25 September 2010

Out of My Comfort Zone to Learn the Art of Paella - Voting begins Today

Voting begins today!!!

Well the votes are in from our esteemed judges and I am still standing in Project Food Blog at  Foodbuzz . Have you caught the BUZZ!!!! I have!!!!A heart felt thank you to all who took the time to vote in the People's Choice. There are now 400 bloggers left in the competition so on to round 2 where we are making a classic dish from any worldwide cuisine that we feel is out of our comfort zone!!!!Project Food Blog is the first-ever interactive competition where thousands of Foodbuzz Featured Publishers are competing in a series of culinary blogging challenges for the chance to advance and a shot at the ultimate prize.  As contestants we will see who will rise above the pack and become the next Food Blog Star!!!! I have made it this far and it is so much fun to participate and become more deeply embedded in the Foodbuzz community!!!! Every day we should be this excited about what we are eating even if it just means making use of a wonderful find at our local farmers market. 

When searching for a dish that could speak to the hearts of many I decided that rice would be the single universal factor that bloggers could relate to best. Rice is the primary staple for more than half the world’s population, with Asia and Africa being the largest consuming regions. Pair rice with some sun-ripened tomatoes, sweet peppers, assorted meats, seafood and seasonings and you have described the ingredient list of Thieboudienne from Senegal, Jambalaya in the deep south of the United States, Jollof Rice in West Africa or countless other variations on the theme. As a food blogger I have a passion, dedication and even an urgency to create a dish that might knock your socks off all the while using a comforting ingredient like rice!!When in Spain.....

Every country has a dish that unites its people. In Spain, that dish is paella the vibrant Spanish rice dish that marries the robust flavours of olive oil, garlic, tomatoes, and peppers with short-grain rice, broth, and meat, fish, or vegetables. It may contain chicken, pork, shellfish, fish, eel, squid, beans, peas, or even artichoke.  Saffron, the spice that also turns the rice a wonderful golden colour is an essential part of the dish.  Today paella is made in every region of Spain, using just about any kind of ingredient that goes well with rice. Once you're comfortable with the technique of making paella, you can devise your own recipe according to what's good and fresh in your local farmers market. I have made it my own but for the competition kept it as authentic as possible.

If you were to discuss paella with someone from Spain you would get the impression that  there are more paella recipes than there are stars in the sky. But the best paellas aren't merely the product of a good recipe, though that certainly helps. No, paella perfection comes about when the person who is cooking it has an almost tangible affection for the dish itself, for the process of making it, and for the people who will be eating it. One thing is understood that paella cooks are passionate and I aspire to be as passionate as they are!!!

To help us out a Spanish 50 year old, retired country gentleman from the novel "Don Quixote of la Mancha" Alonso Quixano gives me inspiration. He became obsessed with books of chivalry, and believed their every word to be true, despite the fact that many of the events in them are clearly impossible. After reading the rather lengthy instructions for making paella I was certain that recreating paella and the perfect conditions was nearly impossible but I was ready for the challenge. Just like Quixano I appear to have lost my mind from lack of sleep and food.

To get into character I have decided to go out as a knight-errant in search of adventure. My adventure is to recreate the perfect paella. Instead of an old suit of armour similar to what Don Quixote wore I am donning my trusty apron and renaming myself "Don Quixote de la Paella," with my imaginary skinny horse "Rocinante" helping me to seek out the freshest ingredients.

Perfect paella. Have you ever really experienced it? In my case probably not (until now) since I have never been to Spain nor had it made for me by a Spanish abuela (grandmother). This is why it intrigued me to try and emulate this classic dish in my own kitchen. In the Valencia region of Spain making paella is a part of local pride and every mother claims to make the best paella in the land! Communal paella cooking and even paella competitions are common in the small village festivals all up and down the coast. As a foodie I would love to increase my skill and be involved one day!!Truly spectacular paella  must have a thin layer of rice (no thicker than a half-inch), it must feature a few other ingredients on top (but not so many as to smother the rice), and it must have been cooked and served directly in a real Spanish paella pan. Lastly, if the bottom layer of rice yields a golden caramelized crust, called socarrat, you know you've reached the pinnacle of paella greatness . Here on the pages of More Than Burnt Toast I will attempt to achieve paella nirvana with ingredients that are available to me, techniques...and the help of the gods.

Now that I have decided to recreate a Spanish paella for the second phase of the competition there are five principle elements that determine the nature of the paella...the pan, the rice, the distribution of heat, the sofrito, and the liquid. Great paella rests on these five pillars. The bonus... if you able to reproduce the soccarrat you will impress even your Spanish friends!!!!!!

