- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 16, 2005

I’m surprised that Spanish cooking remains largely unfamiliar to most of us. It can’t be the ingredients or flavors. So much of Spain’s cuisine relies on olive oil, garlic, onions, tomatoes, peppers, ham, sausage and seafood - the same things we love about Italian food.

The best way I know to develop a love for Spanish food is to make paella, a main-course rice pilaf generously studded with seafood, poultry or meat. Paella, which takes its name from the shallow pan, or paellera, in which it is traditionally cooked, abounds in wonderfully aromatic flavors - not least saffron, the rare spice that gives the dish its bright golden color and delicious perfume.

“But paella is so complicated and time-consuming,” I can hear some cooks complaining. Such misconceptions come only from people who haven’t tried to make it, particularly in the simplified yet authentic version I share here - and especially from those who don’t know how easy and quick paella becomes when you make it with a reliable modern pressure cooker. (My recipe includes both stovetop and pressure cooker instructions.)

Successful paella starts with the rice. While Spanish cooks typically use a plump medium-grain variety similar to the kind featured in Italian risotto, I find it’s easier for busy cooks to get good and fast results using long-grain rice.

Paella calls for big flavors. Many cooks err in under-seasoning, failing to consider how much the rice’s volume expands during cooking. I use generous amounts of garlic, onion and bell pepper, which I saute in olive oil to enhance their flavor. I also make sure to coat the rice with the oil before adding liquid, so the grains stay separate.

As for the saffron, you’ll find jars or packets containing dried threads of the spice in the seasonings section of well-stocked markets. Don’t be alarmed by the price or by how little you get, since just a pinch provides a happy explosion of flavor, aroma and color.

My version of paella features fresh seafood - shrimp, mussels and clams - and bright-green baby peas, available frozen. You can vary the recipe easily, adding chopped tomato if you like and complementing or replacing the seafood with scallops, bite-sized chunks of sauteed sausage, smoked ham or boneless and skinless chicken. (Remember, any proteins you add have to be in pieces small enough to cook as quickly as the rice.)

The variety this paella offers doesn’t end at one meal, either. Make an extra-large batch and refrigerate the leftovers. The next day, toss the cold paella with a little vinaigrette dressing (use Spanish sherry vinegar, if you like) and chopped fresh herbs, spoon it onto beds of lettuce leaves, and enjoy a lunch every bit as flavorful as last night’s dinner.

EASY PAELLA

Serves 4

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 medium onion, chopped

1 red bell pepper, cored, seeded, deveined and diced

2 large garlic cloves, minced

2 1/2 cups (625 ml) long-grain white rice

3 1/2 cups (875 ml) good quality canned chicken broth or seafood broth

3/4 cup (180 ml) dry white wine

2 teaspoons salt (less if broth is salty)

12 large shrimp, peeled and deveined

12 small fresh clams, thoroughly scrubbed and rinsed

12 fresh mussels, thoroughly scrubbed and rinsed

1/2 cup (125 ml) frozen young peas

2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley leaves, plus more for garnish

Pinch freshly ground black pepper

Pinch cayenne

1/2 teaspoon saffron threads

In a large heavy skillet over medium heat, or in a pressure cooker with the lid off over low heat, heat the olive oil. Add the onion and bell pepper and cook, stirring, until the onion starts to turn translucent, about 3 minutes. Stir in the garlic and rice and continue stirring until garlic is fragrant and the rice is evenly coated with oil, about 1 minute. Stir in the broth and wine, raise the heat to high and bring to a boil. Add the salt (using less if the broth is already well seasoned), shrimp, clams, mussels, peas, parsley, black pepper and cayenne. Pinch the saffron threads between your fingers (using less if you prefer more subtle results) and rub them, letting them drop into the cooking liquid.

If using a skillet, reduce the heat to very low and simmer gently, covered, until all the liquid has evaporated and the rice is tender and beginning to stick to the pan, 15 to 20 minutes. Turn off the heat and leave the skillet to sit undisturbed for 10 minutes.

If using a pressure cooker, following the manufacturer’s instructions, immediately secure the lid, bring the cooker to pressure, reduce the heat to low, and set a timer for 5 minutes. As soon as the cooking time is up, turn off the heat or remove the pressure cooker from the stovetop. Set the cooker aside and let the pressure reduce on its own, without using a quick-release valve. When the float valve indicates that pressure has returned to normal, after 7 to 10 minutes, release the quick-release valve to eliminate any remaining pressure in the cooker. Then, carefully remove the lid.

Stir the paella briefly in the skillet or pressure cooker to distribute the ingredients evenly. Spoon into shallow serving bowls or plates, garnish with parsley and serve immediately.

(Chef Wolfgang Puck’s TV series, “Wolfgang Puck’s Cooking Class,” airs Sundays on the Food Network. Also, his latest cookbook, “Wolfgang Puck Makes It Easy,” is now available in bookstores. Write Wolfgang Puck in care of Tribune Media Services Inc., 2225 Kenmore Ave., Suite 114, Buffalo, N.Y. 14207.)

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