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March 03, 2004

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Publication Date: Wednesday, March 03, 2004

Paella 101: Iberia's chef shares his know-how in preparing paella, Spain's most famous dish Paella 101: Iberia's chef shares his know-how in preparing paella, Spain's most famous dish (March 03, 2004)

By Jane Knoerle
Almanac Lifestyles Editor

Paella is to Spain what barbecue is to the United States. It's ideally prepared outdoors for a crowd, and the men do the cooking.

Originally a dish for country feasts, paella's main ingredient is saffron-flavored rice, combined with a variety of meats and shellfish (such as shrimp, clams, pork, ham, and chorizo), garlic, onions, peas, green beans, and tomatoes. The name comes from the two-handled metal pan (paellera) in which paella is cooked and served.

"Paella is a peasant dish," says Chef Jose Luis Relinque, who recently guided students through "Paella 101" on a Sunday morning at his Iberia restaurant in Menlo Park.

After coffee and croissants, the class of 15 donned aprons for a two-hour hands-on session.

Chef Relinque divided the group into three teams to prepare three kinds of paella: meat, shellfish, and vegetarian.

"The hardest and worst part of cooking paella is cleaning and preparing everything. You don't have to be a culinary genius to peel garlic, chop onions or clean squid," he says. "Just have all your ingredients prepared and organized in the order in which they go into the paellera."

He also cautioned: "Paella is a rice dish and the key to its success lies in infusing it with wonderful flavors, beginning with the use of the sofrito, a flavoring base for many Spanish dishes. Remember, when the rice is good, the other ingredients are almost superfluous."

Other rules to remember:

** Use only short-grain rice, preferably from Valencia.

** Use a shallow, wide pan, ideally a paellera.

** Do not cover, as rice should not steam.

** Once the rice is distributed in the pan, do not stir.

** Paella should always be prepared on the stovetop or on an open fire, not in the oven.

** Paella's color comes from saffron or paprika. Don't cheat and use artificial coloring or turmeric.

After the chef's pep talk, the teams got to work. The first step was gathering the ingredients and beginning prep work. The vegetarians had lots of vegetables to prepare, including Chinese long beans (which had to be blanched then chilled in ice water), leeks, shallots, Jerusalem artichokes and potatoes.

The meat team gathered their packets of veal, pork, lamb and bacon. The shellfish folks picked up octopus, clams, mussels and monkfish. Soon everyone seemed to be chopping onions and garlic.

As she minced garlic, Susan Baker said she liked the idea of a hands-on class. "I think that's real important." Miriam Crowley of Menlo Park, a first-time student, said she had lunch at Iberia about twice a week and often shared a paella for two with a friend.

Paella for two is always featured on Iberia's menu. Since it is prepared from scratch, it requires a 30-minute wait.

Student Vincent Cardinale of Redwood City said his wife, Pamela, had given him the cooking lesson as a Christmas present. "Next week we're doing dim sum (cooking class) at Draeger's," he said.

Henry Gregory, who was stirring onions for the sofrito, said he had made paella at home, "but it was not as good as we're making now."

The cooks sipped sangria and sampled garlicky mushroom tapas and grilled skewers of marinated pork while chopping and stirring.

"I've taken a lot of cooking classes, but I like this hands-on class better than cooking demonstrations. I also think the coffee and croissants, and sangria are nice touches," says Lynette Baranski, a native of South Africa and a U.S. citizen.

After all the ingredients were prepared, paella pans were set over propane grills in Iberia's courtyard, where delicious smells soon hinted at the feast to come. Chef Relinque says a round Weber grill will work for home cooks.

In Spain, a paella party is like our barbecue. Ideally it is prepared over a wood fire, often made with vine cuttings. The scene at Iberia reminded me of a visit to Spain 15 years ago, when I and the group of food writers I was traveling with feasted on paella on a farm just south of Valencia. The area is the number-one rice producer in Spain.

We were served a Paella Alicantina made with chicken and rabbit, a second paella made with bull's liver (considered very special), and a third version with salt cod, or bacalao.

Back at Iberia, the paellas were nearly ready. Chef Relinque hovered nearby advising the teams to "add more olive oil, keep the pan level, or add sea salt!" The final -- and most important -- step was adding equal amounts of chicken broth, infused with saffron, and rice.

At last, the paellas were ready, each a picture when decorated with bright green beans and peas, strips of pimiento, or sauteed shallots. A little friendly rivalry developed as each team checked out the others' progress.

The pans were borne into the restaurant, where a long table was set with crisp linen and colorful china. Bottles of Spanish wines and a green salad awaited.

The class relaxed over lunch, praising each other's cooking and toasting their own success. They talked of future classes, including Chef Relinque's September paella party at the beach near Half Moon Bay.

For more information about Iberia's cooking classes, call 325-8981.

Iberia's Paella Tipica

Sofrito:
1/4 cup olive oil
3 onions, chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 green bell pepper, diced
2 tomatoes, chopped

Paella:
4 cups chicken stock
8 saffron threads
1/4 cup olive oil
sea salt
4 chicken drumsticks
2 ounces cured ham, diced
8 ounces squid, cleaned and sliced 1/4 inch thick
1/2 teaspoon pimenton (Spanish paprika)
4 ounces bay shrimp
1-1/2 cups Spanish paella rice
8 prawns, peeled and deveined
4 large sea scallops or 16 bay scallops
8 ounces monkfish or other white fish, cleaned and cut in cubes
2 artichoke hearts, quartered and parboiled
8 clams, scrubbed
8 mussels, scrubbed and de-bearded
1/2 cup shelled peas
2 roasted sweet pimientos, peeled, seeded and cut in strips
8 lemon wedges

To prepare sofrito:

Pour olive oil in paellera over medium heat. Cook onions and garlic until translucent. Add bell pepper and cook until soft. Add tomato and continue cooking until most of the moisture has evaporated. Remove sofrito from pan and set aside. (Sofrito, as well as cooked and cleaned seafood, may be purchased at The Rock of Gibraltar Comestibles, next door to Iberia restaurant.)

For the paella

Add saffron threads to chicken stock and heat to simmer. Sprinkle chicken, prawns, scallops, monkfish and squid generously with sea salt.

Add olive oil to paellera. Over medium heat, brown chicken on all sides, then add ham. Increase heat to medium-high and add squid. Allow some of the moisture to evaporate, then add sofrito and sprinkle with paprika. Add bay shrimp.

Add rice and distribute it evenly by jiggling the pan from side to side. Ladle 3-1/2 cups stock gently over rice and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to a simmer. Arrange prawns, monkfish, scallops and artichokes by pushing them down into the rice mixture. Allow the juices to heat up and taste for seasoning. Arrange clams in the same manner, placing them hinge-side up. Sprinkle peas over paella. When the clams are starting to open, insert the mussels in the same manner as the clams.

Cook uncovered until all broth is absorbed and the shells have opened. Rice should be just about done. Add more broth if needed. Remove from stove and let rest for 10 minutes, covered with a dishtowel. Decorate with pimiento strips and lemon wedges. Serves four.


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