It’s hot! The air is dry and still, not a leaf moves. Even the lizards are feeling the heat. They’ve vacated the sun blasted rocks and have moved to their summer quarters under the pepper plants or the squash vines. I have red, scarlet red, ripe tomatoes and peppers. The cantaloupes are almost ripe.
For being late, this year’s summer celebrations have been all the sweeter. We are enjoying slow leisurely lunches at the time of day when it is just too hot to do much else. It is best to sit down at table in the shade of the porch and enjoy a Santa Barbara spot prawn paella garnished with fresh garden vegetables.
My husband is the paella cook in our household. He was trained by my aunt Montse, the best paella cook in the family, a very devoted paella aficionado and recognized as an excellent paella cook by all who’ve shared her rice artistry. As he set the pan on the table I remembered that camera laying quietly in the living room, and to his great despair, got up and quickly snapped a few shots. We are supposed to have been raised with proper table manners by our long suffering parents, which means getting up from the table as the food arrives is a no-no, and affront to the cook and fellow diners–in this case to the cook as we had this beautiful rice just for the two of us. But… but… I really had to show you you all that summer is here after having spent months complaining in the blog about its absence! Didn’t I? Manners be damned…
This is my plate. Red pepper, beans and zucchinis from the garden, the vegetables of the season.
Here in Santa Barbara spot prawns are our best shellfish, large, soft and sweet. The nice folk at Santa Barbara Fish Market sell them live, we cook them in their shells and we get to eat the whole prawn. The head is the very best part, and the shells infuse the rice with rich flavor. Nothing more frustrating that the usual peeled headless shrimp when I crave paella.
Santa Barbara Spot Prawn Paella Montse Style
This recipe is more a description of method than a detailed recipe. I am giving approximate amounts per person, you can then scale it up to fit your party.
- Rice: plain paella or bomba rice, if you can’t find it, Italian Carnaroli rice can work too. These days it is relatively easy to find rice imported from Valencia (Spain) in gourmet stores or online. The standard portion is 100 gr. rice per person, which turns out to be about 1/2 cup.
- A little bit of tomato, 1/2 a medium tomato per person, chopped or grated.
- 1 clove of garlic per person, minced.
- Olive oil.
- A healthy pinch of saffron.
- Water or broth: 2 1/2 times the amount of rice by volume. Fish broth is best, chicken broth will do too. Use water if you don’t have broth.
- Spot prawns: three large ones per person.
- A bit of red pepper, a handful of beans, some zucchini strips to use as garnish.
Make the fish broth: bring fish bones (fish heads, or any other form of fish bits and pieces that you can find) to a simmer in the measured amount of water for a few minutes, 10 maybe, no more than 20. Keep a pot of simmering water nearby in case you need extra liquid as you cook the rice.
Fry the garlic with the tomato in a few tablespoons of olive oil until it caramelizes a bit. Add the saffron. Add the rice, stir to coat well with the oil. Add the measured broth or water and spread everything evenly on the pan. From now on, do not, I repeat, do not stir the rice. It’ll get sticky and soggy if you do and you will not get the nice layer of caramelized rice at the bottom of the pan, the “socarrat”, which is the hallmark of a well made paella. You can gently shake the pan if you need to redistribute the liquid.
Now comes the tricky part. What you are supposed to do is cook the rice 10 minutes over high fire, 10 minutes over low fire and let it rest away from the fire for 5 more minutes. That’s it, all the liquid has been absorbed by the rice, which is evenly al dente, and a golden brown “socarrat” lines the bottom of the pan. The grains do not stick to each other and the dish is neither dry nor soupy. Sounds good except that this only works if you have the perfect equipment: a burner exactly matched to the size of your pan. My aunt has it but I don’t. An iron tripod over a crackling vine pruning fire would be even better, however, we don’t do open fires in the chaparral at this time of year.
Paella is cooked on a comparatively wide, low sided pan, and the rice is piled just a finger-width thick. This thin and wide expanse of metal and rice needs to be heated evenly, specially during the last 10 minutes at low fire. Impossible to achieve on a regular stove, where the burners are too small to heat but a circle in the center of the pan. My cook has solved this problem by cooking the rice for 20 minutes over high fire and having a simmering kettle nearby to add hot water to the pan as needed to keep it from drying out too soon during the last 10 minutes of cooking. He then lets it sit for 5 minutes off the fire, just as you are supposed to do.
When do you need to add the veggies and the prawns? You determine how long they need to cook and you count backwards from the moment the paella will be ready. If you think your ingredients will need the full 20 minutes of cooking, you just add them before the rice and stir a few times to glaze them a bit. If you are using spot prawns, you need to wait until the very last few minutes of cooking to add them on top of the rice. This time he arranged the veggies on top of the rice after 10 minutes. He added the spot prawns after 16 minutes, and turned them around after 18 minutes, so they would cook evenly on both sides.
After its prescribed rest, distribute a few lemon wedges around the pan and serve. I love squeezing a few drops of lemon juice on my paella for a final touch.
See? we ate it all. And then we scraped the toasted bits off the bottom, our beloved “socarrat”.
You can see a darker circle in the center of the pan which is the unfortunate consequence of having to keep it on high fire for the entire cooking time. Oh, well, I do not like single purpose gadgets so I am afraid you won’t see the special paella burner in my kitchen any time soon.
I have been talking about rice much more than about prawns, even though the prawns were the initial impulse for this meal. This is because paella is first and foremost a rice dish. The rice is what needs to shine. Actually, due to the size of these spot prawns we ended up with more stuff on top of the rice than we should have for a well balanced paella. The surface of the rice should not be completely covered with garnishes. This is also why I use the term garnish and not ingredient. Maybe toppings would be a better word to use. The point is, the main ingredient in a paella is the rice, the rest, vegetables, shellfish, are just complements for the rice.