If you read my blog regularly, you'll notice that I tend to spend time in a geographic locale before moving on. Many -- if not most -- of my early posts focused on the foods of Southeast Asia.
More recently, my cooking and eating adventures have moved in the direction of the Mediterranean. I posted several entries on Moroccan cooking, which features an earthy, warm spice palette.
This week, I'm moving just across Gibraltar to Spain, which shares with Morocco the use of saffron in its cuisine. Spanish food is characterized by market-fresh ingredients that are framed and enhanced by the use of seasonings and spices, as opposed to overwhelmed by them. Garlic, tomatoes, red peppers, bell peppers, onion and
good quality olive oil
appear in many Spanish dishes, regardless of regional origins. Thyme, oregano, and cumin are key seasonings.
I spent some time researching a range of Spanish dishes to see which ones appeared as the most representative of the country as a whole. Paella, a rice-based dish, appeared over and over. The dish originated in Valencia and spread to the rest of the country and is widely considered Spain's national dish.
Paella's origins are humble. It is believed that peasants and farmers created the dish, which relied on whatever was available (rabbit, duck, rice, and seafood in the coastal regions). The dish originally was cooked over open coals in a special pan (known as a paellera)
and eaten communally with a long spoon.
I made paella once when I was a child. I remember being excited about using saffron, one of the world's most expensive seasonings. Saffron is made from saffron crocus and infuses dishes with a reddish-orange hue and a subtle flavor that is distinctive to Spanish and Mediterranean dishes.
The Cambridge/Boston area is blessed with many great restaurants, including a few that feature Spanish cuisines. One of my favorites is Dali Spanish Restaurant and Tapas Bar, a twenty-three-year-old family-owned restaurant located in Somerville, on the border of Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Dali's has an inviting atmosphere and is decorated in warm woods that are set off by scenes of Spanish life
and saffron-colored walls.
I was quite taken with the two adorable wooden pigs that took up residence on one of the countertops. Many Spanish dishes owe their existence to pigs, so it was fitting that they should occupy a place of honor at Dali's.
But I digress. I went to Dali to see first-hand how paella was made. Cesar, the long-time manager, was kind enough to agree to allow In the Kitchen with Eva to film Amparo, the chef, preparing the country's national dish. (Check out the video that shows how paella is made, filmed in Dali's kitchen: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nWESmVsRup4)
There are a number of different ways to make paella. Dali does a version that incorporates both meat and seafood. The ingredients include: a sofrito (made of fresh tomatoes, onion, garlic, saffron, bell peppers, red peppers and olive oil), short-grain rice (calasparra), chicken, clams, fish stock,
chorizo and butifarra
and fish stock (Dali makes it fresh).
The garnish is four strips of roasted red peppers that are placed on the paella toward the end of the cooking process.
The onion, garlic, peppers and tomatoes are cooked into a sofrito, which is the base for many Spanish dishes.
The sofrito is mixed with the rice
over a low-medium flame.
The chorizo, butifarra, chicken and clams are placed on top of the rice. The mixture is covered with freshly-made fish stock and allowed to boil and then simmer.
The seafood is added and the pan is covered and allowed to simmer for an additional 15-20 minutes. The snow crab is placed in the middle of the mixture to cook. After a few minutes of additional simmering, the artichokes are place in the pan. The pan is placed in a hot oven to finish, for about 5 minutes or so. The dish goes back over a low flame and the green peas and red pepper strips are added.
The paella was a treat! The seasonings complemented the fresh ingredients and allowed the natural flavors of the meats and seafood to shine. The rice was perfectly cooked, without being dry. And nothing was overcooked, a testament to Chef Amparo's skill in putting the dish together.
Make a trip to Dali Spanish Restaurant and Tapas Restaurant (415 Washington Street,Somerville, MA 02143, (617) 661-3254, http://www.dalirestaurant.com/). You won't be disappointed!