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Paella Pointers

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I've been making grilled paellas for three years now and have been getting quite good at it, if I do say so myself. Recently, I've been on a run where I've made three paellas in a row and this coming weekend will mark number four in a row. But just because you've gotten good at something, doesn't mean there isn't more to learn. So with this blog entry I'm in a pass along some of the things I've picked up about making grilled paellas that may help others to get better results. I think I'll write it in the form of a Do’s and Don'ts list.
Paellas are cooked on the grill in a very similar manner, no matter what type of paella you're making. The typical sequence is you begin heating some broth on the side burner and you heat some olive oil in the paella pan until it shimmers. Then you typically add your onions and garlic, bell peppers, tomatoes and sauté them. If the paella uses meat(s), they are often browned in one or more separate pans simultaneously. The meat often gets added to the paella pan just before the rice goes in. Once all of vegetables are sautéed and the meat has been added to the paella pan, the rice is added and gets cooked for about five minutes before adding the broth. The broth typically goes in and then the grill lid gets closed and the ingredients cook for around 20 to 25 minutes. This allows the rice to absorb all of the liquid in the pan along with all of the flavors in the liquids. For some paellas you are done at this point. For others there may be one or more ingredients that get added to top off the paella.

So let's break down some of these phases in making a paella and look at some of the Do’s and Don'ts I've discovered making a whole raft of them this spring.

PREP:

  • DO take the time to measure out the ingredients carefully. A good paella is all about the proportion of solids to liquids. Typically the more rice and solids that you have, the more broth and other liquids you will also use. I would suggest not messing around with the quantity of ingredients your first time out. Follow the recipe to the letter.
  • DON’T use long grain rice instead of the medium grain Bomba rice. The medium grain rice is far more of absorptive than long grain rice. Long grain rice may not be able to absorb all of the liquids you add to the paella. The first few times I may paellas I was amazed how much liquid went in. I figured the rice would never be able to absorb all that liquid, but I was wrong. When the 20 to 25 minutes cooking time is up the bomba rice has fully absorbed all the liquid.
  • DON’T substitute for saffron. At $12 a bottle for a little tiny 1" x 1" bottle, saffron is one of the most expensive spices out there. Some people may say you can use tumerick in lieu of saffron and save some money. While the tumeric may give your rice some of the same yellow color that the saffron does, the taste is nowhere near the same and tumeric is not very cheap either. Just spend the extra money.
  • DON’T substitute for the serrano ham. Some of the recipe say that you can use diced prosciutto instead of the serrano ham. Trust me they aren’t really close. They have around the same consistency, but the flavor of the serrano ham is much nicer than the flavor of the prosciutto.
  • DO use regular olive oil and not extra-virgin olive oil for cooking the paella. Extra-virgin olive oil has a lower temperature at which it begins to burn. You do not want the extra virgin olive oil burning and getting on your pans and flavoring your paella.
  • DO leave plenty of time for your prep. You'll be chopping up many vegetables and meats and this time can add up. Paellas are partially about presentation. Taking the time to get evenly sized and nicely shaped pieces is worth the effort in terms of easy cooking, nice presentation and easy eating.
  • DO use some sort of food chopper to help speed your work and give you a nice evenly sized dice for your veggies. This will also help the veggies cook up evenly. Here's a link to a blog item I wrote about the food chopper I use:
  • DO have multiple spatulas that you use while cooking your paella to help ensure food safety. I actually have four plastic spatulas that I use when cooking paella. I have two spatulas that I use for flipping my uncooked meats and two others that I use after the meats are cooked.
  • DO try to find a good Spanish market in your local area. It will make your life easy and they will have the unusual ingredients that you need to make your paella: Bomba rice, saffron, serrano ham, paella pans and probably a good paella cookbook or two. If you can't find these items in your local area, I can highly recommend La Tienda an Internet-based source of Spanish ingredients and cookware. I will put a link to their website at the bottom of this blog entry.
  • DON’T forget ingredients that you have cooked in the microwave or temporarily stored in the fridge. I am guilty of both of these. Sometimes if ingredient is going to go on the paella at the very end, I will put it in the fridge until just before I need it. But then things get hectic and I finish up the paella and forget to add that one last ingredient. Lately I put a reminder for such things on my iPhone, so the reminder comes up partway through my cooking the paella. Sometimes I will heat up the frozen peas in the microwave oven to get them to room temperature. Don't leave them items like this in the oven when they are done, or you may not find them until your next meal. Don't ask me how I know this.

