Although paella can be a free form affair, there are some hard and fast rules that purists embrace for paella excellence. First and foremost, paella is a rice dish. It's all about the rice. The rice has to be either Bomba or Calasparra, tiny fat rice nubs that can absorb tons of liquid while still remaining firm to create the sexy crunch of the socorrat on the bottom of the pan. While sofrito (garlic, onion, smoked paprika, salt, pepper, and grated tomatoes) is the key flavor base, it's the exotic saffron-infused stock that packs the most alluring potent punch. Finally, when possible, paellas are best cooked over an open flame. An open fire provides even heat distribution (for the soccorat) and additional smoky undertones.
While embracing the essence of Valencian paella, I honored the big rules
while bending a few others for a nontraditional and unconventional take on the original.
I finely diced 1 onion, minced 5 cloves of garlic, grated 2 large tomatoes on the large holes of a box grater (skins discarded), and set them aside.
Sure, fresh artichokes are bear to trim and clean (frozen or canned artichokes would have been fine), but I adore the earthy taste and unique texture of fresh artichokes. Patience was key. I sliced the top 1/3 off of one large artichoke and plucked off the remaining leaves until I reached the base. I peeled the stem, scooped the fuzzy purple choke from the center of the heart, rubbed all the exposed flesh with fresh lemon juice to prevent oxidization, used a paring knife to trim the cleaned artichoke, and quartered it before plunging the artichoke quarters into cold acidulated water.
My rabbit butchery is average at best. Because I knew breaking down a whole rabbit would be tricky business, I ditched the hare altogether and used local Marksbury Farm chicken drummettes and thighs. For the pork factor, in lieu of Spanish chorizo, I opted for a Kentucky spin with diced pieces of Brownings country ham. For true Valencian flair, I rinsed, boiled, and drained two 7 ounce cans of imported land snails. Yep. I had snails tucked away in the pantry. Go figure.
Paella lipstick. After blistering 2 large red peppers over a gas flame, I transferred the peppers to a bowl and covered the bowl with plastic wrap. While the peppers steamed and cooled in their juices, I sliced 1/2 pound of green beans on the bias and blanched them for 3 minutes before plunging them into heavily salted water to stop the cooking process.
I brought 6 cups of homemade chicken stock to a boil, reduced it to a simmer, and added a generous pinch of saffron. After reducing the heat to low, I covered the pan to let the saffron steep, bloom, and release its warming golden yellow hues into the stock.
With all the prep on deck, I lit a fire in an outdoor grill. As the flames died down, I slid a paella pan over the grate above the fire and drizzled the hot pan with 2 tablespoons of olive oil. When the oil started to spit and smoke, I browned 8 well seasoned Marksbury Farm chicken drummettes and 3 split boned chicken thighs in the hot oil. Just before removing the chicken from the pan, I tumbled 1 cup of medium diced Brownings country ham into the mix to crisp up and render its salty fat. After sliding the chicken and ham onto a side plate, I scooped the sofrito into the screaming hot paella pan along with 1 heaping tablespoon of Spanish smoked paprika.
When the sofrito thickened and caramelized into an aromatic brick-colored paste, I deglazed the pan with the reserved saffron-kissed stock. Within seconds, the heat from the pan brought the stock to a rolling boil, so I sprinkled 2 cups of bomba rice over the stock and shook the pan to evenly distribute the rice. As the rice settled into the stock, I tucked the drummettes, chicken thighs (skin on), and the quartered artichokes into the rippling stock. After scattering the snails around the paella, I let it rip (without stirring) for 35 minutes, rotating the pan every once and while to keep things loosey-goosey.
At the 30 minute mark, I could hear and smell the precious socorrat forming on the bottom of the pan, so I left the paella alone to allow the ingredients to settle into the gorgeous rice. When the rice was cooked through, yet firm, I pulled the paella from the heat, covered it with a dish towel, and let it rest for 10 minutes before finishing with julienned roasted red peppers, green beans, lemon, and olive oil.
Nestled in the jeweled rice, the tender chicken absorbed the smoky spice of the sofrito. While the artichokes seemed to melt into the paella, the country ham added salty crisp bites that balanced the the springy chew and earthy funk of the plumped snails. Scattered over the top, the roasted peppers provided subtle sweet smokiness alongside the bright crunch of the green beans. Even with so much going on, the rice was key. Both tender and firm, it popped with intricately woven layers of highly seasoned flavor. Beneath it all, the prized toasted socorrat caramelized, forming crunchy sweet and savory swaths of spiced rice candy. The hidden treasure.