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A magazine on Spanish gastronomy put me on track to create a wonderful version of a very old dish this week – paella valenciana tradicional.

I’d eaten paellas before, even cooked a few, but always the elaborate version of this famous saffron rice dish, with multiple kinds of shellfish, plus chicken, sausages, pimientos, and green peas. It’s a beautiful, baroque presentation, requiring a hefty amount of work, plus a large number of diners to do it justice.

In the magazine, Spain Gourmetour, I was reading an article on that country’s many rice varieties, some of which have been awarded Protected Designation of Origin status by the EU, and learned that, in Spain, restaurants offering the traditional version of paella now are (or soon will be) required to apply for a quality certificate attesting that they make it with PDO Valencia rice, as well as other required ingredients.

I’d never paid much attention to the kind of rice in the paellas I’d consumed, but this information intrigued me. I found recipes for this traditional paella in two of my cookbooks, The Foods and Wines of Spain by Penelope Casas and The Cuisines of Spain by Teresa Barrenechea. The recipes were very unlike what I’d known. No seafood or sausages. Chicken, yes, though rabbit is the preferred meat, plus fresh snails if available. No peas: instead flat green beans and large white lima beans. And both books contained paeans to the glories of Spanish rice.

While still a carefully composed dish, this kind of paella seemed more easily manageable than the spectacular seafood version: even possible to make in a quantity small enough for two persons. I decided to try it, only skipping the snails, since fresh are never available here and most of the canned ones taste – well, canned.

The first and crucial step was to acquire real Valencia rice. I found Bomba, one of the PDO varieties, at Despaña, a local Spanish specialty food shop. Unusual, and quite different from other rices I’ve used: it’s very short-grained; rounder and stubbier than even the Italian short-grain rices familiar to me from risottos.

Left, Spanish Bomba; right, Italian Carnaroli

My books’ recipes were on a large scale, but I figured I could resize them for a dinner for two. So I did – taking some of the steps from each of the recipes and rewriting the procedure for myself. Actually, thinking through and writing up my version of the recipe was almost more work than making the eventual dish! Here’s how I made it:

1. The night before, soaked dried lima beans, then the next morning cooked them until barely tender in water with some olive oil.

2. Made a broth from a big chicken bouillon cube, water, bay leaf, onion, parsley, black pepper, saffron, and sweet paprika.

3. Browned two chicken legs in olive oil in a 10-inch round shallow pan. Set them aside and added garlic and tomato to the pan. (One book gave me a neat little trick for tomatoes: halve them and rub the faces against the largest holes of a box grater – thus peeling and crushing them in one simple action.) Cooked that a little while, added the Bomba rice, and cooked it 5 minutes.

I did that much of the dish an hour or so in advance. No problem.

4. When ready to proceed, I reheated the rice mixture, adding some of the beans’ cooking water to remoisten it. I stirred in the heated-up seasoned broth, the white beans, and some raw flat green beans.

5. After everything had gotten acquainted for a few minutes, I buried the chicken pieces in the rice mixture and put the pan in a moderate oven, uncovered, for 20 minutes.

6. Before serving, I took the paella out of the oven, covered it with foil, and let it contemplate itself for 10 minutes.

The paella was just lovely. But placid, in a way – a homey, comforting dish of protein, rice, and two veg. The saffron provided a warm golden color but wasn’t an unduly strong presence, mostly an enrichment of all the other flavors. Tom and I have never enjoyed lima beans as much as we did in this dish, where they seemed to absorb delicate flavors from their environment.

When the dish was set on the table, there seemed to be a lot of rice for only two persons. It was in fact more than we could finish – but we got through most of it, because the rice itself was utterly delicious. (I enjoyed the leftovers for lunch the next day.) I’m definitely a convert now, though I’m not sure whether to credit the rice variety alone or the whole ensemble of flavors in the dish. Soon I’m planning to use Bomba in some more familiar rice recipe to see if I’ve acquired a new addiction!

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