One of these days I’ll learn how to take notes, shoot pictures and eat, all at once. This sort of multi-tasking would have come in very handy last week when I attended a paella class at Pimenton in Toronto. Greeted by a table full of tapas, fellow bloggers chopping vegetables and a warm and welcoming Chef José Arato, my anxiety over arriving late due to the rush hour drive melted. It took at couple of Tortilla & Chorizo Tarts to calm me down, but they did the trick.
Until the class, most of only knowledge about paella came from Posh Nosh, a British cooking show spoof. Unlike the TV version, Chef José’s paella was cooked on the stove top — not in the ancestral Aga — and uses bomba rice, not Italian arborio. Who knew you can’t trust the BBC for cooking advice?
To feed the blogging hoard, Chef José made the dish in three pans. He assured us paella is not a precise dish. There’s a lot of eyeballing involved. And true to his word, he measured nothing. To begin, he poured the oil in the centre of the pan explaining that he stops when it’s 2 inches from the edge. He added ladles of various broths throughout the process, depending on how much it boiled down.
If paella is an art, it’s a forgiving one. Che José assured us that every paella dish tasted slightly different from the next. But the technique remains the same. Layers of flavours cooked into rice.
Even the rice itself wasn’t measured. Chef José just poured it straight from the bag into the paella pan. The trick? Pour in a single line from back to front.
The rice itself is key. True paella is made with bomba rice. Not basmati, or arborio or jasmine or Uncle Ben’s. This specialty rice absorbs three times its volume in water (compared to regular long grain rice which absorbs twice as much water and basmati which absorbs a mere one and a half times.) While it’s short and fat like the rice used in risotto, bomba isn’t starchy, is hard to over-cook and delivers different results. Arborio rice will produce a creamier paella and the grains won’t separate like it should in the traditional dish.
Where do you get bomba? At Pimenton’s. Chef José says it’s the only place in Toronto that sells this Spanish rice. And based on the way he cradled the bad, I believe him.
Between taking photos*, trying not to step on other people’s toes and nibbling on tapas, I managed to jot down these handy tips.
- Use a paella pan. Its wide mouth and flat bottom are essential to the cooking. Chef José sells paella pans at Pimenton. The smallest size he sells is 14-inches, which serves between 4 and 6 people. As Chef José says, there’s no use making any less.
- Chef José prefers to use chicken thighs for their meaty flavour and fat content, but breasts are fine, too.
- Unpeeled shrimp provides better flavour, but José cautions, “Think about your guests.” You might want to remove the shell to make it easier for them to east.
- Chef José makes his own chicken stock for paella with nothing but water and chicken bones. No mire poix, no salt. Just chicken bones and water. This way the stock provides heft and flavour, but doesn’t interfere with the other flavours being layered into the dish.
- He doesn’t stir the dish. Instead, he grips the handle and gently but firmly rotates it clockwise and counter clockwise to swirl the rice into the liquid.
- Paella is all about eye balling. When the liquid boils down, add more. Rice is poured, not measured.
- When it comes to bomba rice, José’s rule of thumb is that 1 kg will feed 10 people. If you’re nervous about eyeballing the rice, it’s
- better to add less rice than more.
Served right from the pan it was cooked in, the paella was finished at the table. Peas, roasted red pepper slivers, shrimp, mussels and lemon wedges turned the monochromatic saffron yellow dish into a colourful main.
We dined on paella and grilled vegetable salad. Each paella pan did taste slightly different from the next, but the differences were subtle.
Nearly bursting from the tapas, salad, paella and sangria, I took the gluten-free almond cake home with me and enjoyed it for breakfast. As for the homemade ice cream drizzled in olive oil? Somehow, I managed to eat all that was put in front of me. But in my defence, it would have melted on the drive home.
*For more photos taken during the Pimenton paella class, visit my Tumblr. I went a bit snap-happy and can’t post them all here.