One of the last places I expected to learn to make Paella was while working in Ghana – but per usual, travel allows you to meet some extraordinary people with backgrounds that enrich and edify your own – enter Ventura Bengoechea, a water and sanitation expert posted at the World Bank in Ghana whom I have had the pleasure of spending some time with – specifically in a didactic nature as it relates to the Spanish culinary arts. Ventura invited me along with a few others to enjoy what he calls his ‘Spanish rice dish’ as he is cognizant of the purists from Valencia who consider bestowing the appellation of ‘paella’ on a dish truly sacrosanct. I’ve had paella in Valencia, Barcelona, Madrid, Toledo, Salamanca, Granada, and Alhambra – and I can honestly say that Ventura’s “Rice Dish” can certainly hang with the best of them. The hardest part as I assumed was sourcing the dishes many components in Accra but never doubt a Spaniard when it comes to acquiring food or wine. I would recommend all of you try out the following website – La Tienda (http://www.tienda.com) – a great purveyor for everything from canned chiparones en su tinta (baby squid in ink) to manchego cheese and Iberico ham.
Paella from scratch
For those of you who have never had Paella before, it is a rice dish that hails from Valencia, a beautiful city on the eastern coast of Spain. Paella is considered by many non-Spaniards to be Spain’s national dish but as aforementioned, it is a regional specialty of Valencia. Most paella consists of rice, vegetables, meat, seafood, and if you’re lucky caracoles (snails – more on that later), and of course the world’s most expensive commodity by weight – saffron. First a note on having the right hardware for the job. I knew Ventura meant business when he pulled out an authentic Paella pan. In fact the etymology of the dish derives from the Catalan word for pan.
He starts by sauteing chopped onions and green peppers in olive oil and then removing once translucent. The stock of the dish has already been prepared as part of the mise en plas for the dish which includes individually and partially cooked seafood such as calamari/squid and shrimp. It is important to remember that the dish does much of its cooking submerged under stock so you must time the addition of different ingredients to ensure perfectly cooked seafood. The stock is a base of standard Goya seasoning infused with saffron.
We next brown chicken which has been marinated in a tomato based marinade – simple seasoning such as adobo and garlic would also suffice. Although we used chicken breast for aesthetics, Ventura recommends dark meat for those who prefer a deeper flavor.
Once the chicken is just browned but not cooked through, we add the rice to sop up some of the oil and brown a bit, followed by the rest of the semi cooked seafood. We slowly add the stock as to not bring the entire temperature of the paella down too drastically.
As you can see the dish slowly starts to take shape as the rice starts to plump up and all the dishes components become imbued with the saffron infused stock.Whatever you do, don’t cover the dish. Say you somehow actually procured a lid big enough to fit on one of these behemoth pans, cooking paella open is a critical part of the process. You will essentially steam and overcook the seafood/chicken if you cover the dish. You want the liquid to boil off.
An Aside From Barcelona
For those of you planning a trip to Barcelona anytime soon, please stop by Los Caracoles off of La Rambla. During the time I spent studying abroad at Oxford, I would book weekend trips from the U.K. to Barcelona solely to go to this restaurant and get the Paella Bogavante (Lobster Paella) and a caraf of Barcelona’s best Sangria. The best part about this restaurant is that much like most of Barcelona and Spain, the restaurant serves food well into the night – so getting off of a plane circa midnight at BCN does not preclude you from getting your hands on this magnificent dish that very same night.
Ventura’s Paella web
When I tasted the dish finally and saw how long it took to prepare, I was reminiscent of a favorite book from childhood and let’s be honest, it’s still one of my favorite books – Charlotte’s web. Without offering a spoiler to the end of the book, Charlotte refers to her greatest achievement as her “magnum opus” – meaning literally ‘great work’ in latin. While I wouldn’t take the liberty to say this paella is Ventura’s magnum opus in life, I would certainly say that he has fulfilled his duty to Spain by perfecting his version of this dish.
Towards the end of the meal, we had some great Spanish brandy “Lepanto”. The aroma was just as intoxicating as the alcohol and punctuated the end of the meal with perfection. Over the digestif Ventura explained why he was able to cook paella so well, “In Spain back then, you either had to play guitar, football, or learn how to make paella – I wasn’t too good at guitar or football..”