Here, rice is a star – not a side dish

In the United States, rice traditionally gets short shrift – a sort of second-tier product whose primary function is a filling side dish, sometimes absorbing a bit of sauce from the main.

Not here. In Spain, rice, particularly in the form of paella (pie-YAY-uh) – the country's best-known dish – is one of the country's greatest culinary traditions. Here, when people make curious-sounding plans to meet and "eat rice," this is what they are talking about.

Served directly from the shallow pan in which it is cooked, paella is earthy, crunchy goodness. Five ingredients are common in paella: rice, tomatoes, garlic, oil, and saffron seasoning. But there are dozens of variations. Many cooks mix in beef, chicken, or seafood along with beans, peppers, or other vegetables.

While a subpar effort might leave a diner wondering what all the fuss is about, well-prepared paella is a transcendent main course, pulling the essence of the flavor from every item in the pan into the rice, the primary ingredient.

Done right, it creates a direct connection to the food you are eating. Good seafood paella, for example, can put you in front of the ocean just by closing your eyes. Meat or vegetarian versions can put you directly into the country's heartland.

In Barcelona and around the rest of the country, paella has its own set of traditions. Some people have to eat seafood paella "in sight of the sea." Others will only eat it on a restaurant terrace on a sunny Sunday. Some even insist on going to the nearby seaside town of Sitges, where combing rules No. 1 and 2 is practically a given.

That said, any self-respecting Valencian won't even touch the stuff outside his or her home region. But regardless of where you are in Spain, good paella is worth the fuss.

Valencia became Spain's rice capital in the early 11th century. Paella was first cooked there by farmers who grew rice and paired it with what they had on hand. Beef, rabbit, and chicken varieties were as common as versions with snails or vegetables.

Valencia-born Alejandro Ribera and his mother, Maria, brought their version of the native dish to Barcelona five years ago, when they opened the tiny restaurant, L'Arrosseria Xàtiva.

Mr. Ribera explains that his mother learned how to make paella long ago from her sister-in-law and has been making it for her family ever since. "I had it when I was 3, 4, 5, 6 years old," he says, moving his hand up in height with each age he lists. "She made all different kinds for us at home. It was soooo good."

Over a plate of paella, he explains his love for almost every variety of the dish, along with how it has gone from being just a Valencian specialty to a national dish.

For Ribera, that transition is easy to understand because rice has universal appeal. "Rice is something that people like very much," he explains. "It can go with so many things."

Another Ribera family tradition is one at the roots of paella history: arroz passejat – literally "passed around rice."

"Passejat has been around for hundreds of years," Ribera says, describing the way everyone would serve themselves from the same paella pan, before passing it to a neighbor.

"People will eat the paella directly from a pan with their own wooden spoon," says Valencia native Bego Sanchis, who runs Barcelona's Cook & Taste cooking school, where she teaches how to make paella.

"Some cultures have presentations into society when they are 18 or so," she says. "Here, when children are 12 or 13, they get their own spoon."

Using the right pan is key to getting the rice to cook to the best consistency – al dente. "You want a wide and flat pan," Ms. Sanchis says. "You want the grains to be separate and dry." This happens by getting as many grains of rice as close to the heat as possible. A very large sauté pan can be used, but the layer of rice inside should not be more than about an inch thick, unless you want burned rice on the bottom and undercooked rice on top.

The tomato, garlic, and oil are key to creating a sofregit, the sauce on which the paella is based. As Sanchis says, it "must be made with love, or you'll taste it."

In this case, "love" can loosely be translated as "lots of stirring over low heat" until the tomatoes start browning.

But "once you put the rice in the pan, you don't touch it," she adds. "If you stir, it gets creamy [like risotto]," and creamy is not what you want.

"The rest of the ingredients are up to you," she says, without exaggeration. "Paella is a very humble meal – people prepare what they have on hand."

For her, perfect paella is one that has sucked all of the flavor from the dish's other ingredients, a process she extends by letting the pan sit for several minutes under foil after she pulls it off the stove.

Many people don't even eat the seafood that comes with some of the dishes, she adds. "It's going to be dry, tasteless, and overcooked" – a good thing because "this means it has released all of its flavor into the rice."

Back at the restaurant L'Arrosseria Xàtiva, Ribera mentions one more tradition as he takes his last bite of paella.

"If the rice is good, there won't be one grain left," he says.

Chicken and Sausage Paella

6 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 pound chicken, cut into bite-size pieces
1/2 pound sausage, cut into bite-size pieces
3 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed
1 tomato, peeled and minced
1 cup green beans, chopped
1 cup white beans
4-1/2 cups chicken stock
14 ounces yellow saffron rice (or 14 ounces short-grain rice, such as Bomba, and 8-10 saffron threads)

Heat oil in a large, wide frying pan (or paella pan) and fry the meat slightly over medium heat. Add garlic.

After cooking a few minutes, add the tomato. When the tomato is partially cooked, stir in the rest of vegetables. After another minute or so, stir in the stock (and, if using, saffron threads). Bring mixture to a boil over medium-high heat.

Add rice and stir lightly to distribute it evenly. Do not cover. Rice should not be touched beyond this point. Continue cooking over medium-high heat about 8 minutes. Reduce heat to low and cook another 10 minutes or so. Let paella stand, covered with aluminum foil, for about 5 minutes before eating. Serves 6 as a main course.

Source: Cook & Taste cooking school, Barcelona, Spain.

6 tablespoons olive oil

Vegetable Paella

3 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed
1 tomato, peeled and minced
1 cup green beans, chopped
1 cup white beans
1 cup fava beans
1 cup artichoke hearts, quartered
1/2 cup red pepper, chopped
1/2 cup green pepper, chopped
4-1/2 cups vegetable stock
14 ounces yellow saffron rice (or 14 ounces short-grain rice, such as Bomba, and 8-10 saffron threads)

Heat oil in a large, wide frying pan (or paella pan) and fry the garlic over medium heat. After a minute or two, add the tomato and fry, stirring frequently. When the tomato is partially cooked, stir in the rest of vegetables.

After a few minutes, stir in the stock (and, if using, saffron threads). Bring to a boil over medium-high heat.

Add rice and lightly stir to distribute it evenly. Do not cover. Rice should not be touched beyond this point. Continue cooking over medium-high heat about 8 minutes. Reduce heat to low and cook another 10 minutes. Let paella stand, covered with aluminum foil, for about 5 minutes before eating. Serves 6 as a main course.

Source: Cook & Taste cooking school, Barcelona, Spain.

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