When we ate our first paella in Spain, we had no idea that it is much more than a well-known rice dish. It’s a long process, a way of joining culinary and cultural traditions, and only tourists and fools attempt to rush it. Back in November, we traveled along the Costa Brava with one of our kids and her partner. They were eager to eat paella, and one afternoon we found a lovely seaside village restaurant with outside tables and paella on the menu. We had hoped to eat quickly so we could continue our tour around the coastline, but would soon learn that a typical Spanish lunch is often a multi-hour affair.
Paella, like Italian risotto, needs time to cook properly and this one took over an hour to come to the table. By the time we stood up to go, three hours had passed and with it the afternoon. This was not poor service—it was our expectations that were off. A paella lunch is not just a way to fill one’s belly—many of the diners seated around us for the duration of our meal were still at their tables too, despite having long since finished their food.
Over the course of the coming months we learned that this is what a typical Spanish lunch is all about, and we have tried to embrace the practice. Recently, Al and I invited our friends Bill and Luis, who live in nearby Sitges, to join us for a Spanish lunch on our terrace. They brought along a good friend visiting from the States, so along with my brother, visiting from Sierra Leone, we were a group of six who had short (or no) histories with each other. An observer would not have known. The weather has turned toward summer in the past week, so we were able to enjoy our table overlooking the Mediterranean, and the food and drink spread out on it were the lubricants for easy conversation.
This was to be our first time hosting friends from Spain and I decided to take a culinary risk and make paella, using a recipe gifted to me by our good friend Maria, who visited us with her family in March. She generously and patiently taught me her method using a paellera (pie-ay-yera), the pan specific to cooking paella, which we borrowed from a neighbor. I have been told that a paellera is a requisite piece of kitchen equipment here and every Spaniard believes their mother’s recipe to be the “true, authentic, and best” way to make paella.
Earlier this spring, we had friends from Boston come and they introduced us to the idea of making a meal of vermut (Spanish vermouth) and tinned fish. When they mentioned that it was something they were intent on trying while here, I must admit I was less than enthusiastic. Tinned fish—think sardines, clams, mussels, snails, and more obscure sea life—had never been a big draw for me. I try to say yes to new experiences and these friends are serious “foodies” whose opinions I trust, so we gave it a go. And what do you know? We loved it. Now it is a part of our regular rotation of meals and I decided it would be a good way to stimulate our appetites before the main course with our Sitges friends.
But, back to the paella. While visiting Valencia, Al and I learned that Valencians claim to be the originators of the dish. Historically it was made by farm workers in the fields who used whatever animals were close at hand—typically rabbit, snails, more recently chicken—and simmered them with rice and vegetables. Centuries later the dish migrated to the coast, where seafood and shellfish were added into the mix.
The proteins notwithstanding, it seems to me that what really makes a paella is the broth that you use to cook the rice. My guess is that there are as many variations on the recipe as there are cooks in Spain but I chose to go with a homemade chicken broth flavored with lots of garlic, tomato, sherry, and olive oil (Spanish of course). This was finished off with the requisite pinch of saffron. Locally available saffron is an entirely different experience from what I have bought in the States. What passes for saffron stateside usually has languished on a grocery store shelf in the light and warmth for way too long, so by the time one uses it, the delicate little stigmas of the crocus flower mostly resemble shriveled-up threads from an unloved 1970s dull-orange sweater. Not here. The saffron we get in our local farmers’ market is bursting with flavor, the stigmas are flexible and earthy. Just a tiny pinch will flavor an entire pot of broth and impart an amazing color to the liquid.
The other measure of a really well-prepared paella is the socorrat, which a Spanish food website I enjoy describes as follows: “The socarrat forms from the mixture of fat and starch that settles in the bottom of the paella, [where] it concentrates the paella flavors. This rice begins to stick to the pan (in a good way) and becomes crunchy. In Spain, families fight over who gets the tasty socarrat.” I toasted the rice in the pan with a mix of leeks and red peppers until it was a beautiful, nut-brown color and had soaked up all the fat. I had already browned the pieces of rabbit and chorizo and set them aside. Finally, I added the broth to the paellera, nestled the meat into the rice and left it all to absorb the flavorful liquid while our group of six enjoyed a spread of appetizers and drinks outside.
