirsty’ like a risotto, with the stock added almost grudgingly a ladleful at a time, but you still don’t want to swamp it). Once that’s done, traditionally the thing to do would be simply leave it to bubble away till the rice is cooked and a golden to burnt-toasty crust formed on the base. However, with the pan being too big for my hob, and the single ring heat source being substantially off centre as a result, I did have to keep both turning the pan and moving its contents around within it. Not so constantly that I was unable to join the others at the table for a tapas-y first course of Jamon de Serrano, salchichon and pimientos de padron, quickly fried in just a very little olive oil and generously sprinkled in sea salt.
By the time we’d finished playing padron roulette (on this occasion only one of the peppers proved even mildly spicy, far short of the one in ten lurking heat bombs of legend – a legend Becca’s father for one views with more than a degree of scepticism), a bit over half an hour or so, and a couple of top-ups after the first addition of stock to the pan, we had ourselves a pretty damn authentic, full on Valencian peasant style paella ready to serve up. A generous sprinkle of roughly chopped parsley over the top, a simple salad of little gem and pea shoots on the side, the cork popped on a good bottle of rioja, and we were good to go. This was a properly rustic dinner, rich, dark and earthy, the rabbit densely gamey and, along with the chicken wings, demanding picking up and gnawing from the bone. Not a dish for the over decorous. Not a problem for us.
Happy birthday Becca’s Mum, and thanks again to my own and my Dad for the pan.