Spanish rice often describes the seasoned white rice that sits alongside a Mexican dish. At times called Mexican rice, it is tomato-based, sometimes mixed with peas and carrots, and always more than a little garlicky. Spanish rice from Spain, on the other hand, is traditionally called paella. This is a different dish altogether, usually served as a main course with meat or seafood cooked into the rice and defined by a crispy layer of goodness called socarrat on the bottom.
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Mexican rice is steamed the same way you cook plain white or brown rice, using a pot and a 2-to-1 ratio of liquid-to-rice. The depth of flavor comes from browning the uncooked rice in oil over medium-high heat before adding broth and tomatoes, which take the place of water as the cooking liquid. Use a pot with a tight-fitting lid, and brown the rice with garlic before adding the cooking liquid. Include veggies such as peas, if desired, and a smattering of spices, such as cilantro, cumin, coriander seed or oregano. Pop the lid on, turn the heat to low and simmer for 20 to 40 minutes, depending on whether you're cooking white or brown rice. Let the rice sit off of the heat, covered, for five more minutes, then fluff with a fork and serve.
Make paella in a traditional paella pan, a wide, shallow pan that boils the rice openly. This allows the rice to cook at different levels, creating a tasty crust on the bottom while leaving the topmost layer slightly al dente. A deep, wide uncoated skillet will do the trick, too. Start by sauteing onions, garlic and any meat that needs to be well-cooked in a little oil. Leave all the tasty brown bits on the bottom, then add rice. Cover with liquid, using about 3 cups for every cup of rice. If the liquid is fully absorbed and the rice is still too tough, simply add more water and simmer a little longer. Once simmering begins, nestle any other meat or seafood into the rice. Top with vegetables and spices, such as saffron and oregano, then simmer over medium heat until the liquid is absorbed and a nice brown crust has formed on the bottom, about a half-hour. Serve hot with lemon or lime wedges.
Tricks of the Trade
Once your rice is on its way, don't stir it. Stirring will mess up the socarrat on paella and will create a mushy mess in Mexican rice. Give some thought to the liquids you use to make Spanish rice. Broth or prepared bouillon give depth to each of these rice dishes. Canned tomatoes are generally used in both dishes, too, and the juice adds flavor. Drain the liquid into a measuring cup first and count it in your liquid measurement. White wine makes a tasty addition to the cooking liquid in paella, but stick with tomato liquid mixed with broth or water in Mexican rice. Paella almost always features saffron, so don't skip this important spice if you are going the traditional Spanish route.
For vegetarians, skip the broth and simply use water mixed with salt to taste. Don't forget the tomato liquid, which makes up for flavor that might have come from broth. In paella, saute tofu or seitan to brown with onions and garlic, and add canned beans to the recipe for extra vegetarian goodness.