Martín’s Country Paella

Ronda, Spain

There is a special ambiance particular to a country house no matter where it is in the world. The informal silverware, slightly tarnished and used with what is left of a tea set. Paintings by family members on the walls. Sofas that permanently hold the shape of the person who most often reclines on them. A bouquet of frazzled toothbrushes in a cup by the bathroom sink. Slippers waiting at the bedside for their owner’s feet. I’ve found that no matter how fancy the owners are, or how often they visit, these relics remain in their wake. I feel most comfortable surrounded by these things, even when they are not my own. They are signifiers of a sanctuary, a place where siestas are encouraged, where meals are cooked with herbs from the garden and eaten together most often around an informal table by the kitchen.

I just got back from my first trip to Spain. We began in Seville for two romantic days and nights of sightseeing, eating and visiting some of Sebastian’s haunts from his time there years before. We spent an afternoon at El Rocio on the final day of the pilgrimage, a town seeped in religious fervor suffering from a mass hangover from nights of celebrating on the journey. We saw women in full flamenco regalia, the gilded virgins kept safe in their stalls by bars, in a landscape and town that recalled a Sergio Leone film. But it wasn’t until Martín Mazarassa brought us through the archway of his Cortijo—his Andalucían farmhouse near Ronda—that I felt at peace. Martín is a friend of Sebastian’s who has a catering company called San Tenedor in Madrid. We were greeted by a motley crew of dogs—one who had not left it’s mat in two years and whose front legs had atrophied, and Chiqui, the ugliest dog I have ever encountered, who suffered from Elephantitis of the testicles and had lost the better part of his nose in a fight. Though Martín claimed that his family hadn’t visited from Madrid for months, the house felt as though someone had left only a few hours before; the colander in the sink and the magazine near the bathtub made settling in all the easier for us.

Martín took us to the mouth of cave, where we jumped from a cliff into icy blue water and ate a picnic of local Jamón ibérico with bread and lemonade. Then he took us home and taught me how to make paella.

With leeks, onions, and chicken bones, with a bit of meat still left on them, Martín whipped together a stock. While I skimmed it, Martín steeped saffron (a healthy portion, I’d say about a teaspoon) in a cup of boiling water.

Paella is certainly one of Spain’s national dishes and a source of great pride to the Spanish. There are many variations on paella from the traditional Valencian recipe with rabbit, chicken, duck, snails and beans to seafood paella, which omits the green vegetables and replaces the meat with fish. Ronda is inland, so naturally ours was to be a meat paella, but the nuances were up to Martín, who said every family has their own version of paella, and that one can use whatever vegetables are on hand and fresh. While his stock simmered, Martín deftly chopped…

Red Pepper

Martín also revealed the Spaniard’s secret to Pan con Tomate—their classic breakfast/tapas/snack item: cut a tomato in half and use a cheese grater to remove and purée the tomato’s insides right down to the skin. It should have been perfectly obvious, I suppose, but it wasn’t until the extremely handsome Martín took hold of that halved tomato that it all finally clicked for me. Martín clearly knew his way around a kitchen, a quality I find quite important in a man. He efficiently and swiftly arranged his veggies, slicing, dicing and puréeing, pausing only to ash the omnipresent joint from his lips.

After about 45 minutes, the stock had some flavor and character, and Martín strained it and added the saffron broth, which he also strained to omit the actual tendrils of saffron.

Brace yourselves for the next step, bunny lovers.

In the paella pan with a bit of olive oil Martín browned the rabbit. Conveniently, in Spain where it is a regular part of the diet, rabbit comes packaged in the supermarket already in pieces (including the head, split down the center). If you aren’t in a country which considers rabbit a staple menu item or you object to eating it because of sentimentality toward the Easter Bunny, or the darling brown and white floppy-eared friend, Maxine, who you babysat for the summer from your third grade science lab, then you could easily substitute chicken. But be forewarned, rabbit is far more flavorful than chicken, though similar in texture, meat color and bone size, and the more I eat, the more difficult I find it to draw and stick to these lines.

I eat meat. I am at Martín’s house. He is making paella with rabbit. I eat rabbit. It tastes good.

Martín put the browned rabbit aside, and in the fat that remained sautéed his vegetables, adding the grated tomato last. When all of the vegetables were simmering nicely but still quite firm and fresh in color, Martín added the rice. Martín said that it is very important to use bomba rice for paella, as it absorbs 30% more broth than regular rice and yet remains firm. When I asked him how much rice to use, he gave me the cherished answer of “one handful per person.” Immediately the New Yorker in me inwardly panicked: whose fist? Should a woman’s handful be used for a woman’s portion?! I reminded myself to let go, to enjoy it. After all, this is the kind of cooking I love, aspire to and strive for. It is cooking that cannot be learned in a book; it is food that is measured in your fist before it melts in your tummy. Yes.

Stir the vegetables and rice over high heat before adding the broth. Add the broth and bring mixture to a boil, then reduce heat to a simmer. If Martín’s portioning of rice was at all vague, his proportions were anything but:

1 portion of rice for 2.5 portions of stock. (Of course this begs the question of how one holds stock in one’s hand. I recommend using a measuring cup. If you want to follow Martín’s recipe, measure a handful of rice and then multiply that by 2.5 to see how much stock per handful. If I can do it you can.)

Add the pieces of rabbit, one piece at a time, pushing them somewhat below the surface and placing them around the paella pan so that they are mixed in with the vegetables. Martín warned not to stir once you have added the broth, so when adding the rabbit do so carefully so as not to upset the mixture much.

From when the broth is added, the paella should cook for 15 minutes, at which point most of the liquid is absorbed by the rice, but the rice is still firm and everything is still moist.

At about 3:45, we took the paella pan and a bottle of red wine out to the table under the pergola and ate our lunch lazily. The gardeners pruned listlessly around us, as if to prove that work really did happen here each day, even when the family was gone. When we were finished, but before we allowed ourselves to sink into siestas, Martín took us to visit the piggies his parents raise— patas negras, the highest quality, most coveted ham in Spain and perhaps in the world….

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3 Responses to “Martín’s Country Paella”

  1. Wow that was unusual. I judt wrote an extremewly long
    comment but aftrer I clicked submit my comment didn’t show up.
    Grrrr… well I’m not writing all that over again.
    Regardless, just wanted to say excellent blog!

  2. Arturo says:

    Tarajia this looks amazing. Can’t wait to hear more about your trip!

  3. silver cat says:

    This sounds heavenly. Will you make paella in your kitchen and invite me to lunch?

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