WARM UP:

  • DO make sure that you have plenty of propane or charcoal on hand before you start making your paella. You'll probably end up having some or all of the burners on your gas grill on for 45 minutes in addititon to the warm up time. This can use up significant amounts of propane, so make sure you have a spare tank on hand and better yet make sure the tank you're using is full.
  • DO make sure that your grill is level before cooking your paella. If the grill is not level, your olive oil will not be distributed evenly in the paella pan. You'll have a pool of olive oil on one side of the pan and you'll have large areas of the pan with no olive oil on it. You may burn your ingredients and burn your pan. Getting burned areas of rice cleaned off the pan is relatively easy, but getting burnt on food and burned olive oil cleaned off the pan is a pain in the neck. Don't ask me how I know this. There're two ways to level your grill, and depending on your grill one way maybe easier than the other. The first method is to shim the legs. Put a level on the grill grates and then shim the appropriate legs of the grill as needed. The second method is to simply shim the grill grates themselves. This is the method I prefer since my grill is on casters and I often move the grill to suit wind conditions. Plus the grill itself weighs over 300 pounds. Once again, put a level on the grill grates and see how much you need to lift the grill grate and in which direction need to go to level the grate. Then use appropriately thickness metal shims to level the grates.
  • DO check that your grill is level each and every time you cook. If you shimmed the legs, the grill may have moved since last time you used it. If you shimmed the grates you may have lifted the grates up to clean the grill and dislodged the leveling shims. Either way don't find out the hard way by pouring olive oil into your pans and having it all run to one side of the pan. Once again don't ask me how I know this.
  • DO heat the grill up to the right temperature before starting. You are shooting for medium heat when cooking paella. If you can do it, measure the actual grate temperature to make sure that on a given day at a given air temperature you are getting medium heat. You can also hold your hands about 6 inches above the grill grate and use the "One Mississippi, two Mississippi…ouch" test to see if you're getting medium.
  • DON’T let the grill run too high. You'll burn your oil and you'll burn the veggies that you're trying to sauté.
  • DO check the temperature again once the grill lid goes down. Once the broth is added and the grill lid goes down, I shoot for about 400° degrees inside the grill. I am not just pulling this figure out of the air, several of my paella cookbooks mentioned cooking paellas using a combination of the stove in the oven. They have you set the oven to 400°F for finishing off the paella once the liquid has been added.
  • DO double check the temperature again once the grill it goes down. I usually run out about five minutes after the grill lid has gone down, just to make sure that I'm really getting the temperature I was looking for. For this I can usually crack the lid just enough to peek in and see what the oven thermometer is reading without losing my heat.

COOKING PART ONE-Sautéing and Browning:

  • DO take advantage of the large surface area of your grill versus your stove. My six burner gas grill allows me to fit two sauté pans, plus the paella pan on the grill surface. Plus I am able to heat the broth up in a sauce pan on the sideburner. Cooking these items simultaneously allowed you just beat up the cooking time for your paella and your paella will be the better for it because you are not holding ingredients while you are cooking others.
  • DO wear gloves with long sleeves when adding cold food to hot oil. I have a pair of Steven Raichlen leather barbecue gloves which extend up my arm almost to my elbows. These also come in very handy for stirring items that are sautéing in hot oil or for meats such as chorizo that may have fats that may splatter.
  • DO have your ingredients all pre-measured and at the ready. Things can happen fast when you're making paella and it is very handy to have all of the ingredients all set to be poured into the pan when you need it.
  • DON’T overheat or burn the broth on the side burner. On my grill the side burner is rather difficult to adjust, it seems to go from all on to all off. You want to gently heat the broth to a simmer while you're sautéing veggies. Also keep an eye on the side burner to make sure that the wind hasn't blown out the flame or that your broth is not boiling.
  • DO wear gloves when moving your sauté pans around on the grill. Unlike the stove, where the handles of the pants may or may not get hot, the handles are always going to be hot when you're heating the pan on the grill. So before you reach for a pan, reach for your gloves. After one day I thought I was going to have Calphalon branded onto the palm of my hand for the rest of my life. I can joke about it now, but it wasn't funny then.
  • DO wear gloves when stirring food in the paella pan. There are two reasons for this: The handle of the pan is going to be scorchingly hot and you may get splashed with hot oil when you stir the ingredients around.

