Last year, I had a request for paella. I had made the dish many times in the past. I would saut?� onions and garlic in a stock pot, add rice, fish stock, and saffron and then, at the last minute, throw in chopped tomatoes and shellfish. It was lemon yellow, soupy and tasty. It was quick and easy and everyone liked it.
The day of the request, I repeated the same steps and transferred the rice into a serving dish. I sent it out to my guests with a salad of roasted eggplant and peppers, platters of Serrano ham and chorizo and fresh bread rubbed with tomato. It was my version of a Spanish meal.
After a dessert of flan with Valencia oranges, one of the guests called me to the table. “Victoria, that was lovely, but it wasn’t… um… exactly paella.” His voice was kind, but I panicked all the same. “Have you ever been to Spain?” he asked.
And there it was; the statement that had brought me to yachting in the first place. To really know a cuisine you must be immersed in it, to taste and see how it is done in its original state. That is why I love being a yacht chef. I am on a continuous travelling cooking lesson.
When the boat finally made it to Barcelona later that summer, the first thing I did was dine in a restaurant known for its paella. When my dish arrived I was shocked. It was served in a flat, double-handled pan. Inside were rust-colored, singular grains of rice. Shellfish decorated the top. One taste and I knew: what I had been serving was NOT paella.
What I needed was to find someone who would show me the secrets of making Spain’s most popular dish. I felt I had to see the cooking in action. I had, after all, already read a recipe that produced the mushy soup rice I had been passing off for years.
“Paella is all about patience.” Nuria, a Spanish cook who I invited into the galley one afternoon, told me while she stirred tomatoes, onions, garlic, and olive oil over medium heat. “The slow cooking develops the flavor of the dish.”
There’s my first mistake, I thought; usually, I had little time for slow cooking on the boat.
“This slow heat is what makes a sofrito.” She nodded her head towards the mixture in the pan. Her black curls swung forward, obscuring her face. “It takes a long time.”
I checked my watch. It had already been thirty minutes of cooking and stirring. The tomatoes had lost their bright red color and were starting to caramelize. They looked more like tomato jam than sauce. The olive oil had separated from the tomatoes and retained its golden color.
Finally, when I thought the tomatoes were on the edge of burning, Nuria added sweet and tender cigalas (Mediterranean crayfish) and gambas (red shrimp). The cigalas were so large their pincers stuck out of the side of the pan. She briefly seared everything in the flavorful sofrito and moved the shellfish to a separate bowl. “I do this now, so they aren’t overcooked. I hate rubbery,” she confided. Well, I had the right idea… sort of.
Earlier, Nuria had made a fish stock from the same sofrito mixture with monkfish bones. She now added three ladles of the liquid to the paella pan. “You want the stock to be at a happy boil.” I laughed at her use of happy as a cooking term. It seemed to describe herself, as well as the movement in the pan. She poured Bomba rice into her hand to measure. It also went into the pan.
She smiled and stepped back. “Now it cooks, then we decorate, then we eat!” Nuria made it sound simple. Plump mussels popped open as she steamed them in a separate pan of the aromatic stock. The rice happily boiled away. When most of the stock had evaporated she removed the pan from the heat, placed the shellfish in a decorative pattern on top, and covered it all with a lid. “Five minutes,” she said.
I looked at my watch again. It had been forty-five minutes to cook the tomatoes in the sofrito and another fifteen to cook the rice. This was vastly different from “my” recipe of one-pot stewing.
Nuria lifted the lid of the paella. The smell of the sea filled the galley. Crew members miraculously appeared, hungry to taste the creation. Nuria sprinkled parsley over the rice and set the dish on the counter. Voila! Proper Spanish paella.
I picked up a fork. My tongue wrapped around singular al dente grains bursting with flavor. I smiled, grateful to Nuria for setting me straight. This is what being a yacht chef was all about. Some things you just cannot comprehend from reading a recipe. Some things you have learned by going to Spain and spending time with a Spanish cook.
Nuria’s Spanish Seafood Paella
3 tablespoons olive oil 1 medium onion, diced 2 cloves garlic, sliced 5 ripe tomatoes, grated and drained A� teaspoon sea salt 8 small crabs 1 monkfish (bones only, flesh saved for another meal) 3 Liters water
A� cup olive oil 1 medium onion, diced 1 clove garlic, sliced 5 ripe tomatoes, grated and drained 16 large shrimp A� pound Mussels 2 cups Bomba rice 5 cups fish stock (from above) A� teaspoon sea salt 2 tablespoons parsley 1 lemon
In a stockpot, saut?� olive oil, garlic and onion over medium high heat for 3 minutes until the onions are soft. Add the tomatoes and cook, stirring for 20 minutes, until all the water has evaporated and tomatoes have darkened to a rust color (sofrito). Add sea salt and crabs. Turn heat to medium and saut?� until crabs turn red in color. Add water and monkfish bones. Bring to a boil and lower heat to simmer for 30 minutes. Strain by pushing the juice out of the crabs with the back of a ladle.
Heat a paella pan over medium heat to make another sofrito. Add the onion and garlic for 3 minutes until the onions are soft. Add the tomatoes and cook, stirring for 30 minutes until all the water has evaporated and tomatoes have darkened to a rust color.
Sear the shrimp in the sofrito for 1 minute on each side and remove from the pan. Add the rice to the paella and stir to mix with the sofrito. Add the fish stock and sea salt. Bring to a “happy” boil for 5 minutes. Lower the heat to medium low for 10 minutes. In the meantime, steam the mussels in a separate pan with A� cup fish stock to open them. Break the mussel shell in half and stick the half with the meat around the surface of the paella. Place the shrimp in a decorative pattern. Remove the paella from the heat and cover with a lid to steam for 5 minutes. Sprinkle with parsley and serve with wedges of lemon.