Paella Valenciana: Bert’s and Mine
This is a party dish for 10 to 12 people. If you have a group of people you want to impress, this is the dish. Expect to be put in their wills. You’ll notice there are a lot of ingredients, but once you get them lined up, it goes fast.
What memories I have of this classic Spanish masterpiece. First of all, I remember this dingy little Spanish restaurant called El Faro on Greenwich Street in the West Village when I lived there in the 1960s . Out of the way though it was, it didn’t take reservations. People were lined up on the sidewalk awaiting their turn at the Paella Valenciana. The serving was generous even for the two people it was designed to serve. It arrived in an enamelized cast iron Dutch oven and was the type of paella wherein all the flavors married. The rice grains clung together and every bite tasted just like the bite before.
El Faro’s patrons loved it and evidently still do. It is still holding its own since it opened in 1927 and is, in fact, the city’s oldest Spanish restaurant. Still in business at the same location, El Faro hasn’t been updated in 85 years! The faded paint on the walls and crumbling ceiling are part of its charm.
Then on a trip to Europe, I took a special side trip to Valencia on a quest for the real thing. Paella Valenciana in Valencia—surely this would be a memorable meal. Well, not so much. The primary thing I remember is how much sweeter lobster from the cold waters off the coast of Maine tastes than Spanish spiny lobster from warm waters.
In the 1970s I met Bert Greene, food columnist for the Daily News, proprietor of The Store at Amagansett and creator of the best Paella Valenciana I have ever had. Every time I come upon a paella recipe I compare it to Bert’s and it invariably falls short. First of all, unlike El Faro’s, each seafood ingredient and chicken is seasoned and cooked separately so that they retain their identity. The dish is composed at the end and gently anointed with a splash of Pernod. You don’t need a paella pan, just a large skillet.
1 2-lb. lobster
1 1/2 lbs. raw shrimp
2 dozen small clams
1 quart mussels
2 ½ – 3 lbs. chicken, cut up for frying
1 t oregano
1 branch fresh thyme or ¼ t dried
2 black peppercorns, crushed
2 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
1 ½ t salt
8-10 T extra virgin olive oil
1 t wine vinegar
2 sticks butter
1 ½ cups yellow onions, finely chopped
4 large shallots, finely chopped
1 ½ oz. salt pork, chopped (or bacon)
1 green pepper, cut in strips
1/2 t ground coriander
2 t capers
5 Spanish chorizos, sliced
3 slices ham, ½ inch thick, cut in strips
4 large ripe tomatoes, seeded and chopped
2 T chopped fresh basil
2 1/2 cups raw short grained rice, unwashed
½ t saffron
4 cups chicken broth, boiling
1 white onion, chopped
½ lemon, sliced
Parsley sprigs for poaching broth
1 Turkish bay leaf
2 cups white wine
2 lbs. any white fleshed fish boned and cut up (such as cod or flounder)
1 10-oz package of frozen peas, thawed
1 small can Pimientos
1 cup Moroccan black olives, pitted
2 oz. Pernod
Remove meat from lobster. Break claws and leave the claw meat inside. Shell and devein the raw shrimp. Wash and scrub clams and mussels and keep in cold salted water.
Cut up chicken into medium sized pieces. Combine oregano, thyme, peppercorns, garlic, salt, two tablespoons of oil and vinegar and mash it all together until it becomes a paste. Smear chicken pieces with this and let stand half an hour.
In a large skillet, melt ½ stick of butter and an equal amount of olive oil. Add ½ of the onion /shallot mixture and cook until golden. Quickly add chopped salt pork and then the pepper strips. Stir over medium heat and add the shrimp, coriander and capers. Cook, stirring steadily until the shrimp turn bright pink in color. Set ingredients aside in a serving dish and wipe out skillet lightly with a paper towel.
In the same skillet, place cut-up chorizos and sauté until brown. Add chicken pieces with enough oil and butter to sauté until golden brown on both sides. (This will take about 10 -15 minutes.) Put in ham strips and stir until they are well coated with sauce. Add chopped tomatoes and fresh basil and cook for an additional 10 minutes. Set aside.
In a large kettle, melt a stick of butter. Sauté the remaining onion/shallot mixture until golden. Add unwashed rice and crushed saffron and stir until rice becomes first translucent and then almost milky in color. Add boiling chicken broth. Stir once, cover and cook over low heat for 20 minutes.
In a s kettle, place cut-up white onion, sliced half lemon, parsley sprigs and bay leaf. Pour in 1 ½ cups white wine and bring to the simmer. Add mussels and clams first and then pieces of fish tied up in washed cheesecloth to hold their shape. Mussels and clams take about 10-15 minutes to steam. Fish will poach in about 7-8 minutes.
Arrange a bed of rice and garnish it well with chicken pieces, lobster, ham, chorizo and remainder of ingredients in the serving dish. Imbed the fish pieces and make another layer. Stuff the clams and mussel shells with rice and arrange over rice. Decorate with peas, pimientos and olives.
When dish is composed, dip a large piece of washed cheesecloth in white wine and place over the paella. Sprinkle with Pernod and dot with bits of butter. Bake the dish in a 350 degree oven for 20 minutes until piping hot. Remove cheesecloth and garnish with chopped parsley.
Photos by Michael Kirigin