My trusty steed and I get cooking!!!! Grab your pan!!!A true paella pan is wide, round, and shallow and has splayed sides. I have 2 sizes one to feed up to 4 and one for 8 servings depending on the number of guests. They have two looped handles and dip slightly in the middle so that the oil can pool there for the preliminary sautéing. The shape of the pan ensures that the rice cooks in a thin layer. I have read that the cooked rice should be only as thick as un ditet, or the width of a small finger (about 1/2 inch). The key to the pan is to maximize the amount of rice touching the bottom of the pan because that's where the flavour lives. For that reason, paella pans grow in diameter rather than in height. 

Stopping to fight a windmill or two I open the cupboard and pull out my rice. The rice used in paella is extremely important and should be rounded and short medium grain rice that absorbs liquid very well. This will allow it to stay relatively firm during cooking. Those qualities make it ideal for paella, where the rice grains absorb flavour from the liquid. The rice should be dry and separate when done, not creamy like risotto. The most appreciated variety of Spanish rice is bomba, but you'll also have success with the widely available medium-grain rice Calasparra. Arborio is an acceptable substitute.

Next we have FIRE!!!!Try to find a heat source that can accommodate the whole paella pan. Depending on the configuration of your burners, you'll need to straddle the pan over two burners or set it on your largest burner. Either way, I had to move and rotate my pan to distribute the heat. If I didn't live in a condo I could attempt to cook the paella outdoors on a large gas or charcoal grill, or even over a wood fire, which is how it's done at paella competitions in Spain.

Now for flavour!!!!The salt of the earth. A sauté of aromatics, called the sofrito, provides the flavour base and is an all important component of a good paella.  In the recipe here, I'm using tomato, onion, and garlic. Some cooks use paprika, herbs, or a dried sweet red pepper called ñora. The technique is simple... sauté the vegetables over medium heat until they soften and the flavours meld. This mixture should be thick enough to hold its shape in a spoon.

A flavourful liquid is the final key component to make the perfect paella.  If you don't have a homemade stock on hand, improvise one with the ingredients in the paella. For paella with shrimp, for example, simmer the shells in salted water for a quick, flavorful stock. If you use canned stock, choose a low-salt one. You can also use water, as many home cooks do in Spain. Almost every paella recipe calls for the liquid to be infused with saffron, which contributes colour as well as a subtle background flavour to the rice.

With all of the elements above you could be talking about any rice and tomato dish from any country but what makes paella stand out from the crowd, and why I wanted to try and recreate it was the socarrat (soh-kah-raht ) which means to toast lightly. It is the caramelized crust of rice that sometimes sticks to the bottom of the pan. It is the prize in a well-made paella. To achieve this, increase the heat at the end of cooking, paying close attention to the sound of the rice (it crackles) and the smell (toasty but not burned). After one or two minutes, poke under the foil with a spoon; if you feel just a touch of bumpy resistance on the bottom of the pan, you've got socarrat.

When the liquid is absorbed, the rice is done, and the socarrat achieved, the paella needs some time alone to finish cooking and round out its flavours. Cover the pan with a clean towel or foil (if you haven't already done so) and let it rest off the heat for five to ten minutes.

Appearing to have regained my reason, I am denouncing chivalry and knighthood and serving up my paella to my friends. To accompany the rice, I served it with nothing more than lemon wedges, a lightly dressed salad, plenty of wine, and lots of family and friends who, as it is done traditionally, ate it directly from the pan. Everyone found a place around the pan and started eating from the perimeter of the pan and working toward the center. Travel, even "kitchen stool" travel to Spain helps us to better understand and appreciate other people and their cultures. Nothing is more intimate, or more effective at breaking down cultural barriers, than cooking and sharing meals together. No need to fight off robbers, windmills or the elements to create a fantasy dish. Join me in making paella. When you have like-minded people from all parts of the world breaking bread at the same table magic happens !!!Bring on the Sangria!!!!!


Voting starts tomorrow September 27th. Check out my profile here as well as round 1 of the competition!!

**Paella Valencia Style**

4 cups homemade or low-salt canned chicken stock, more as needed
1 teaspoon saffron (10 threads or more)
about ¼ cup olive oil, more if needed
8 skinless chicken thighs, chopped in half and seasoned with salt and pepper, or 8 boneless breasts
3 chorizo sausages, cut into 1-inch pieces
1 pound shelled and cleaned shrimp marinated in:

1 clove garlic, chopped
1 onion, chopped
1 tablespoon chopped parsley
½ cup oil
½ cup white wine

12 mussels, well scrubbed
1 small head of garlic (remove excess papery skins, trim the top, and make a shallow cut around its equator to speed cooking), also
4 cloves garlic, crushed
1 medium red bell pepper, cored, seeded, and cut into 1-inch wide strips
9 ounces frozen artichoke hearts, thawed
¾ cup chopped onion,
1 (14.5 oz/411 g) can  tomatoes
1-1/2 cups arborio, Calasparra or Bomba rice (important what type of rice is used)
½ cup fresh or frozen peas, cooked and drained
2 lemons, cut in wedges for garnish

