Paella for the people — Basque and otherwise

Students in monthly classes at a market in Boise learn to make the iconic dish

August 10, 2014

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Walk past the Basque Market in the 600 block of Grove Street right before lunchtime on Wednesdays and Fridays and you'll see chef Jake Arredondo on the sidewalk preparing an oversized dish of paella.

Those unfamiliar with the traditional Basque dish are easy to spot. From a block away, they gaze at the man tending to the wide, flat pan - known as a paellera - over a propane burner. As they get closer, they slow down and stop for a look and an explanation.

Seeing the paella up close and smelling the enticing aroma wafting through the Basque Block pulls in many passers-by. It typically takes less than an hour for the entire pan to be emptied.

Once or twice a month, Basque Market owners Tony Eiguren and Tara McElhose-Eiguren invite home cooks to learn how to make paella for themselves. Groups of about 20 people at a time spend a couple of hours with the Eigurens in the market's homey kitchen learning the basics and then tasting what they made.

"We like sharing the food and the stories," Tony Eiguren said. "We're trying to get people to meet each other and take some time to enjoy the food, the wine, as well as each other."

Most of the people who take the classes are not Basque but share an interest in the culture and in Basque foods, McElhose-Eiguren said.

"We're definitely trying to reach out to people who aren't as familiar with these recipes," she said.

Boise resident Mercedes Kelso paid for the class as a birthday gift for her mom, Suzanne Kelso. Her mom has an interest in international cooking, including foods of the Basque region.

"I've been looking forward to this for a month," said Suzanne Kelso, who was accompanied by her daughter. "This was the very best present I could have gotten."

Caldwell residents Jenni and Tom Ireland said they thought learning how to make paella would be enjoyable.

"I think it would be fun to make this for friends and family," Tom Ireland said.

Paella originated in Valencia, located in a prolific rice-growing region on Spain's eastern coast. It began as a peasant food made with whatever ingredients a cook had on hand. As its popularity spread, it mixed among all classes of people.

Valencia is nearly 400 miles south of Bilbao, the principal city in the Basque region that is situated below the Bay of Biscay. However, it quickly became a Basque standard and the most widely known dish inside and outside of Basque circles.

Originally, "paella" referred to all dishes cooked in the broad pan, not just the rice dish we know today as paella.

"Anything you make in this pan is paella," Tony Eiguren said.

The wide cooking surface allows ingredients to cook in one layer while dimples in the base promote even cooking.

"All of the goodies will float to the top of the pan," he said.

Eiguren, whose family is Basque, teaches math at South Junior High. He and his wife approached former Basque Market owner Dan Ansotegui in 2006 and asked whether he would consider selling the market. Ansotegui agreed to sell.

McElhose-Eiguren taught art at Boise State University and later quit to devote her full attention to the market.

On a recent evening, attendees lined up along the wooden bar that separates the kitchen from the small seating area inside the market. On the other side of the counter, Eiguren pulled the pan off the fire and lifted it up to show how he started by sauteing some onions and carrots.

He put the pan back on the heat, a portable burner with three rings of heat powered by propane. He added chorizo, chicken and bell peppers.

Afterward, he added a healthy amount of garlic and smoked paprika.

"We use smoked paprika because we're not using an open fire. This gives it a smoky flavor," he said.

Next, he added in a short-grain rice from Valencia.

"It's made specifically for paella. It lets off the perfect amount of starch, which is about zero," he said, laughing.

Valencia rice absorbs three to four times its own volume of broth or other liquid. A long-grain rice, the traditional white rice used by most home cooks, absorbs twice its volume of liquid. The extra absorption adds to the flavor.

Then he added white wine to the pan and boiled it until the mixture was almost dry.

After that, he added chicken broth that had been simmered with strands of saffron, which add flavor and a yellow color.

Saffron comes from the stamen of a crocus flower. Each flower contains three stamens, and it takes 150,000 flowers - all picked by hand - to produce 1 gram of saffron, McElhose-Eiguren said.

After the broth was added, Eiguren allowed the mixture to cook uncovered for about a half-hour without stirring. That helps the dish cook evenly.

He set the burner so it cooked just above a simmer.

"For a paella, you don't need hot and fast heat. Slow and constant is better," he said.

Next, he had a couple of the students add pimentos and green beens. They then arranged shrimp, mussels and clams on the top of the rice mixture.

"There's no right or wrong way to decorate this," Eiguren said as he watched the additions go in. "I just grab and toss."

Peas are another popular item, but are a vegetable Eiguren and his wife don't like, so they leave them out.

He encouraged people to use whatever they like at home.

"It's your palate. You can put in anything you like," he said.

The mixture simmered for another 15 minutes and then Eiguren let it rest for 10 minutes before serving it.

Suzanne Kelso nodded her approval as she sat at one of the market's communal tables and ate a plate of paella.

"It's fabulous," she said.

Jenni Ireland said Eiguren made it almost look too easy.

"I'm sure the first time I make it will be harder than it looks," she said.

John Sowell: 377-6423, Twitter: @IDS_Sowell

BASQUE MARKET MIXED PAELLA

Serves about eight

1/8 cup olive oil

1 medium onion, diced

3 cloves garlic, chopped

1/2 cup green pepper, diced

1 tbsp. smoked paprika

1/2 cup white wine

Salt

2 cups rice

16 to 20 strands saffron

6 to 8 cups chicken broth

1 to 2 cups pre-cooked meat (chorizo, jamon serrano, chicken, etc.)

1 pound seafood (shrimp, mussels, clams, cod, etc.)

1 cup vegetables (beans, carrots, peas, etc.)

1/4 cup pimentos

Lemon wedges (optional)

Heat broth and saffron and keep at a low simmer. In a paellera for eight, heat oil and saute onion until golden. Add meat and peppers and saute until meat is heated through. Add garlic and smoked paprika; stir for one minute. Add rice and mix until all grains are coated. Add wine and boil until almost dry.

Add about six cups of broth, or enough to cover the rice, and bring to a simmer. Do not stir after this time. Allow the mixture to simmer for 10 to 15 minutes or until rice is about half-cooked. Salt to taste.

Nestle seafood into the rice and top with pimentos and vegetables. Allow the paella to simmer for about 10 minutes more, adding additional broth if the rice becomes dry before the rice is cooked through. Simmer until all broth has been absorbed and rice is tender.

Remove from heat and let rest for 10 minutes before serving.

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