Winner of the James Beard/ KitchenAid Cookbook of the Year 2000 and Winner of the Beard Award for the Best Writing on Food 2000.
November 27, 2022
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Mangia Bene

Cocina levantina, the cuisine of Valencia, is truly a cuisine of rice, and its most famous preparation is la paella. The earliest mention of a dish resembling a paella is a preparation from Somalia cited by the famed fourteenth-century Muslim traveler Ibn Battuta called kushan, a dish made with rice, chicken, meat, fish, and vegetables. But the Spanish paella is a rice dish containing various ingredients cooked in a pan called a paella, a word derived from the Latin for “pan.” Paella is not a seafood preparation but a rice preparation, and an authentic paella, say the purists, does not combine meat with seafood. The ingredients used in a paella are variable, open to discussion and argument. But without argument is the claim that Valencia is the mecca of paella cookery. Paella is cooked in a flat, low-sided steel pan with two handles. It is traditionally cooked over an outdoor wood fire or at least a gas-fired grill. It also seems traditional for men to cook paella, not women. Paella pans come in many sizes, depending on the number of people to be served--from eleven inches in diameter for two people to three feet ten people. Specialty paella pans exist, mostly for restaurant and catering use, that measure up to thirteen feet in diameter.

    The cooking of paella is a source of great debate and pride. My first memory of an authentic paella valenciana was in a modest workingman’s cafeteria in Valencia. There were three 4-foot diameter paella pans from which a counterman served. A plate arrived piled high with rice, brilliant yellow with saffron, sticky and glutinous looking, with several pieces of well-cooked chicken and pork, green bell peppers, and lupine beans stirred in, and all quite tepid. It was a very flavorful paella made with the local Calasparra rice.