Wine With . . . Paella
by Paul Lukacs and Marguerite Thomas
'You bring the wines, I'll make paella,' said our friend Lisa. And so, on one of the first warm days of spring, we showed up at her house with fifteen bottles of wine and our taste buds primed for paella.
Possibly Spain's most famous dish, paella's origins can be traced back to eighth century Valencia, a region ruled by the Moors who introduced rice and many other new crops which they brought from North Africa and the near East. The Arabs also brought saffron (azafrán) to Spain. This essential paella ingredient is expensive compared to most herbs and spices because it is a very labor intensive crop, and its harvest has a very short window (about 10 days in the fall). The spice is extracted from the stigma of the purple Crocus sativus, and it takes about 200 crocus flowers to produce a single gram of saffron. Cheaper substitutes may impart the proper golden hue, but they never will give the haunting aroma and flavor of the real thing. But don't be tempted to be too generous with the saffron, for an overabundance in the dish can turn paella bitter.
Paella was originally a humble peasant dish, cooked by farm workers at midday in the fields using available ingredients such as rabbits (when one could be snared) and/or snails (relatively easy to gather up). Paella marinara was a coastal variation on the same theme. The most familiar paella today combines meat and fish, and is a tasty, easy to assemble one-dish dinner that has the further advantage of being deliciously wine-friendly.
There were six of us enjoying Lisa's paella, and we were just about evenly divided between white and red wines. A couple of us had a slight preference for the former to highlight the seafood in the dish, while the rest thought the red wines showed better with the full flavored chorizo. We all agreed, however, that the paella had enough complexity of flavors and textures to be a good fit with wines of any color.
You can be as versatile as you want with the chicken. Poach up a couple of chicken breasts and/or roast some thighs, or for a quick and easy approach use the meat from a rotisserie chicken.
2 Chorizo sausages cut into chunks
About 1 pound chicken, cut into bite-sized pieces
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 onion, diced
1 red bell pepper, seeded and cut into thin strips
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 tomatoes, peeled and chopped (use fresh or canned)
1 teaspoon paprika
1 teaspoon thyme
2 cups medium to long-grain rice, preferably Spanish Valencia
2 teaspoons saffron threads
Salt and pepper
6 cups chicken stock or water
1 pound calamari (squid), cleaned and cut into rings
1 pound large shrimp
1 dozen mussels
½ cup green peas (frozen is fine)
3 or 4 lemons, cut in wedges
In a paella pan or wide, heavy skillet, lightly brown the chorizo and chicken in the olive oil. Remove them with a slotted spoon and reserve. Drain off excess oil and add the onion and pepper to the pan. Cook until they begin to soften. Add the garlic and tomatoes and mix in the paprika and thyme. Stir in the rice. Soften the saffron in ¼ cup hot water for 5 minutes; then stir it into the rice mixture. Season with salt and pepper. Add the stock or water and simmer, uncovered, about 10 minutes, stirring once or twice to keep rice from sticking to the pan. Add the chicken, chorizo, and the seafood. Simmer, uncovered, until the rice is al dente and the mussels have opened. Scatter the peas over the top of the dish and continue simmering for a few more minutes, until the rice is fully cooked and all the liquid has been absorbed. Remove from heat and let stand about 5 minutes before serving. Garnish the dish with lemon wedges.