Americans tend to like their rice evenly cooked and fluffy, but what sets paella apart from just about every other rice dish is the crust that is supposed to form on the bottom.
The socarrat, from the Spanish word “socarrar,” which means “to toast lightly,” is to paella what the smoke ring is to a brisket: a technique that can take a lifetime to master and that is the indicator of how well you’ve executed the dish.
Emmett Fox, who along with wife Lisa opened the Spanish restaurant Fino in 2005, says that the best cooks use their ears to determine when the socarrat is done. Recently, as he prepared one of his favorite paellas over hot coals outside his Dripping Springs, Texas, home, Fox leaned forward, almost as if he were looking for something on the ground.
“You have to listen for the snap, crackle, pop,” he said, his ear close to the fire and hot pan.
Fox might be using traditional methods — a flat, circular pan with two handles over hot coals; lots of olive oil, bomba rice, and homemade stock — to prepare the dish, but it is anything from a typical saffron- and-seafood dish you’d find in some restaurant next to the beach in Valencia.
With dry-rubbed pork ribs, chicken thighs and livers, shiitake mushrooms, and cippolini onions, this is his and his wife’s Pace Bend paella, named for the park on Lake Travis where they first prepared it.
“Everyone talks about what a traditional paella is supposed to be like, but the truth is, it’s whatever neighborhood you’re in,” says Fox, a Memphis native who doesn’t mind adding the dry-rub ribs of his hometown to a dish he fell in love with many years ago during his travels in Spain.
If you live near the sea, it’s more common to use shellfish, Fox says, but families who live in the interior of Spain might use rabbit, snail, livers, or whatever other proteins are readily available. (Another favorite of the Foxes is paella topped with grilled quail.)
You don’t even have to use rice to make it. In Spain, paella de fideo is a popular dish that uses short vermicelli noodles instead of rice, and at Fino, head chef Andrew MacArthur has added a paella made with Israeli couscous.
If you are using rice, bomba rice is the absolute best for absorbing the flavors of the oil, stock, and other ingredients. Arborio, which is best for making risotto, gets a little on the creamy side in a paella, but it’s still an OK substitute if you can’t find bomba. Jasmine, basmati or other aromatic rices add flavor instead of soaking up others, and long grain rice just doesn’t have the right texture.
No matter what ingredients you are using, the technique is mostly the same: Sauté the aromatics and meat in slightly more olive oil than you think you’ll need until they start to brown ever so slightly. Then add the rice and cook until translucent, about two minutes. Add hot stock — about three parts stock to one part rice — and let the dish simmer for at least 20 minutes, rotating the pan to evenly distribute the heat.
That’s when the socarrat watch begins. Use all your senses to find that five-minute window when there’s a nice crust on the bottom before it crosses the line to charred. You should start to smell a slightly toasty, but not burned, aroma, and when you gently press the end of a spoon into the center of the paella, you should be able to feel the socarrat crust forming.
Pace Bend Paella
For pork ribs:
2 tablespoons coriander seed
1 tablespoon cumin seed
1 tablespoon fennel seed
1 tablespoon sesame seed
1 tablespoon red chili flakes
2 tablespoons smoked paprika
1½ tablespoons kosher salt
½ tablespoon cracked black pepper
8 pork ribs, St. Louis cut
8 cups mushroom stock
4 chicken thighs, seasoned with salt and pepper
16 shiitake mushrooms, stems removed and cut in half
12 cipollini onions, peeled
8 garlic cloves, peeled and cut in half
½ pound chicken livers, cleaned and cut into bite-size pieces
2 cups bomba rice
1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves
Salt and pepper, to taste
Cook’s note: Baking the ribs first will ensure that they are cooked all the way through and tender when the paella is finished.
Preheat oven to 350°. Place the coriander seed, cumin seed, fennel seed, sesame seed, and red chili flakes in a thick pan to toast over low to medium heat until you start to smell the oils, about 3 to 5 minutes. You don’t want to change the color but bring out the oils, and err on the side of low heat so you don’t burn the spices. When the spices are toasted, grind them along with the paprika and salt and pepper in a mortar and pestle or a clean coffee mill until the spices have formed a rough powder.
Cover ribs in spice mixture and place them on a rimmed baking sheet. Cover with foil and bake for 1 hour. Let cool briefly and then cut into four pieces with two bones each. If you are cooking over a wood or charcoal fire, start a the coals while the ribs are baking so they will be white hot and ready around the time the ribs come out of the oven.
While the ribs are cooling, heat the mushroom stock in a medium saucepan. Place the paella pan over medium-high heat, either on a stove or over hot coals. Sear the chicken thighs, skin down, until golden brown and then flip with tongs, searing the other side, as well. (You are just browning the outside of the chicken, not cooking it all the way through.) Remove thighs from pan and reserve.
Add several tablespoons of olive oil to the paella pan and add mushrooms and onions. Sauté for about 2 minutes, then add the garlic and cook for another minute. Add the rice and thyme, stirring to coat the rice with the olive oil. Sauté until rice is translucent, about 2 minutes. Add the chicken livers and cook for about another minute. Add almost all of the stock except for about 1 cup. Season rice mixture with about 1 teaspoon salt. Bring to a simmer.
Place the chicken thighs and pork ribs on top of the simmering rice and stock, pushing them about halfway down into the rice. You will let this cook down until the rice has absorbed almost all of the stock, adding the leftover stock as needed. This will take at least 20 minutes. Do not stir the rice or else you’ll disrupt the crust that is forming on the bottom of the pan. Also, rotate the pan periodically throughout cooking to make sure the heat is evenly distributed.
Taste the rice to make sure that the rice has been cooked through and listen for the pop and crackle of the socarrat forming on the bottom. (You can use the end of a spoon to press down to see if there is a crust forming.) If the rice isn’t done but the dish is dry, continue to add stock or, if you run out, water, one cup at a time.
Yield: 4 to 6 servings
Source: Emmett and Lisa Fox