1. In a saucepan, bring the stock to a boil; reduce the heat to a simmer and cover. Put the saffron on a 3-inch wide strip of aluminum foil, fold up the foil to make a square packet, and set the foil directly on the lid of the simmering stock for about 15 minutes. Unfold the packet, transfer the saffron to a mortar (or a small bowl), add a pinch of salt, and use the pestle (or the back of spoon) to crush the saffron. Add about ½ cup of the hot stock to the saffron and let saffron steep for about 15 minutes. Add the saffron-infused liquid back to the stock. Taste; the stock should be well-seasoned, so add more salt if necessary. Remove from the heat until ready to add to the rice.

2. Marinate the shrimp for at least 1 hour using ingredients mentioned.

3. Steam the mussels in 1 cup of boiling water until they open, about 5 minutes. Discard any that do not open. Reserve the mussels and cooking liquor. Strain the liquor. Add liquor to the reserved chicken stock.

4. Set a paella pan over medium-high heat and add the olive oil. When the oil is hot, add the chicken, chorizo sausage and the head of garlic; saute until the chicken is golden, 10 – 15 minutes. The oil may splatter, and you may need to turn down the heat. Transfer the partially cooked chicken and sausage to a platter. The head of garlic stays in the pan.

5. Reduce the heat to medium-low. In the same pan, saute the red pepper slices slowly until they are very limp, 20 to 25 minutes, adding more oil if necessary. They shouldn’t brown too much.

6. When the peppers are done, transfer the pieces to a plate, cover with foil, and set aside. Slowly saute the artichokes in the same pan, still on medium-low until the artichokes are golden and tender, 15 to 20 minutes. Meanwhile, when the pepper pieces are cool enough to handle, peel off and discard the skin. When the artichokes are done transfer to the platter with the chicken and sausage.

7. If there is more than 1 T. of the oil in the pan, pour out the excess. Increase the heat to medium and saute the chopped onion and crushed garlic until the onion is soft (it is alright if it gets slightly brown), about 5 minutes. Add the tomatoes (finely chopped or grated). Season well with salt and saute until the water from the tomatoes have cooked out and the mixture, called a sofrito, has darkened to a burgundy colour and is a very thick puree, 5 to 10 minutes. If you are not cooking the rice immediately, remove the pan from the heat.

8. About a half hour before you are ready to eat, bring the stock and reserved mussel liquor back to a simmer and set the paella pan with the sofrito over your largest burner (or over 2 burners) on medium heat, noticing if the pan sits level. When the sofrito is hot, add the rice, stirring until it is translucent, 10 to 2 minutes.

9. Spread out the rice (it should just blanket the bottom of the pan), and arrange the chicken and chorizo in the pan. Increase the heat to medium-high and pour in 3-1/2 cups of the simmering stock (reserving ½ cup). As the stock comes to a boil, push the head of garlic to the centre. Cook until the rice begins to appear above the liquid, 8 to 10 minutes., rotating the pan over one and two burners as necessary to distribute the heat to all areas. Reduce the heat to medium-low. Continue to simmer, rotating the pan as necessary, until the liquid has been absorbed and the rice is al dente, 8 to 10 minutes more. During this entire time, move the pan around as much as you want to even out the heat, but don't stir the rice. If the liquid seems to be boiling off too quickly, you may need to add a little more, so have some hot water or more stock handy on another burner. To check for doneness, taste a grain just below the top layer of rice—there should be a very tiny white dot in the centre. If the liquid is absorbed but the rice is not done, add a bit more hot stock or water to the pan and cook a few minutes more. Remove the shrimp from the marinade before adding to the paella. Add steamed mussels, peas and artichokes. Stir once. Lay peppers in the pan, starburst-like. Cover the pan with foil and cook gently for another 2 minutes, which will help ensure that the top layer of rice is evenly cooked. With the foil in place, increase the heat to medium high and, turning the pan, cook until the bottom layer of rice starts to caramelize, creating the socarrat, 1 to 2 minutes. You may hear the rice crackling, which is fine, but if it starts to burn, remove the pan from the heat immediately. To check for socarrat, peel back the foil and use a spoon to feel for a slight crust on the bottom of the pan.

10. Remove the pan from the heat and let paella rest, still covered, 5 to 10 minutes. Sit everyone down at the table an serve directly from the pan, starting at the perimeter and working toward the centre, squeezing lemon wedges over.

11. Lay the peppers in the pan, starburst-like. Cover the pan with foil and cook gently for another 2 minutes, which will help ensure that the top layer of rice is evenly cooked. With the foil in place, increase the heat to medium-high and, turning the pan, cook until the bottom layer of rice starts to caramelize, creating the socarrat, 1 to 2 minutes. You may hear the rice crackling, which is fine, but if it starts to burn, remove the pan from the heat immediately. To check for socarrat, peel back the foil and use a spoon to feel for a slight crust on the bottom of the pan.

