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How to Cook Spanish Food in an American Kitchen

Our guest today is Katie Button, the executive chef and co-owner of Asheville, North Carolina restaurants Cúrate and Nightbell, and author of the new cookbook Cúrate: Authentic Spanish Food from an American Kitchen, out now from our sister company Flatiron Books. 

By
Kara Rota,
Episode #122

The below is excerpted from Cúrate. Copyright © 2016 by Katie Button. Reprinted with permission of Flatiron Books.

During a Costa Brava beach vacation, I had the best paella ever. When I asked the cook how he did it, he went on and on about the stock. He didn’t talk about the rice or the just caught seafood; he focused on the one ingredient you can’t even see in the finished dish. As he expounded upon the ingredients that went into it and the time it took, it struck me: Spaniards take pride in how long their cooking takes, both in terms of actual simmering hours, but also in terms of the years it takes to master a dish. This cook has spent over 25 years perfecting paella. His primary job is actually as a fisherman, so he gets to turn out paella with the best and freshest possible ingredients, namely his daily catch.

Even though that paella was made in Catalonia, the dish itself originated in Valencia. The word paella refers to the pan, derived from the Latin word for pan, “patella,” but now is synonymous with the rice dish found all over Spain. Valencia was the dish’s birthplace because it is home to wetlands ideal for growing the short grain rice needed for the dish. In fact, the only specialty items you need to make paella are Spanish short-grain rice, such as bomba, and a paella pan, which creates a charred crust, called the soccarat, on the bottom. (I especially like the heavy duty Pata Negra pans.)

Once you have the right rice and pan, you can cook the rice in stock or tomato sauce or both, and you can add any combination of meat, seafood, or vegetables. The Valencian classic combines locally sourced rabbit, snails, and vegetables. In my versions, I follow that spirit of local cooking when choosing ingredients. Because paella already has a rice base, it’s the ideal one-dish meal, even for entertaining. I don’t bother to serve anything else aside from plenty of sangria, wine, or beer.

Both grill and stovetop-oven techniques work, but the smokiness from outdoor cooking is incomparable. It actually isn’t more complicated than the indoor version. Paella technique lends itself to live fire cooking: It needs to start over high heat, then scale down to medium and, eventually, medium-low. As the coals burn, they’ll naturally diminish in heat, right at the times you need. I’ve made paella in grills countless times and remain amazed at how consistently this holds true.

The real appeal to cooking paella outdoors is being able to hang out with friends while creating a huge family meal that you’ll dig into together. It isn’t just a meal you make and serve, it’s one you share from start to finish.

Paella de Pollo: Chicken Paella This is my take on the classic Valencian-style paella that combines rabbit or chicken with snails and beans. I love the creaminess of giant lima beans, especially the ones from Rancho Gordo, a bean company in Northern California. Their earthy sweetness pairs so well with the savory seared chicken and the juicy artichokes. When those three ingredients simmer together, they’re essentially creating a stock that will infuse the rice as well.

20- TO 22-INCH PAELLA

PAN (SERVES 10 TO 12)

8 ounces dried large lima beans (1 cup)

½ cup extra-virgin olive oil

6 chicken legs, thighs and drumsticks split

3 tablespoons kosher salt, divided

1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

4 artichokes, trimmed to hearts, cut in quarters

12 garlic cloves, peeled and thinly sliced

1 large red bell pepper, thinly sliced

1 large green bell pepper, thinly sliced

1 large onion, finely chopped

2 cups canned crushed San Marzano tomatoes

2 tablespoons pimentón (smoked sweet paprika)

½ teaspoon saffron threads

6 cups water

2 cups bomba, calasparra, or Arborio rice

4 rosemary sprigs

16- TO 18-INCH PAELLA

PAN (SERVES 6 TO 8)

4 ounces dried large lima beans (1/2 cup)

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

3 chicken legs, thighs and drumsticks split

11/2 tablespoons kosher salt, divided

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

2 artichokes, trimmed to hearts, cut in quarters

6 garlic cloves, peeled and thinly sliced

1 small red bell pepper, thinly sliced

1 small green bell pepper, thinly sliced

1 small onion, finely chopped

1 cup canned crushed San Marzano tomatoes

1 tablespoon pimentón (smoked sweet paprika)

1/4 teaspoon saffron threads

3 cups water

1 cup bomba, calasparra, or Arborio rice

2 rosemary sprigs

The night before cooking, cover the lima beans with cold water by 3 inches in a large bowl. Cover and refrigerate until ready to cook, then drain well.

Prepare an outdoor grill that will fit your paella pan. If you have a standard round kettle grill, the handles of the paella pan may prevent the pan from sitting di

rectly on the rack. It’s okay as long as the base of the pan is smaller than the grill grate. Heat enough wood or coals to completely cover the bottom of the grill until very hot.

Carefully place the pan on the grill and add the oil. Heat until the oil and pan are very hot. Season the chicken with one-third of the salt and all of the pepper. Place in the oil, skin side down. Cook, turning once, until golden brown, about 10 minutes. Transfer to a large plate.

Add the artichokes to the hot oil and cook, turning occasionally, until golden brown, about 5 minutes. Sprinkle with half of the remaining salt and transfer to the plate with the chicken.

Add the garlic to the hot oil and cook, stirring, until golden, about 15 seconds. Add the bell peppers and onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until soft, about 10 minutes. Add the tomatoes and cook, stirring occasionally, until the liquid has evaporated and the tomatoes are starting to caramelize, about 10 minutes. Stir in the pimentón and saffron.

Add the lima beans and water and return the chicken and artichokes to the pan, along with any accumulated juices. Stir in the remaining salt. Bring to a simmer, then simmer for 10 minutes.

Stir in the rice until evenly distributed around the pan. Make sure all the grains are submerged in the liquid. Scatter the rosemary on top. Cover, with the grill vents open, and simmer until the rice and beans are tender and the liquid has evaporated, 10 to 20 minutes. The cooking time will depend on how hot your fire is at this point and the type of rice you use. The bottom of the rice should be browned and crusty, too.

Wearing heavy-duty oven mitts, transfer the pan to a heatproof surface or very large cooling rack. Tent with foil and let stand for 10 minutes. Serve hot.

Oven Paella: To make this in the oven, position a rack in the bottom of the oven and preheat to 350°F. Follow the instructions above and use a stovetop, straddling the pan between two burners, to sear the chicken and artichokes over high heat, saut. the vegetables over medium heat, and simmer the beans over low heat. After stirring in the rice and topping with the rosemary, transfer to the oven and bake. If the bottom hasn’t developed a crust by the time the rice and beans are tender, return to the stovetop and set over high heat. Cook just until a crust forms, then tent with foil and let stand as above before serving.

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Images courtesy of Evan Sung.

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