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Heritage Recipe

Paella Valencian (pronounced pa-ay-ya)

Ingredients
Chunks of meat (about 2 inches square; 1 or 2 of each per serving): 8 to 10 pieces of chicken breast and/or thigh, 6 to 8 pieces of rabbit, or 6 to 8 pieces of pork, meatballs, etc. (all optional, depending on appetites)
1/4 pound of medium shrimp in shells, heads off
1/2 pound calamari, cleaned and skinned, cut into circles, heads whole
12 to 18 mussels
2 cups white rice (before cooking)
1 medium onion, chopped
3 to 4 Roma plum tomatoes, minced
Saffron (or 1 packet of Sazon Goya con Azafran)
Olive oil
1 large red bell pepper, cut into wide strips
1 green pepper, diced
Minced garlic (as much as you like; I tend to do at least 2 large cloves per person)
1 full head of garlic
Chopped parsley (fresh is best)
1 bay leaf
1/2 pound fresh green beans, diced, or canned peas, carrots, or chick peas (depending on your taste)

In saucepan, brown meats in olive oil; remove meat. In drippings, add onion, green pepper, tomato, minced garlic, bay leaf, and parsley and sauté until the onion is soft. Add saffron, browned meats, and 1/4 cup of water and cook over low heat 5 to 10 minutes. Drain the juice from the saucepan and save it.

Steam mussels until they open. Save the juice; set mussels aside. When they are cool, separate the shells, leaving the mussels on their half shells.

Transfer saucepan contents to paella pan, distributing evenly. Place full head of garlic at center of the pan. Divide into pie wedges with the thick strips of red pepper standing on edge so that when it is done, you will see the tops of the pepper strips. Distribute rings and heads of calamari. Sprinkle beans or chick peas evenly around. Then sprinkle rice evenly around meats. Add 8 cups of liquid, including saucepan sauté juices and mussel juice.

Cook, uncovered, evenly over low flame. This can be done in the oven, but is much better over an open flame where you can tend it. I prefer to do it over an adjustable grille, starting relatively close to the hot coals to get it steeping and simmering, but then raising the grille from the coals to slow the cooking and let the flavors mingle. Important: rotate the pan over the flame to make sure it cooks evenly, and keep flame from scorching the rice at the bottom of the paella pan. This pot takes considerable watchful attention.

When the rice has risen to the top and much (but not all) of the water has cooked off, fan shrimp over the top, then stand the mussels in half shells in the rice, points down. I do it in an attractive pattern of circled mussels and fanned shrimp.

As it cooks, gauge doneness by tasting rice from several parts of the pan to be sure it is the correct texture (cooked - not crunchy, not mushy) and consistent throughout. If more water is needed in certain parts of the pan, add boiling water sparingly, sprinkling from a large spoon. If too much water is in the rice, lay newspaper lightly over the top of it and it will absorb excess water.

Best served right out of the pan. In Spain, eating with the men out in the fields, the mussel shells served as spoons.

Serve with crusty bread and a tossed salad. I recommend violating the seafood-white wine rule; this meal goes best with a hardy red of your choice.

NOTE: In 1976 I found myself on Spain's Mediterranean coast with money running out after some four years of wanderlust. I had about $2,000 left and decided to see what housing that would buy me there. A friend suggested a nearby mountainside village called Benidoleig (pronounced Ben-ee-doe-layge), about 5 kilometers inland from the coast. I went there and fell in love with an old abandoned stone house that had dirt floors, no running water or electricity, a sagging roof, thick stone walls, but also a fireplace and a terrace in back with a magnificent view of a valley full of olive, almond, and orange trees and beyond it the glitteringly blue Mediterranean.

A stone in an outer wall with a date carved into it informed me the house had been built in 1379, a century and more before Christopher Columbus!

I bought the place with my last $2,000 cash from Señora Presentacion Ballester and her son, Vicente. She was a beautiful bent old woman with an angelic smile. The house had been in her family since it had been built, but abandoned 20 years before when she had moved her family to her late husband's family house in the village after his death.

That was how I made the acquaintance of Señora Presentacion, the abuela (grandmother) of the village of Benidoleig, and never ever referred to by anyone as anything but La Señora. She was one of the wisest, kindest and strongest women I have ever known. She died some years ago and I still miss her, although I hadn't seen her since 1984, when I last visited Benidoleig. (I had moved away in 1981.) It was she who introduced me to "paella Valencian", as it is said in native dialect. I was later told by men of the village that I had learned the art of paella from the unquestionable duena, the best the entire region had to offer.

And no question about it, doing paella is an art. For one thing, you do not cook or make a paella, you do it. And as in all arts, there are no "right" ingredients to put in. Every region of Spain does it a little differently, but its origins are in the province of Valencia, so that is what I take as my authority for how it should be done. Yet, even there, every family seems to have a variation it claims as "autentico." So it was with Señora Presentacion. I accept hers as the authentic paella Valencian. Who's to challenge me?

What follows is what I learned from her, with some very slight modifications to suit my taste and the foods available in the U.S.

I suggest the first time you do a paella that you stick close to the recipe. After that, feel free to experiment to taste. I also suggest you do not attempt a paella for two. This is a meal that requires a great deal of loving work to prepare, more than you would feel inclined to spend for only two persons. It requires close attention for quite a few hours. It cannot be hurried. I have tried to calculate the quantities required for six adults. There will be leftovers - there almost always are.

I have also done paella in the campo with working men, on a lengthy lunchtime break from harvesting the crop in those orange groves in the valley. (Someone left work in mid-morning to start the fire and begin preparing the meal. That was fine; we would all benefit.) When we broke for a two-hour or so lunch, we quaffed many liters of the hardy local red wine, watching the best cooks of our quadrilla tend the paella. So it was inevitable that some of what they taught me is also mixed into the recipe that follows.

Each January, when the harvest was done, all the men of our quadrilla gathered for a final paella - the only fitting way to celebrate a major event in that part of Spain.

In 1984 while I was visiting Benidoleig for fiesta week, the town discovered it had leftover funds (it assesses each home a fee to stage the fiesta, including renting the bulls that are run through the streets - but I digress) and elected to spend the extra funds on a huge paella for everyone in town in the nearby caverns. Everyone received some cash to help buy the meats (it was assumed everyone had a good supply of rice on hand). That was the last paella I helped prepare in Spain, with Presentacion supervising and Vicente and other friends coaching by my side. That paella pan fed 20 persons. It took two of us to carry it to the car for its trip from the garage where we prepared it to the cavern where we ate it.

This is the meal of love.

The first thing you need is a proper paella pan. You will find paella pans of many sizes and shapes. The best will be the most shallow and broad you can find, with its rim slanted outward. No lid needed. I have a paella pan that serves 8 persons; it is about 13 inches across at the top, 11 inches across the bottom, and the sides are only about an inch and a half high. It feeds eight persons comfortably. (I also have one that serves 16!)

The best way to clean and treat the pan: rub its insides vigorously with a wedge of lemon after each use (and before first use), rinse, dry, and wipe its insides with olive oil on a paper towel. It should remain rust free and ready for use. ...Richard Hébert

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