I guess ignoring a paella can be a good thing. By the time we had enjoyed our fill of cheeses, longaniza (sausage), olives, and tinned fish, the paella was beginning to make the tell-tale crackling sound that lets you know the socarrat is forming. It was time to put the head-on shrimp (my nod to our beach-side location; sorry, Valencia) on top of the rice and bring it to the table. Thanks to the contribution of Luis and Bill, wonderful bottles of wine were opened. They always know exactly the right beverage to go with any food and I was grateful that the decision was not left up to me. Conversation flowed along with the alcohol.
During lunch I mentioned that when I asked the butcher which chorizo she would use for a paella she wrinkled her nose in disgust and told me in no uncertain terms that she would never make the dish with sausage. End of discussion! Luis told me that, as everyone thinks their mother’s paella is The Paella, it is wiser to call your dish “arroz con…” , essentially “rice with…” and follow with whatever type of protein you have chosen. So to be safe, let’s just say I made rice with rabbit and sausage for lunch.
There is a beautiful word in Spanish that I have come to appreciate all the more since being in Spain. It is “sobremesa” and it translates literally as “over the table” but its cultural meaning conjures the time spent around the table after a good meal, when bodies are languid, conversation is interesting but undemanding, the dirty dishes can wait, and the afternoon slides towards evening. How lovely to have a word that has come to encapsulate such sybaritic pleasures.
Before we knew it, the sun was dipping low in the western sky and the time had come to bid our friends farewell. Sadly, it may be quite some time before we meet again, as our days in Segur de Calafell are dwindling. We have come a long way since that first paella back in November. We’ve shared a number of Spanish meals with friends, and enjoyed them all for the food and the company. Now, after making this one at home and sharing it with friends around our own table, I think I truly understand what a Spanish lunch is all about—sobremesa and all.
For those of you who would like to try my paella recipe (with thanks to Maria for sharing hers with me) here is the recipe:
Arroz Con… serves 4-6
- 5 cloves of garlic thinly sliced
- ¼ c. extra virgin olive oil
- 1 6 oz. can of tomato puree
- 1 t. Paprika
- Sherry – fill the tomato puree can twice for measurement
- 4 cups Homemade chicken stock or low sodium store bought chicken stock
- ½ rabbit cut into pieces, or 4 bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs and 4 drumsticks
- 12-15” chorizo – sliced into ½” rounds
- 6 head-on raw shrimp
- 12 oz. jar of sliced, roasted red peppers (liquid drained off)
- 1 leek—white part only, sliced thinly, washed to remove dirt, and drained, or 1 sm. yellow onion halved and thinly sliced
- Pinch of saffron
- 1 ½ cups short grain “bomba” (Spanish) rice or Arborio rice
Gently sauté the garlic in oil in a soup pot or saucepan. When fragrant and just beginning to turn light brown, add tomato paste and paprika to pan. Continue to sauté to combine the flavors. Add sherry, heat to a simmer, let simmer for 5 minutes before adding stock. Bring to a boil then remove from the heat and add the saffron. Keep warm but not boiling.
In the paellera, brown the meats just enough to sear the outer layer and render some fat. Set aside. In the fat (if there isn’t enough, add some olive oil to the pan), saute the leeks and red peppers with rice until the rice is nice and toasty and the grains have been coated with oil. Nestle the meat into the rice. Pour about 3 cups of the broth gently over the rice, reserving some to add as needed during the cooking process. Simmer uncovered and undisturbed until the broth is absorbed and the rice is cooked but not mushy. You should listen for that delightful socorrat crackle. Lay the shrimp decoratively over the rice and cook them until they are just pink. Bring the paella to the table in the pan and allow your guests to serve themselves. ¡Buen provecho!
3 thoughts on “Friends, Food, and Sobremesa”
Yummy. Que tengan muchas sobremesas geniales.
That sounds so delicious and love that Russ was with you!
We’re leaving our cross-Atlantic ship tomorrow morning and are very excited to be joining you in Spain. Please tutor me while we create paella lunch together.
Love, tu madre