I’m still quite a novice cook, so I think the best way to get better at it is to repeatedly cook the same dish over and over again. The first dish I’m trying this summer is paella, a popular Spanish dish.
I bought all of my ingredients at Whole Foods. I was trying to be as authentic as possible, but unfortunately Whole Foods was lacking in some ingredients and I had to make substitutions/deletions. For example, I replaced Spanish Bomba rice with Arborio, and could not find langoustines. But I think I got most of the rest of the ingredients!
I used a 10-inch cast iron skillet and tried to follow this recipe as closely as possible. I made the decision to halve the size. Here is my finished product:
- The amount of paprika/oregano/saffron added was a good amount. I was afraid it would turn out either too bland or too spiced.
- Fresh littleneck clams are really good.
What didn’t work:
- Overfilled the pan. It was way too crowded, and as a result, kind of gloopy. The rice was a little bit past al dente. I was unable to get the socarrat when I took it off the heat initially, so I put it back on high heat, and burned the bottom of the rice :(
- The shrimp was kinda rubbery and bland, but this may be because it wasn’t particularly fresh.
- The ingredients didn’t blend together that well. Each individual component basically tasted like it had been cooked by itself. The rice tasted just like spiced rice. I think this was a result of overcrowding the pan.
Overall, I would give it a 5/10. I was expecting to make a 3/10 on my first attempt, so it surpassed my expectations.
Interlude: Paella at Ostra
In order to get a quality frame of reference on what a good paella should taste like, I visited Ostra, a Mediterranean seafood place in Boston that is known for its Paella Valenciana, among other dishes. Here’s a picture of the dish:
Ostra’s paella was very “flat” compared to my first attempt, as the rice did not extend deeper than an inch at most. The rice was much more flavorful than mine, and it tasted more briney/fishy (fish stock?). The seafood was cooked perfectly, not over or underdone. Notably, the clams and mussels had a hint of wine (probably wine soaked?) The octopus was very clean tasting with a touch of pepper, very interesting. However, there wasn’t much of a socarrat at the bottom.
Would give it a 9/10.
On this attempt, I tried to make these changes:
- Don’t overcrowd the pan. I used a flatter stainless steel skillet instead of the cast-iron.
- Less chicken, more seafood (add mussels).
- Experiment with garnishes (fresh chopped parsley and frozen peas). The recipe in Attempt 1 called for frozen peas as garnish, which confused me so I just didn’t add them in. But apparently you just sprinkle the frozen peas on top, and they more or less cook.
- I kind of just winged it without really following a recipe, just doing the steps as done in the first attempt. I decided to put in chicken stock instead of water.
My second attempt can be seen here:
On this attempt, I improved the flavor and consistency of the rice (maybe because I used chicken stock instead of plain water). I also found that garnishes were very easy to add, and make a lot of difference in presentation! However, the pan was still overflowing, and I burned the bottom when I tried to make the socarrat.
I would give it a 6/10. My overall takeway from this attempt is that you really need to be careful about how much you are putting in - more ingredients is not necessarily better. Also, the principal difficulty in making a good paella is cooking the rice well - getting the right consistency and crunchiness at the bottom - and not the seafood/meat (which is hard to mess up).
I just winged it without really following a recipe word for word, but by this time I remembered the overall process. I mostly kept everything the same as attempt 2, but used less ingredients and added less water. As a result, the rice was of similar consistency as Ostra’s; however, I feel like it was still lacking in flavor compared to Ostra’s paella. I think I could have added more seasoning, as I didn’t keep track of how much smoked paprika, oregano, salt, and pepper I put in.
I burned the bottom pretty badly again, even though I only turned the heat on high for 30 seconds at the end. In the future, I’ll experiment with using lower heat throughout the simmering process, and maybe not even turning the heat onto high at the end.
Would give it a 6.5/10 (If I had produced a nice crust on the bottom without burning it, I would have given it a 7.5/10).
The recipe that I followed produced a surprisingly high quality paella, if done correctly. For me, the rice was the hard part - getting the correct al dente, without it being too soupy or dry, as well as the socarrat at the bottom - requires time and experimentation. The proteins and vegetables are relatively straightforward to cook. Paella is also a dish that requires a lot of time and preparation - it’s not something you can pull off in 10-15 minutes on a weekday! In the future, I would like to try to make a larger paella, as well as experiment with other proteins like octopus, lobster, and squid. But for now, I’m getting sick of it and will be moving to a different dish!