I just got back from Guanajuato’s Second Annual Paella Festival. This year’s was even better than last year’s. If you haven’t heard of paella, you are missing an gastronomical delight!
My wife and I have friends who are chefs and belong to the Restaurant Association that puts this festival on each year. Invited last year as their guests, this year we were paying customers at $130.00 pesos each. Because of all the food that was there (buffet style), this was not a bad price at all! There were professional chefs coming to ply their craft before your eyes and then feeding you until you lapse into a coma!
As I said, if you’ve never tried paella, an idea with which I can barely cope, you have been missing the meal of your life.
Paella is popular Spanish dish with a wide range of varieties depending on the geographical location of Spain (or Mexico) in which you find yourself. It is a combination of saffron-flavored rice, vegetables, and whatever meats you want to add. I have had rabbit, chicken, sausage, shrimp, clams, oysters, octopus, squid – you name it, I’ve had it. Generous use of olive oil is a must as part of the flavoring. It is like a leftover stew. In fact, the word paella comes from the Moorish domination of Spain. In Arabic, it means leftover.
In Moorish ruled Spain, the fishermen who served them took home the leftover fish and rice from the ruler’s lavish parties. The fishermen would mix the rice and fish together for easy transportation. By the end of the 19th century, paella became a famous Spanish dish.
They cook paella in a paella pan. This paella pan was traditionally iron, but in modern times, stainless steel. This is a shallow, circular pan with a handle on each side. The traditional method was to cook outdoors, over a wood fire. The community members would gather around these cooking paellas with wooden spoons and gobble it up directly from the pan instead of using plates. Some towns would hold contests to see who could make the largest paella.
Nowadays, people crave paella for its seafood. However, this was not as it was in the beginning. As the popularity of the dish spread to the coastal areas, people added seafood. Originally, paella used farm animal meat sources such as rabbit, duck, pork, beef, or chicken. The addition of seafood was a later invention.
People have paella parties. The whole extended family go off to a restaurant to eat it or the neighborhood will get together to cook it in the streets.
This was the sense I got from Guanajuato’s Paella Festival. It was a throw back to older times, a gathering of the community to prepare an ancient dish to eat, drink, and be merry. Spanish performers sand and danced the flamenco. Spanish wine complemented the more than 10 varieties of paella. Red, green, and white banners (The Mexican national colors) decorated the outdoor facility. Long, covered tables permitted the chefs to work their paella magic. The smell of the preparation was incredible.
The festival advertised to begin at 1:00 p.m., we arrived at 12:45 and, in typical Mexican fashion, there was only one restaurant out of the eventual ten setting up their table. So, we sat and watched the rest roll in at their leisure. They casually strolled about the area setting up their outdoor stoves and unloading coolers of meats and vegetables, unworried with any time restraints. The food would get cooked eventually so we sat, watched, waited, and enjoyed everyone’s company. This is so Mexican!
I could not help but marvel at the lengths to which these people went to put on this Spanish-themed festival. Fiercely independent, they fought hard to win their freedom from the Spanish domination in 1821 and yet what do they hold so passionately as a remnant of their Spanish heritage – a food dish with all the Spanish trimmings.
An enigma? Maybe, but boy did I eat a ton of paella!
8 chicken legs
3 chorizo sausages, cut into 1 inch pieces
4 tablespoons olive oil
3/4 cup chopped onion
1 clove garlic, chopped
1 1/2 cups medium grain rice
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon white pepper
1 teaspoon saffron threads
4 cups chicken stock (or 2 cups chicken stock and 2 cups clam juice)
1 pound shelled & cleaned shrimp marinated in:
1 clove garlic, chopped
1 onion, chopped
1 tablespoon parsley, chopped
1/2 cup oil
1/2 cup white wine
1/2 pound fresh mussels and/or clams
2 cans artichoke hearts, drained
1 jar whole pimentos, drained
1/2 cup fresh or frozen peas, cooked and drained
8 lobster claws or crab claws
2 lemons, quartered
In a large pan, brown the chicken legs and sausages in the olive oil. Add chopped onions and garlic, brown. Remove meat mixture from pan and reserve. Add rice to pan and cook until slightly golden and transparent. Add salt and pepper. Bring stock to a boil. Dissolve saffron in the boiling stock. Cover rice with the stock and put the meat mixture back in the pan. Cover and cook slowly until the liquid is absorbed (about 30 minutes) on the cooktop.
Marinate shrimp for at least one hour. Remove from marinade before adding to paella pan after the liquid has absorbed into the rice.
Garnish paella with mussels/clams, artichoke hearts, pimentos, peas, crab and lobster. Cover and let the garnish ingredients steam for 20 minutes over a low fire (so the rice on the bottom does not burn). Serve with lemon sections.