12. Remove the pan from the heat and let paella rest, still covered, 5 to 10 minutes. Serve directly from the pan with lemon wedges.

Serves 8

You are reading this post on More Than Burnt Toast at http://morethanburnttoast.blogspot.com. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to the author/owner of More Than Burnt Toast. All rights reserved by Valerie Harrison.
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  1. A splendid dish and great post!



  2. Good luck to you Val! You deserve to be the next food blog star!

  3. I love how much thought you put into this dish! The idea of using rice as a unifier is just so lovely. And the paella sounds delicious of course! You know I'll be voting for you!

  4. Good luck Val on round 2, this dish is truely a winner!

  5. Fantastic post Val !! Good Luck !

  6. Good luck in the competition! Love your paella post. I won a pan in a giveaway this spring but haven't used it yet. I've already gotten the rice and saffron- Paella is in my future for sure!

  7. Good luck Val! A great post and I love the paella!

  8. Val...both your poetic and informative post seem to have led to quite a delectable dish. I've never made paella before either. You've inspired my vote ;o)

    Here's to wishing you continued great vibes throughout the competition.

    Ciao for now,

  9. So glad you are still in the running but not surprised! I've thoroughly enjoyed reading this post. What a dedicated paella preparer you are! It's been a long time since I've enjoyed this dish but am inspired.


  10. Congratulations Val! I voted for you! and I'm going to keep voting for you! You and your blog are winners in my eyes (and tummy). Go for it! Roz

  11. Go Val go! Your paella is very impressive. We're behind you all the way with our votes.

  12. What an inspired and inspirational post; I have had a great paella once, the Spanish mom of a friend made it and since then, nothing close to the original glorious one; Thank you for your quest for authenticity; this truly delivers, unlike Don Quixote's fanciful projects.

  13. What a wonderful recipe and the post was as delightful as the recipe you are featuring for this part of the competition. Heading over to vote
    and wishing you the best...Mary

  14. Great post, Val, a real treat to read. I have a beautiful paella pan I've never used and you've inspired me to get it out of the cupboard. Good luck with this next round.

  15. Val, that was a great post! Paella is a wonderful dish. I haven't made it in a long time and am thinking that I should get with it!

  16. Growing up with this dish I must say you did a wonderful job. Lots of prepartion resulting in a heavenly dish especially the end...socarrat. You have my vote. I also did a dish that took me two days...Yeah! Foodbuzz.

  17. Even though I was practically weaned on paella and have made it countless times myself, I was intrigued with your narrative and I read every word with great interest. I even learned a few things. Well done! I know I'll see you in round 3.

  18. That's an excellent dish! Glad you are still in the running! Way to go!

  19. Wow, I LOVE the colors in this... And I have a feeling the flavors are pretty delightful, too. Paella is definitely an art and one that you conquered :) Good luck!


  20. A terrific write-up and the paella sounds so delicious! I've never made a paella actually and you've definitely inspired me to try!

  21. i vote for any dish that has a literary connection. good job.

  22. Very interesting post and a gorgeous-looking paella. I'll vote for you as soon as voting starts tomorrow morning.

  23. Paella are one of the best & tastiest "all in one" meals.

  24. Oh Val, your Paella is beautiful! Wonderful job going out of your comfort zone!!! You'll do awesome in this round =)

  25. Wow, I'm impressed Val. What a challenge and the results look amazing. Good luck with the next round in the contest.

  26. I absolutely LOVED this post, Val! And your Paella looks fabulous!

  27. HOORAY, Val! SO glad you're still in the running. :-) I have never eaten or made Paella, and yours looks absolutely amazing. :-) Love all those bits and bobs tucked in to make it so savory. :-) I just may show up on your door step one day begging for this dish. :-)

  28. Excellent, informative post Val.

  29. Excellent post. I considered making a paella for my challenge, but knew the pan was important and didn't have one (or access to one).

    Your story was perfect, really captured the spirit of the challenge...

    First time here, but you deserve and get my vote


  30. I just voted for you for Round #3! I love all things rice and this is a good one for sure! Cheering for you!

  31. Great post, Val! Good luck next round - I'm sure you will make it!

  32. Congrats Val for moving forward in the competition! :) Great post and lovely paella!

  33. That's fabulous, Val! Though I'm not surprised that you're still in the running.:)

  34. Wonderful dish and post for challenge #2...looking forward to seeing your challenge #3 :)

  35. Only 400 left... CONGRATULATIONS! You definitely deserve to be here as you put your heart and soul into all you do. I bought a paella pan 4 years ago and still haven't used it. Why not? Who knows? But, no excuse now with this fantastic recipe waiting for me to try!


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