For months I’d looked forward to the opening of Mercado Sano, a three-story, organic market housed in a former hardware store in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. Because our city’s large expat community is so food-centric, my expectations were high – but finding delicious paella wasn’t one of them.
It was nearly lunchtime, and a crowd of people gathered around a paella pan set up outside the market door. Chef Joan Casas stood behind it like an artist with a large, round canvas, using every conceivable tool in his culinary palette and the alchemy of an open flame to create a masterpiece.
As I leaned in for a closer look, I smelled the saffron mingling with the rice, stock, and a sofrito of onion, garlic, and tomatoes. I noticed slender white sausages, chunks of chicken and fish, some kind of oyster mushrooms, green beans, peas, and green and red pepper strips. Finally, he topped the mixture with just-cooked prawns, squid, mussels, and clams, and – to the relief of his salivating audience – deemed it ready to eat.
I had made and tasted many paellas over the years, but this one blew me away – perhaps it was because it was such an unexpected treat to find in the middle of Mexico. The sausages were savory, not too spicy; there were chunks of rabbit and pork, as well as dark-meat chicken and a variety of fish. Meaty, salmon-colored oyster mushrooms provided an unexpected layer of flavor and texture.
Once I wriggled the last prawn from its shell and licked my fingers, I headed back to the paella station. I had to learn this chef’s tricks of the trade. Casas and I met for coffee at the market one morning a few days later. With my Spanish skills about on par with his English, we recruited a fellow vendor to serve as our translator. He had an interesting story about his circuitous route to the kitchen.
A former car-racing champion in his native Catalonia, Spain, he competed in a road rally in Mexico City and fell in love with the country, moving to San Miguel de Allende five years later. With his car-racing days behind him, he had a new finish line in sight: the restaurant business. His uncle had owned restaurants in Barcelona and Andorra, and he knew sausage-making from his family business. After several years of training restaurant staffs and perfecting his charcuterie, a friend finally convinced him to take the plunge and open his own restaurant, El Asador Catalan.
Growing up just north of Valencia, the rice-growing city where paella had its origins centuries ago, it naturally became Casas’ trademark dish. He estimates that he has served 130,000 pans of paella since his restaurant opened in 1998 – feeding as many as 1,000 people at a time.
Besides sharing his technique, Casas gave me a history lesson. Once the Romans introduced aqueducts and the Moors introduced rice from the Middle East, the staple crop became the canvas for an endless number of rustic, local variations, depending on available ingredients. “Paella was made by the farmers, the hunters, and the fishermen, using whatever they grew, killed, or caught,” he said. “They carried the big pans on horseback, so they chopped off the long handles to make them easier to transport.” Over time, the variations expanded with access to markets, but the dish has always remained flexible and open to individual interpretation and regional foods.
Casas swears by Calasparra rice grown in the same area as Bomba, which is preferred by many paella chefs. The Roman irrigation system still carries the cold, fresh mountain water down to the fields, allowing the rice to mature more slowly than along the Valencian shore – resulting in a harder, drier grain that can absorb up to one-third more broth while retaining its integrity.
Before adding rice, Casas makes a sofrito, or flavor base, of chopped onion, garlic, and tomatoes cooked in olive oil. He recommends not hurrying this step: the longer you cook the sofrito, the darker and more intensely flavored the paella. Once you add the rice and stock (he uses a combination of fish and chicken stock), it takes about 25 minutes for the rice to fully absorb the broth, and this is the time to add the fish and other ingredients that don’t require a lot of cooking time. The saffron, which was brought to Spain in the 10th century by the Moors, is important because it imparts paella’s distinctive flavor.
Casas says there is a traditional rule for adding the meats and fish to the pan: “First, you need to cook the animal that walks; then add the animal that flies; and then add the animal that swims,” he said. (Chickens don’t really fly, but you get the idea.) He likes to cook the shellfish and squid first, set it aside, and add it back on top after the rice and other ingredients have cooked.
What paella cooks all agree on is you must let the rice sit, undisturbed, on the pan’s flat bottom until it forms a soccarat, the prized toasty crust. “At the end of the party, everyone wants the soccarat,” Casas noted, “but it’s usually saved for the abuelo (grandpa), or oldest person.”
Casas likes to use both rabbit and chicken, and his mushrooms are locally cultivated and sold at the market – a great illustration of how paella lends itself to local ingredients. His sausage is not Mexican, however; he prefers salchicha Catalana, a white Catalan sausage. He explained that although chorizo is commonly used in paella, the paprika and/or cumin in chorizo contains gives the whole dish an unwanted reddish hue – which is also why he doesn’t use the traditional smoky paprika in his recipe.
As we finished our coffee, Casas shared a final secret: the paella always tastes better if the chef drinks wine while cooking it. He likes a glass of red, but believes that “any wine you like is the best.” Now that I’ve found my 18-inch paella pan (in the back of a local wine store, of all places), I say, let the paella party begin!