Friday, December 16, 2011

Cuban Paella

Are you planning a get-together in the next few weeks?  Paella is a great choice for entertaining because it's impressive, it's delicious, it makes a lot, and it's easy - you just keep sticking stuff in the pan until it's all done.  The Lawyer and I served paella for a New Year's Eve party last year, and our friends Ron and Susie served it when they had us over for dinner a few weeks ago.  (Ron and Susie recently drove from Minnesota to California by way of Florida. Go figure.)

There are as many variations of paella as there are towns and regions in Spain, Central and South America but they all have a few ingredients in common.  Paella (pronounced pie-ay-uh) starts with arborio rice and a number of spices including saffron.  Most paellas also contain some type(s) of shellfish with shrimp being the most common, but I've seen paella recipes that also contain mussels, clams and even lobster tails.  Paellas often include chorizo, a spicy Spanish sausage (more about chorizo further on), and some paellas contain chicken.  This is a Cuban Paella version that contains shrimp, chicken and chorizo.  The spice paste also includes lime juice and a splash of rum. 

Basically paella is a great one pot meal and you can change the ingredients to suit your taste. For example, I'm not fond of mussels (they taste like ball bearings coated in rubber bands) so you won't see them here.

Lets talk about a couple of the classic paella ingredients.  First, the rice - it's important to use arborio rice for paella rather than a different rice variety.  Why?  Because arborio rice has a high starch content which gives creaminess to the sauce and it also retains a firm center when cooked which gives it a nice chewy texture.  Arborio also is the classic rice of choice for risottos in addition to paellas.

Now lets talk about chorizo.  Chorizo is a spicy sausage common to Mexican and Spanish cuisines.  But there's a hitch - there are two distinctly different varieties of chorizo.  Spanish chorizo is a hard (cured) sausage that is long and thin, similar to pepperoni.  It comes with a paper casing that needs to be removed before slicing. It's moderately spicy but can also be purchased in the "caliente" version (hot) if you can find it.  Spanish chorizo can be found in the deli department of upscale grocers or in gourmet stores.

Mexican Chorizo is a soft uncooked sausage that typically comes in a tube or "chub" as it's known in the food industry (did you know I used to work for Pillsbury?).  It's raw and must be cooked before eating.  You crumble it as it cooks, very similar to Italian sausage. Mexican chorizo can be found in the meat department of most grocers.  You don't use Mexican chorizo for paella but it'll be featured in a future blog post for chorizo quiche with roasted pepper sauce.

OK, now lets talk about spices.  Paella isn't paella without the distinctive taste of saffron.  Yes, saffron is expensive but you only use a tiny bit.  This recipe also includes your choice of Spanish or Hungarian paprika.  Spanish paprika has a smoky flavor which I love while Hungarian is more mild (unless you buy the hot version).  If you want to use hot Hungarian paprika I would suggest using it half and half with regular paprika the first time you make it to make sure the paella doesn't get to spicy for your taste. 

Speaking of spices, do you date yours?  I don't mean as in taking them to the movies, I mean sticking a little label on them showing the month and year you bought them.  If you don't, how do you know how fresh they are?  General rule of thumb is that the shelf life of ground spices and herbs is 6 months, and whole spices can be kept for 12 months.  I always check the spices I need for a recipe to see if I've exceeded the shelf life.  If it's only a month or two over I generally sniff the spice to see if it still has a strong aroma.  If not, or if it's longer than a month or two over the limit, toss the bottle and buy new.  And it doesn't work to use twice as much of an older spice, trust me.  Two times nothing still equals nothing.  That's why I always buy the smallest jar available of any spice, even if I use it frequently.

I highly recommend buying spices from Penzeys ( because they have the greatest variety and best prices.  You want paprika?  Great, they have four different kinds.  And don't even start on chili powders.  They have stores around the country (including 2 miles from my house, luckily) and they also do mail order if you don't happen to live near one.

You have a choice of artichokes or green beans in the recipe.  I made it this time with fresh green beans and really liked the fact that they stayed crisp and provided a textural contrast to the other ingredients.

Note that the chicken should marinate up to 16 hours for maximum flavor but you can skip that step if you only start reading the recipe an hour before you want to eat.

* * click here for a printable recipe version * *

Cuban Paella
Serves 8

Cuban Spice Paste:
¼ cup Spanish or Hungarian paprika
2 teaspoons minced garlic
¼ cup fresh squeezed lime juice
2 tablespoons rum (optional)
1 ½ teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon fresh ground pepper
½ teaspoon ground oregano
½ teaspoon ground cumin
2 tablespoons olive oil

2.5 lbs chicken thighs, trimmed and cut into approximate 1.5” chunks
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 cups chopped onions
2 tablespoons chopped garlic
4 ounces Spanish chorizo, wrapping removed and thinly sliced
2 cups Arborio rice
3 cups low-sodium chicken broth
1 cup canned diced tomatoes
¼ teaspoon saffron
2 tablespoons capers, drained
½ cup fire-roasted red bell peppers, cut into strips
16 large shrimp, peeled and deveined but tails left on
2 cups frozen artichoke hearts or two cups green beans, fresh or frozen, cut into 2” pieces

In a medium bowl or ziptop bag, combine paprika, garlic, lime juice, optional rum, salt, pepper, oregano, cumin and olive oil to make a paste. Toss in the chicken thigh chunks and coat well. Refrigerate, turning occasionally, for up to 16 hours or proceed with the recipe if in a hurry.

Preheat the oven to 350d. Heat oil in a large, deep skillet over medium-high heat. Add half the chicken, leaving excess marinade in the bowl to add later. Brown on each side for 3-5 minutes per side, then remove. Cook the other half of the chicken in the same way and remove from the pan.

Reduce the heat to medium and add the chorizo. Saute, stirring occasionally, for 2-3 minutes and remove from the pan. Add the onions and garlic to the pan and cook, scraping up any browned bits from the bottom of the pan, until soft (about 5 minutes). Add the rice and cook, stirring, until well coated with the onion mixture. Pour in the stock, tomatoes, saffron, and any remaining marinade. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer, cover and cook for 15 minutes. Stir in the capers, cover and transfer to the oven. Bake for 20 minutes. Remove from the oven and scatter the surface of the rice with the fire-roasted pepper, chorizo, shrimp, and artichokes or green beans.

Gently pat the ingredients into the top layer of rice, cover and bake for 10 additional minutes or until the rice is tender, the liquid is absorbed and the shrimp are opaque and pink. Stir together before serving.

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