At his al fresco paella demonstrations at Bar Ferdinand, chef David Ansill insists that making the rice dish is simple. "It's rustic peasant food, very uncomplicated," he says. "It can easily be adjusted to however you want to make it."
The nearly 30 diners with their glasses of wine, gathered around him in a horseshoe configuration of tables, eagerly absorb his wisdom, but seem skeptical.
After all, they've paid $40 for the privilege (plus dinner and a takeaway paella kit) of learning how to execute a notorious dinner-party ruiner of a dish. They've all endured the rubbery shrimp-and-clam casualties of bad Spanish cooking - surely, there must be one winning formula.
"We cook a lot at home, and we've taken other cooking classes," says Kathie Carnes, of Monroeville, N.J., who attended the class with her husband, Jerry. "We came here to see an expert in action."
As far as the expert is concerned, a laid-back attitude is the secret. Ansill circles around his prep table and specialty burner, sharing tips and travel stories, as line cook Chan Chheang adds and stirs ingredients into the party-size pan. The chef cheerfully chastises the last-arriving couple for traveling on Spanish time.
Even the fundamentals seem to be flexible. Like tagine, paella is actually named for its vessel. A shallow paella pan made of carbon or stainless steel is suggested, but a cast-iron skillet will do just as well.
Bomba and calasparra rice are the traditional varieties used in paella, but can be difficult to find beyond the Internet and specialty grocers. No matter, says Ansill. Goya brand short-grain or Arborio (risotto) rice can be substituted.
The rice is cooked with stock, but that can be as simple as store-bought, low-sodium chicken stock or as elaborate as a multi-shellfish extravaganza. (Ansill, who considers the flavor of the stock essential to great paella, suggests a compromise for home cooks: enlivening the store-bought stuff by simmering it with some shrimp shells and straining before use.)
There's the matter of soccarat, the caramelized layer on the bottom of the pan, which for some paella enthusiasts is the equivalent of the coveted crispy top of the mac-and-cheese casserole. To achieve soccarat, the cook must let the stock absorb, then briefly turn up the heat, allowing the rice to crisp just enough, but not burn. Yet, the soccarat - and whether it merits an extra step - is another matter of taste.
The classic Valencian incarnation features rabbit, chicken, snails, and beans. Regional variations might include lobster, Serrano ham, artichokes, asparagus, cockles, squid, scallops, or other seasonal ingredients. Ansill's pan of golden rice is layered with chorizo, chicken, rabbit, crayfish, clams, and mussels, crowned with slivers of ruby-red piquillo pepper and emerald fava beans.
How these ingredients are staged is a critical component of success (and a guard against rubbery shellfish). Again, and unfortunately for the exacting cook, it's highly variable. Some chefs put the chicken before clams, for instance, and some throw all the proteins in at once. Ansill's recipe calls for browning the chicken with chorizo, then cooking clams first before adding the mussels, then the chicken and chorizo back to the pan, and finally the shrimp.
Sweet or smoked paprika can be used to marinate the chicken and/or rabbit, but it's not necessary. Or the rice can simply absorb the paprika oil rendered from chorizo. Saffron is a must, but Ansill says it's fine for cooks to use only as much of the pricey stigmas as they can afford.
For the cooking, the paella can be covered or uncovered (Ansill covers his). It can be cooked indoors on a stove top, or even in an oven, or more traditionally, on an open fire. Even the types of wood on the fire are a matter of debate. "When I learned how to make paella in Spain," Ansill says, "they talked about a certain balance of olivewood and apple wood."
So, what's indisputably necessary to a paella then? One nonnegotiable is the sofrito, a flavor base of chopped onion, garlic, and tomato leisurely cooked in olive oil. (Ansill suggests making a large amount ahead of time and freezing it in ice cube trays for convenience.) The other is that, once everything's in place, the rice should never be stirred.
The process requires some patience, but making paella is a celebration, and it can't be rushed, Ansill says. He recalls enjoying his favorite paella of all time at an oceanfront shack in Spain. "We ate some tapas as it was being prepared. It was very simple, but I've never had a better one." Years later when he went back, he was dismayed to find the establishment had given up its chairs to avoid paying a restaurant tax - and no longer served paella.
That's not to diminish the experience of fine dining. As Chheang rings the pan with a careful arrangement of mussels and clams, a participant asks why he's doing it that way. "Hey, we're a restaurant," Ansill says. "We want it to look good."
The demonstration paella goes out in a blaze of glory as he lights a large rosemary branch on fire and sets it over top of the rice before covering it for its final cooking. It's a showy last touch that, he tells the crowd, is probably unnecessary at home.
Paella with David Ansill
The final class is 7 p.m. Aug. 23. $40 per person (plus tax and gratuity). 215-923-1313, barferdinand.com.EndText
Makes 6 entree servings
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 pound chorizo, sliced thin
1/2 pound boneless skinless chicken thighs, cut into bite-size pieces
2 small onions, diced
4 garlic cloves, minced
2 medium tomatoes, diced
1 cup bomba, calasparra, Arborio, or Goya short-grain rice
3 cups chicken stock (can be infused ahead of time with shrimp shells), heated (you might not need all of it)
3 grams Spanish saffron
1/2 pound shrimp, cleaned
12 littleneck clams
A couple of handfuls of haricots verts or peas
1/2 cup piquillo peppers or roasted red peppers cut into thin strips
1. Heat oil in a 17-inch paella pan or cast-iron pan over medium-high heat. Sauté chorizo until brown, then remove and reserve. Add chicken to the pan, and brown on all sides. Remove from pan and reserve.
2. In the same pan, make a sofrito by sautéing the onions and garlic until soft, being careful not to burn the garlic. Cook for 2 or 3 minutes on medium heat. Then, add tomatoes, and cook until the mixture caramelizes a bit and the ingredients become a thick, chunky sauce.
3. Fold in the rice and stir-fry to coat the grains for 2 to 3 minutes, until the grains of rice turn opaque. Pour in 1/2 cup heated stock and let rice absorb almost all of the stock. Add saffron, stirring for the final time. Add clams, tucking them into the rice, and another 1/2 cup of heated stock. Cover. When stock is absorbed, add the mussels and another 1/4 cup stock to the pan. Cover and let rice absorb stock. Add shrimp, chicken, and chorizo and 1/2 cup stock. Cover and let rice absorb stock. Continue to add more stock in 1/2 cup increments if rice is still not cooked. If it seems tender, add haricot verts and/or peas and piquillo peppers/roasted peppers. Turn heat down to low, cover, and let stand until all stock is absorbed and seafood has finished cooking.
4. To create the soccarat, the caramelized, crispy layer on the bottom of the pan, briefly turn up the heat to medium high and check after about one minute and a half, allowing the rice to crisp just enough, but not so much that it burns.
Per serving: 526 calories; 37 grams protein; 38 grams carbohydrates; 5 grams sugar; 24 grams fat; 155 milligrams cholesterol; 1,158 milligrams sodium; 3 grams dietary fiber.