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Paella Perfect: Rediscover True Flavors Of Spain

In Spain, you can find a dish called paella turista that loosely translates as "strictly for tourists."

It approximates the kind of paella most Americans know — a mixture of ingredients from land and sea served over rice that is often overcooked and sometimes artificially colored.

"I have little enthusiasm for the paellas I have eaten outside of Spain," writes Penelope Casas in her book Paella! Spectacular Rice Dishes from Spain. "The horrors that have befallen this exquisite dish and the indignities it has suffered!"

I made paella years ago and loved it but, apparently, did just about everything wrong. So when I decided to make real Spanish paella for a Sunday summer dinner, I had to be re-educated. I will never go back.

Paella was born in Valencia, a rice-producing area on Spain's eastern coastline. Early paellas were cooked outdoors over wood-burning fires for farm workers. They were made with rabbit, snails and beans, and traditionally were eaten straight from the pan.

In Spain today, families and friends still gather outdoors to cook paella either over an open fire or using a specially designed paella grill. It's an image I wanted to re-create in my urban backyard. Even with a Weber kettle as our centerpiece, I must say, it looked like a photograph out of Gourmet.

The pan used to make paella — a paellera — gave the dish its name, and the modest investment in authenticity pays off in taste. The pan is shallow, wide and round with slightly sloping sides. This shape ensures that the rice cooks evenly in one layer. Paelleras are available at cookware shops or through catalogs. Paella experts like the thin carbon steel pans that heat fast and don't retain too much heat. You can substitute a stainless steel or aluminum skillet, but cast-iron and nonstick pans are discouraged.

Fully equipped, I turned to the ingredients. Real paella, I learned, is all about the rice.

And, you can't use just any rice. Bomba is the best, and, of course, it's from Spain. This short-grained rice can absorb about three times more liquid than regular rice, meaning three times more flavor for your paella. Despite all the liquid, the rice remains firm. Bomba and other Spanish short-grained rices are available from specialty food shops and by mail. Bomba, however, is not cheap. Fortunately, easily available arborio — the rice used to make risotto — can be used. Just stay away from long-grained rice, which is less absorbent and doesn't have the right taste or texture.

The next misconception I had to toss out was that paella is loaded with ingredients — chicken, sausage, peas, peppers, onion, white fish, shellfish, the kitchen sink.

"Such paellas are frowned upon in Valencia," writes Casas, "because they do not allow each ingredient to be savored and appreciated on its own merits." The best paellas, she writes, focus on meat, fish or vegetables but don't mix them all together.

When my friend Luis Costa was growing up in Galicia in the northwest corner of Spain he never ate paella. It was a southern dish, he says, and he was a northerner. But when he went back to his village recently he visited a cousin who served paella, now common throughout the country.

Where Luis comes from, they eat a lot of mussels. So his cousin cooked a big pot of mussels and used the resulting liquid to make the paella. He added squid, shrimp and clams. He also put in Spanish chorizo to further flavor the rice. Luis warns that only Spanish chorizo should be used. Mexican chorizo, he says, is full of chili and will overwhelm the delicate flavor of paella.

When it was time for my party, I did what Luis and Penelope told me to do. I couldn't find Spanish chorizo so stuck with straight seafood. I have no regrets. I was tempted by the special paella grill — it costs less than $40 online, see details below — but found the Weber worked just fine.

I built a hot bed of coals and cooked everything sequentially in my new paellera. (I had sauteed the fish and shrimp in advance in the kitchen.) The fire just needs to be hot enough to bring the liquid to a boil when the rice is added. The grill is never covered.

Another tip was to throw fresh herbs or grapevines on the coals to further flavor the paella. Having no grapevines, I used sprigs of rosemary and thyme. I don't know if they added flavor, but the yard sure smelled good.

Sitting on my city patio with a cup of gazpacho, a glass of sangria and a paellera piled high with beautiful golden rice and accents of red pepper, pink shrimp and black mussels, we could easily have been enjoying a summer evening in Spain.

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Bonny Wolf
NPR commentator Bonny Wolf grew up in Minnesota and has worked as a reporter and editor at newspapers in New Jersey and Texas. She taught journalism at Texas A&M University where she encouraged her student, Lyle Lovett, to give up music and get a real job. Wolf gives better advice about cooking and eating, and contributes her monthly food essay to NPR's award-winning Weekend Edition Sunday. She is also a contributing editor to "Kitchen Window," NPR's Web-only, weekly food column.