On The Range: Seafood Paella

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On The Range is a weekly exploration of the history and lore of Texas menu items.

There's no doubt that the Spanish are passionate about paella.

Paella is, of course, the painstaking meat, rice and vegetable dish traditionally cooked in (and often eaten from) a large, shallow pan. However, early versions of the dish were actually brought by the Moors from Africa who occupied the Iberian peninsula for nearly eight centuries--although some who study the matter say modern paella was actually developed in Valencia during the mid-19th century/

This allows it to be recognized by the Spaniards as a regional dish rather than a national one. But restaurateur and food writer Norberto Jorge leaves no doubt that other parts of the country have their own paella passion, as well.

Writing in the Taunton Press, he notes:

"Every country has a dish that unites its people. Or, just as often, divides them. In Spain, that dish is paella. Get us talking about our paellas, or arroces, and you may get the sense that there are more paella recipes than there are stars in the sky. And to a certain extent, you'd be right---the combinations of foods that can make up paella are endless. But the best paellas aren't merely the product of a good recipe, though that certainly helps. No, paella perfection comes about when the person who is cooking it has an almost tangible affection for the dish itself, for the process of making it, and for the people who will be eating it."

Generally speaking, there are three versions that matter. The so-called Valencian paella combines rice, game meat such as rabbit (and, believe it or not, marsh rat in some early versions), chicken, seafood and beans. Mixto is a more obvious collision of seafood and meat. Coastal residents naturally substituted mussels, fish, shrimp, and whatever else they caught to create a straightforward seafood paella.

Food Network guru and master chef Bobby Flay includes two recipes in his book From My Kitchen to Your Table. Paellas can be complicated affairs, and Flay's Curried Shellfish and Chicken Paella brings together almost 20 ingredients, such as asparagus, chorizo, olive oil, curry powder, turmeric, chile powder, honey, chicken, mussels, clams, and other shellfish. For his Classic Paella variation, he simply directs the chef to "omit the curry powder, turmeric, chile powder, and honey, and substitute one tablespoon saffron threads."

These days, seafood paella is said to be the world's most popular variety. Here in Dallas, you don't even have to journey to a Spanish restaurant or tapas bar to try it. Coast Global Seafood serves an upscale version as an occasional daily special, consisting of shellfish paella with saffron rice and clams, shrimp, and crab claws in a tomato-based broth. The pungent grass, hay, and honey aromas of the saffron should be very apparent and the rich tomato broth is a perfect foil for displaying the fresh shellfish flavor.

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