Today is National Paella Day. Paella is a traditional dish connected with Spanish culture that combines earthy, healthy ingredients and some meat and/or seafood of choice. It tastes best using local sourced ingredients. It is fun to make and a great dish to share at family and social gatherings. Making it with a crowd can be a wonderful party activity and the reward is eating what everyone contributed to. Invite guests to bring one or two ingredients each to increase the fun.
Rice originated in Asia and, along with pasta, was brought to the Mediterranean by the Moors. When the Moors invaded Spain, they brought both products with them. The Moorish casseroles of rice and fish established the custom of eating rice in Spain. By the 15th century, when Spanish Catholics expelled the Muslims from Spain, rice had become a national staple.
Paella (pronounced pie-AY-ya) was originally made by agricultural laborers, who cooked the mixture of rice, snails and vegetables in a pan over an open fire in the fields. It was at first a communal dish, eaten directly from the pan with wooden spoons. Other Valencians closer to the coastline added eel and butter beans. The more elegant paellas loaded with chorizo, chicken and seafood did not evolve until living standards rose in the late 18th century century, when the dish went upscale.
The dish originated in Valencia, a region on the East coast of Spain and evolved, depending on the inspiration of cooks. By the mid-1800s, paella included short-grain white rice and a mix of proteins: chicken, duck, rabbit and optional snails (less affluent people often made do with snails alone). The dish was actually a “rice and beans” dish, with butter beans, great northern beans and runner beans (artichoke replaced runner beans in the winter), plus tomatoes. The spices included garlic, pimentòn (sweet paprika), rosemary, saffron and salt; the dish was cooked in olive oil.
The recipe continued to evolve as chorizo, green beans, green peas, olives and roasted red pepper found their way into the dish.
The name “paella” derives from the Old French word for pan, paelle, from the Latin word patella. Today, the pan is called a paellera, but that term evolved after paella became popular. Paelleras are round and shallow, made of polished steel with two handles. There are even woven baskets that fit the pan to make a nicer presentation at the table—but today’s double-gauge steel paella pans are stunners in of themselves.
What distinguishes paella from other rice dishes with meat, fish and vegetables is the saffron. Saffron grows wild in Spain, and not only gives a rich and unique flavor to the rice, but a deep yellow color as well,
While it’s easy to vary the ingredients to create any type of paella—from mixed poultry, root or spring vegetable variations to vegetarian/vegan paella—there are three main classic styles:
• Paella Valenciana: Valencian paella with white rice, green vegetables, meat (rabbit, chicken, duck), snails, beans, and seasoning
• Paella de marisco: seafood paella, which replaces meat and snails with seafood and omits beans and green vegetables
• Paella mixta: mixed paella, which is a free-style combination of meat, seafood, vegetables and sometimes beans
Paella is often a featured dish on menus in Spanish style restaurants. In some upscale or specialty restaurants, it is featured on a specific day each week, and reservations for that day must be made months in advance. It is also traditionally served family style, so unless you bring an entire table of friends you have the opportunity to meet new ones through sharing a meal.
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