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José's Paella Love: Seventh Time's the Charm?

News flash: José Andrés is sick of paella.

See how real paella's made on the grill; more photos at the end of this post. (photos by Eamonn Donnelly)

The superstar Spanish chef made that quite clear yesterday afternoon as his longtime chef-pal Quim Marques and some of his ThinkfoodGroup crew helped Andrés put on an outdoor paella grill clinic at his Bethesda home.

When Andrés is demo-ing the signature Spanish rice dish around town, you know it’s paella festival time. He has celebrated it in some form each of the past seven years by bringing chefs from Spain (Marques is a returning paella festival guest from Barcelona) and firing up big pans for his restaurant patrons and for demos at FreshFarm Market in Dupont Circle.

The paella he disdains has nothing to do with the versions he makes or eats in Spain. It’s the one he keeps seeing in food publications (not this one, surely!) and the one some of his customers expect to see land on their tables: loaded with every kind of shellfish, plus chicken, plus chorizo. Yellow. The one with a recipe that calls for 1 part rice, 2 parts water and exact ingredient amounts.

Wrong, so wrong. It is a mistreated, misunderstood dish, he says.

Even battling 1,000 percent humidity and over-stoked fires built to compensate for that humidity and perhaps a few laws of physics, the chefs had two 15-inch paella pans going on separate Weber charcoal grills, and later, a pan wider than the grills themselves. (Weber’s a festival co-sponsor this year.) They sauteed relatively small quantities of chicken, mushrooms, garlic and more, all in service of making the short-grained calasparra rice as flavorful as possible.

Why make paella on the grill? For the subtle smoky flavor it imparts. Because it’s a sociable, one-pan wonder, Andrés says. Because the chef wants to end boring backyard cookouts.

I loved watching the way Marques tended the pans: slipping his spoon in for tastes, adjusting with salt and pours of water or chicken stock. It seemed to take less work than making risotto – certainly less stirring, as that might disturb the desirable socorrat or rice crust on the bottom of the dish.

Andrés has said it before, and he’ll be saying it many times between now and June 21st, when the festival ends: He wants to see a paella pan on grill grates across the USA.

Among the chef's paella gospel:

• It’s a rice dish, so go easy on the chicken et al. Take a minimalist approach, ingredient-wise.
• Make sure all the flavors end up in every grain of rice.
• Learn how to control the fire and you’ll be a better cook.
• Add twigs or sections of vines to the fire during cooking to provide a burst of heat that will help the liquid come to a boil, then simmer to finish cooking the rice.
• The cooking characteristics of paella rice may change from harvest to harvest; pay attention to how the rice cooks and don’t rely on set cooking times.
• Let the paella rest a bit before serving, so the rice can absorb flavor and get to a perfect consistency.
• A salmorra (smoky tomato and garlic sauce) adds great depth of flavor to a seafood paella. (We haven't tested this recipe yet; when we do, it'll go in Recipe Finder.)

To make about 2 cups, heat a tablespoon of Spanish extra-virgin olive oil over medium heat. Add 12 garlic cloves and cook them for 2 minutes, stirring, then add 3 dried, seeded nora chili peppers (or dried sweet chili peppers) and cook them for 3 minutes, stirring. Add 16 ounces of drained canned plum tomatoes and 1 teaspoon of sugar. Cook for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the juices from the tomatoes evaporate. Add 1/8 teaspoon of Spanish smoked paprika and mix well. Transfer to a blender; remove the center knob of the lid and hold a clean dish towel over it so that when the hot mixture is pureed, steam will not force the lid off and cause a mess. Puree on low speed to start, then on high to form a smooth sauce. Transfer to a container with a tight-fitting lid. Taste and add salt as needed; let cool then cover and refrigerate for up to 2 weeks or freeze for up to 3 months.

The following group of photos might take a while to load for some viewers. But if you want to see how real paella's done, it's worth the time.
-- Bonnie Benwick

Among the ingredients of the paella session were dried nora chili peppers, used to make salmorra (the recipe above).

Chefs Quim Marques (from Barcelona) and José Andrés talk strategy while the three grills heat up. They've known each other for 25 years, and cook side by side in a seamless way.

Bone-in chicken pieces are sauteed in Spanish olive oil, natch.

Flavor's applied in waves; after the chicken comes vegetables, garlic and rice, which gets sauteed before the water and/or chicken stock goes in.

The largest pan (a lobster and squid paella) gave Andres and is crew a workout; they couldn't get the charcoal-and-twig fire hot enough to bring the liquid to a boil. A gas-powered paella burner, at right, was used in the end.

Triumph. The paella smelled like a million bucks....

....and once they carried it inside, it tasted that way, too.

By The Food Section  |  June 5, 2009; 2:00 PM ET
 | Tags: Bonnie Benwick, Jose Andres, festivals  
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