Everyone plays favorites.
Ice skating over roller skating.
Rock 'n roll over jazz.
Peanut M&Ms over plain.
In the rice department, I have favorites, too. For short grain, I choose carnaroli over arborio when I want to make super-creamy risotto or rice pudding. For long grain, Carolina beats Uncle Ben's every time.
When it comes to medium-grain rices, the ones used for paella, I haven't cooked with Valencia or bomba rice often enough to pick a favorite, so naturally I keep both in The Perfect Pantry. (Of course, that is my excuse for having such a full pantry: inability to narrow down my spice, condiment, and dry goods choices!)
Though I use both rices for paella, there really are differences between the two varieties.
Bomba, the more rare and costly, is a Denominación de Origen round, medium-short grain rice cultivated in the L'Albufera region of Spain. It's difficult to grow and harvest, and has a long maturation cycle, which explain its high cost. Bomba differs from most rice varieties because it expands in length (most rices, when they absorb liquid, expand in width), and can absorb three times its volume in liquid. When cooked, the grains remain separate and do not stick together. Bomba is the rice prized by chefs in Spain; it's the best of the best.
So why bother with the Valencia? Which rice is best for which recipe? The better question is: which rice is best for which cook?
Bomba is a more flexible rice; because it can absorb much more liquid, it's hard to overcook bomba. If you're new to paella, this is the rice for you. Valencia, always more affordable, is your rice if you're a more experienced cook; it gets softer more quickly, which means that you need to keep an eye on it and measure your liquid carefully.
Chicken paella with slow-roasted tomatoes
Based on the method described in Penelope Casas' Paella, which develops a beautiful soccarat — a thin layer of rice at the bottom of the pan that becomes brown and crusty and is considered the best part of the paella. It is scraped off after the paella is served, and shared with everyone at the table. Serves 6-8.
2 cups chicken stock, homemade or low-sodium canned
Kosher or sea salt
1/4 tsp crumbled thread saffron
3 lb chicken thighs, bone-in, skin on
8 Tbsp olive oil
1 green bell pepper, finely chopped
1 medium onion, finely chopped
4 cloves garlic, minced
I box frozen artichoke hearts (already quartered)
8 slow-roasted tomato halves, roughly chopped
2 Tbsp minced flat-leaf parsley
1 tsp Spanish smoked paprika (mild or hot, to taste)
3 cups bomba or Valencia rice, or arborio
Salt and black pepper to taste
Heat the broth, salt, saffron, and 4 cups water in a covered pot over medium-low heat for 20 minutes, then keep the broth hot over the lowest heat.
Sprinkle chicken pieces all over with salt.
Preheat the oven to 400°F for gas, 450°F for electric.
Heat the oil over fairly high heat in a paella pan measuring 17-18 inches at its widest point (or in a shallow casserole of similar size), over 2 burners if necessary. Sauté the chicken over high heat until brown (it should not be fully cooked), about 5 minutes, turning once. (Be careful — this will splatter.) Add the green pepper, onion and garlic, and cook until slightly softened, keeping the heat high. Stir in the artichokes and tomatoes, and cook on high for about 3 minutes. Add the parsley, cook 1 minute, then mix in the paprika.
Stir in the rice and coat well with the pan mixture. Pour in the hot broth and bring to a boil. Taste for salt and pepper, and continue to boil about 5 minutes, stirring and rotating the pan occasionally, until the rice is no longer soupy but enough liquid remains to continue cooking the rice, about 5 minutes.
Transfer pan to the oven. Cook, uncovered, until the rice is almost al dente, 10-13 minutes in a gas oven, 15-20 minutes in electric.
Remove to a warm spot, cover with foil, and let sit 5-10 minutes, until the rice is cooked to taste. Return the paella to the stovetop over high heat and cook, without stirring, until a soccarat (crust) of rice forms at the bottom of the pan (be careful not to burn it). This will take 3-4 minutes. Bring the pan to the table and serve hot.
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