Fire and rice. No, James Taylor has not released a new album. We're talking about paella. Really good Paella by Castillan chef Alberto Herraiz, owner of Fogón, a tapas bar in, of all places, Paris. Yeah, it's going to be one of those summers of sweaty culinary contradiction. Aren't they all.
The just-released cookbook – with a very cool white cloth cover trimmed in red stitching, incidentally — is highly focused on the subject at hand. As the press release reminds us, “Most people don't realize that [paella] can be savory or sweet, and can include ingredients as diverse as rabbit and crab, coconut and mango. Paella doesn't even have to be made with rice – it can be made with bulgur, quinoa, or almost any other grain. Alberto Herraiz presents [paella's] limitless variations.”
Great. So how's the book?
First, a side note for the paella-averse: Paella pans are shockingly inexpensive for the size, or at least to our American kitchen-excess eyes. The classic polished, carbonized steel pans you really want are all of $12 to serve two. Sure, expensive stainless steel versions exist, but as Herraiz reminds us, those $70 versions may “not need oiling between uses” as do the carbonized pans, “but they do not… develop the oxidation patina that imparts such a unique taste to paella.” For once, that penny saved really is all it claims to be. (On that note, The Spanish Table is our favorite stateside source for paella pans, if you can ever get past the addictive shelves of Spanish olive oil, saffron and chocolate.)
Still, this is what we can only describe as a “paella enthusiast's” sort of book. After all, there are 200 pages here devoted solely to the fire-cooked rice dish. Which means, yes, there are a lot of “when in Paris” dishes here: The paella with an entire black truffle shaved over the top (it serves two), the version with soft shell crabs, favas, asparagus, and a half dozen other “ingredients” that involve making something else (a stock, the necessary tomato sofrito) just to get started. Paella is a deceptively simply dish.
And yet, that rather fussy attention to detail works here, unlike in so many cookbooks. If you are going to the trouble to make paella – like risotto, something that isn't all that troublesome to make but comes with a lot of negative baggage – you probably are going to take the time to make that langoustine oil (a handy use of leftover shells that we often employ in stocks; here, they are simply infused in oil) and — why not? — paella with rabbits and snails, which has now dutifully been added to our “must taste before we kick it” list.
Herraiz also devotes much of the book to stovetop-to-oven cooking (traditional paella is cooked over an open fire). A thoughtful home cook gesture, or perhaps a Paris restaurant necessity. We can only guess. Not that the paella with bonito and Ibérico ham is exactly what we'll have time to cook up on Wednesday night, but we will be putting it into the weekend experimental repertoire. Those recipes from the “Paellas Without Rice” chapter (fideuá in Spanish), like black spaghetti with mushrooms and barley with sausages and chicken dumplings, made the cut, too.
To finish, there is sweet paella rice with apples and Camembert, a goat milk-rhubarb and goat cheese version, and for summer, a sweet strawberry-almond-rosemary version.
Damn. We'll never be able to look at paella quite the same way again.