A pound of fish seems like a perfectly reasonable request at the supermarket.
Well, not always. Asking for a pound of fish will get you lots of funny looks in London because a pound is an amount of currency not a measurement.
During a summer study abroad in college I shared a house with nearly 20 people and visiting the kitchen for more than a bowl of cereal was of little priority. But eventually my friends and I realized spending lots of money every day in restaurants was cutting into our weekend travel budgets.
So we dutifully took trips down the street to Sainsbury’s or Waitrose if we didn’t feel like walking an extra block and had a few extra pounds to spend. We mostly bought rotisserie chickens, the makings for salad, and the aforementioned cereal.
But one night we said, “WE ARE GOING TO COOK DINNER!”
Despite never having made or even eaten paella, it somehow became the dinner I had to make. I picked up some sort of kit with the rice and spice blend and made a beeline for the fish counter. But when I asked the man for a pound of fish, he looked at me like I was nuts and came out from around the counter and proceeded to show my friend and I what a pound of fish was. Basically half a filet.
Great Britain is an English speaking country but I could not articulate to him that I wanted more. The weights and measurement system drained from my brain and I took my tiny filet to go. Luckily you can buy shrimp but simply saying, “I want X number of shrimp” so at least we had something. But things only got worse from there.
I can barely make a proper pot of rice in America in my own kitchen, so a foreign kitchen and this kit were not setting me up for success. The rice came out gummy and I folded in the minuscule fish pieces and pink shrimp to make an unappetizing dinner but it tasted ok and dinner was had. Lesson learned.
Actual paella is not made in a tiny stockpot. It requires a large paella pan and hopefully an outdoor grill. The flames from the grill and the pan develops a crispy layer of rice on the bottom and fluffy rice on top.
This sounds delicious. This does not sound like what we ate that summer night in London. But I have modified what we devoured and Persian rice into a modified crispy paella rice.
In addition to the giant pan and grill, the other must for paella is saffron. The pricy little spice is a major splurge but is sold in teeny tiny increments so you don’t go completely insane at the checkout. Just a few threads will add a deep ruddy color and unique flavor to your crispy paella rice. Since I don’t want to use up all of my impulse bought saffron from Amazon, I round out the dish with smoked paprika and yellow turmeric.
Before the spices show up, you soak rice in water for at least a half hour. You can go longer if you’ve really thought ahead but 30 minutes is about as far out that I can plan for when I want dinner. While the rice is soaking, you saute shallots and garlic in turmeric to start building the base of the rice.
After the rice has soaked for as long as you can stand you boil it in more water than you’d ever use to cook rice. The rice is treated more like pasta and is pulled from the water when it’s al dente. Cook the rice in the same pot you used for the shallots and garlic so any extra flavor and the color from the turmeric gets picked up by the water and rice. The rice will pick up a yellow-ish hue.
While the rice is boiling you bloom the saffron and smoked paprika in a little bit of oil and water. This liquid gets drizzled over the rice when it gets its final steam.
For that final steam, you heat up your stockpot with a thin film of oil and a little more smoked paprika. Then you pack the par-cooked rice and shallot and garlic in the pot, pressing the paella rice down to form a crust at the bottom of the pot.
You pour the seasoned oil and water mixture over the rice and then top the pot with a lid wrapped in a towel. The towel keeps too much liquid from escaping and ensures the lid has a tight fit. Then you drop the heat to low and let the rice steam on top and crisp on the bottom.
And after all of that work then you wait a little bit more. You can tell the rice is cooked when you insert a knife into the rice and you can feel the blade pierce a crispy bottom. Once things are crisped up the pot then needs to rest for another 20 minutes.
But finally, finally after all of that waiting is done you replace the towel wrapped lid with a plate and flip the whole thing. Hopefully, cross your fingers, the crispy paella rice will unmold from the pot and drop onto the plate. The crispy crust will be on top and underneath will be a pile of perfectly steamed rice. If your crispy paella rice cake doesn’t perfectly come out then spoon out the crispy top and place it on top of the steamy rice.
- 1 1/2 cups white basmati rice
- 3 cloves of garlic, chopped
- 1 small shallot, chopped
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- ½ teaspoons turmeric
- ½ teaspoon Smoked paprika
- A generous pinch of saffron
- Soak rice in 3 cups of water for at least 30 minutes, up to overnight.
- While the rice is soaking, preheat a heavy-bottomed pot over medium heat. Saute the chopped garlic, shallots, and turmeric in 1 tablespoon of olive oil until soft.
- Set the cooked garlic and shallots aside and fill the pot halfway with water and 2 teaspoons of salt. Don't clean out the pot before you fill it with water.
- Combine 3 tablespoons of water, 2 teaspoons of oil, ½ teaspoon of salt, a pinch of saffron and a pinch of smoked paprika in a bowl and whisk together. Set aside for later.
- Bring to a boil and add the rice. You then cook the rice until it almost done, still crunchy in the middle. Depending how long you soaked the rice this could take between 5 and 10 minutes.
- Drain the rice in a large colander and cool it down by carefully fluffing the rice with a spoon.
- Return the pot to the burner and add the final tablespoon of olive oil and a little more paprika. Heat the pot until the oil starts to smoke.
- Add some of the rice to the pot and press it down with the back of a spoon. Add the cooked shallots and garlic and then the rest of the rice on top.
- Drizzle the water-oil mixture on top and cover with a lid wrapped in a kitchen towel.
- Drop the heat to low and let the rice steam for 30 minutes. You know the rice is done with you insert a knife into the pot and can feel a crunchy crust at the bottom.
- Remove the pot from the heat and let rest for 20 minutes.
- To serve unmold the rice by the inverting the pot with a plate on top. If the crispy rice cake doesn't easily come out of the pot then scoop the rice out with the crispy topping.