COOKING PART TWO-Adding the Broth and Finishing:

  • DO make sure you have enough burners lit to get a nice even heat under the entire paella pan. This is the big advantage you have when doing the paella on the grill vs. the stove: You can have even heat under the entire 15” paella pan. The biggest burner on a stove is usually 12” in diameter. For me I usually use four of the six burners to finish off the paella. I move the pan so it is centered over two of the lit burners, with a lit burner on either side of the pan as well.
  • DO be careful adding the broth to the paella pan. Unless the sauce pan you're using has a spout on it for ease in pouring, the broth may not pour exactly the way you have planned. Be sure you have the sauce pan far enough over the paella pan so that if the broth starts running down the side of the sauce pan, it will still land in your paella pan.
  • DO wear long gloves when pouring the broth from the sauce pan into the paella pan. The handle of the sauce pan may be too hot to handle, or if you do miss the paella pan with some of the broth you were pouring, you will get flareups and you'll be glad you're wearing gloves.
  • DO stir the paella thoroughly with a whisk once the broth has been added to the pan. You are looking to get all of the various meat and vegetable ingredients evenly distributed and to make sure that there are solid ingredients distributed all throughout the pan. You do not want any areas that are mostly liquid or mostly solids.
  • DO check the progress of the paella a bit early the first few times you make one on the grill. Your grill may be running a little hot or the paella may just absorb more liquid in less time than you expected. Until you get a feel for how long your grill takes for this phase, err on the side of checking early. You can always let it heat for a few minutes more if it isn’t quite done.
  • DO remember your final toppings. If the paella gets topped with a few ingredients just before coming off the grill, or once inside in the kitchen, remember to get those ingredients out and actually use them. After a hectic cook little touches like that can be easy to forget.
  • DO use the “lid down” cooking time to finish up some last minute prep items. I sometimes cut up my butter and set it out on the table to come to room temperature during this time. Or I prepare the garnish that is going to top the finished paella. Certain herbs are most potent when they are freshly chopped. So rather than cut them up before making the paella, I cut them up during this time and they are going to be at their freshest and most potent.
  • DO turn the grill temperature up during the last five minutes of cooking to help improve your socorat. This is the crispy bottom crust of browned rice that is desirable in a well-made paella.

DINING AND CLEANUP:

  • DO be careful going from grill to table with the paella. The paella pan is going to be hot all over and it takes it all long time to cool down. You may want to wear two pairs of gloves when bringing the paella pan inside. For me one pair of gloves is just not enough. By the time I get into the house and get the pan onto the table, my hands are burning with only one pair of gloves on.
  • DO serve the paella directly from the paella pan. That is part of the charm. In Spain people put the pan on a small table and everyone gathers around the table and actually eats directly from the paella pan. While you may not want to eat directly from the pan, it is certainly acceptable to serve right out of the pan. This gives you a better presentation than scooping the paella out into a serving dish.
  • DON’T put the hot paella pan down on your counter or table. Make sure you have a suitable trivet or possibly a grass mat made specifically for your paella pan, to protect your table. The mat I have I purchased from La Tienda and it is woven from Spanish grass. You can find it using the link at the end of this blog entry.
  • DO enjoy the fruits of your labor. If you have done your job right you should have a very tasty dish in front of you. Savor it.
  • DO have a set of gloves or towels handy for your guests to use when serving themselves paella. Everyone wants to grab onto one of the handles when they are scooping out the paella from the pan. Consider the handles like a branding iron.
  • DO remind your guests early and often that the paella pan stays hot for a very long time and they should be sure to use the gloves or towel when they go for more. And they will go for more!
  • DON’T throw out any of the leftovers. Paella reheated is almost as good as it is the first time around. It makes wonderful leftovers.
  • DON’T forget to soak the paella pan in hot water and dish soap as soon as possible. This will help make the final clean up be easier. I usually soak my pan overnight if there is a lot of stuck on food.
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SOME RELATED LINKS:
Here are links for some sources for ingredients and gear needed to make your own paellas. The 2010 blog entry has additional information about grilling your own paellas.

  GRILLED PAELLA 2010 Blog Entry
  SAFFRON Web Link
  SPANISH FOOD SOURCE: La Tienda Web Link
  PAELLA PANS, GRASS SERVING MATS Web Link

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