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On Paella

Due to popular request, I’m formalizing my paella recipe. Now, the very first thing that needs to be taken into consideration is that paella is more of a method than it is a recipe. This is because – while there are traditionalists and purists who say that a true paella can only have this or that – paella is really refrigerator Velcro: whatever good meats and veggies you have in your fridge could, with due consideration, be prepared and thrown in there.

By the way – I go on a bit of a long discussion about paella and paella making. I think it’s crucial to the understanding of what makes a good paella – that way you can adapt it to your cooking style and play around with the recipe as needed. But if you’re tl;dr – I admit, I get wordy – then feel free to scroll down to the “And finally, the Recipe” portion of the diatribe.

Now, before we begin, you need to remember a few things. First, paella is meant to be cooked outdoors, over fire. Traditionally – according to the Wikipedia and other sources – it’s meant to be cooked over branches of orange and pine. I don’t think I’ve ever cooked a paella over orange and pine – but my preferred method is to cook it on an open fire over wood. Sure, managing the heat is a pain, and it requires constant finicking, and I still haven’t quite gotten the “socarrat” (the thin layer of toasted rice that we Puerto Ricans call pegao or the Cubans call raspa) right yet (but I have a few theories on how to improve), but the smoke really does lend a great flavor and it’s impressive to boot – so if you have a fire pit where you can cook a paella, use it! If you don’t, I’ve also successfully made paella using my 22” Weber grill over a bed of coals – I wouldn’t use a gas grill here, because the whole point is to get those smoky compounds from burning wood and charcoal. I’ve also made a paella on the stovetop – if you can get your paellera to fit on a burner or two, great – and I’ve made it in the oven. I did not love the oven version, though, and frankly I was winging it more than anything else, and didn’t really take notes on what temperature I used (I’m sure it was 375ish with lots of checking the rice.) So if you want to make it in the oven, know you can, but know that you’re more or less on your own vis cooking time.

The second thing you need to know – or, actually, have – is that paella is meant to be cooked in a paellera. Actually, paellera is not the proper name – the proper name is paella, which is the cooking vessel itself, as well as the dish it’s cooked in. But anyhow, most people these days call them paelleras, so that’s fine with me. The reason this is important is because of the specific design of the paellera: a heavy, thin pan with hoops for transportation meant to sit atop a fire, not on a stovetop. The material of the paellera is important – you want something that doesn’t conduct heat well, like cast iron, because you need that heat retention property. Stay away from aluminum – that way lies heartache. You want something that’s thin – that means it’ll heat up faster than, say, a cast iron skillet. (That being said, I’ve made a paella on a cast iron skillet – it’ll do if you don’t want to invest in a paellera of your own, and it fits a stovetop burner – if you’re making paella for your first time, don’t intend to cook paella regularly, aren’t feeding a small army of people, and are cooking on a stovetop, use your cast iron, which I know you have because it is the greatest piece of cookware ever devised by man.) But because it’s heavy, it won’t lose that heat immediately, so it’s good for searing a lot of things very quickly. And you want something that’s easy to carry – the wide loop handles of the traditional paella make for very easy transportation. Yesterday’s 15 pound monster was easily transported between two people across 50 yards from fire to table with no problems, blazing hot all the way. (Use pot holders, of course.)

Ok, so we have that out of the way, let’s get to the method itself. It’s easy. So easy that after doing it once, I have never had to refer to the recipe again. Because it’s also very intuitive. Here’s how it breaks down:

THE PAELLA METHOD

STEP ONE – Cook your meats! (Remove after cooking)

STEP TWO – Cook your flavor base!

STEP THREE – Cook your sauce!

STEP FOUR – Fry your rice in the sauce!

STEP FIVE – Add the liquids, boil the rice in the liquids

STEP SIX – Finalize, rest, and serve

Simple, right? So long as you remember those six steps, it’s really, really hard to screw things up.

Now, to build a paella you’re going to need five basic component “groups.” These are:

  • Meats and Vegetables
  • Flavor/aromatic base and spices
    • Sauce
  • Rice
  • Cooking liquids
  • Finishing touches

Let us look at each in turn, beginning with the most important of all component groups… the RICE.

The Rice

The rice is the most important part of the paella, because without the right rice you’re not making paella – you’re making a pilaf or an arroz con… dish. The big differentiator between an arroz con mariscos and a seafood paella is the rice – long grain for an arroz con mariscos, short/medium grain for the paella. The type of rice you’re looking for is a short to medium grain rice, something that will release a lot of starch but won’t get too sticky. The best rices are of course the Spanish bomba rice, which are a short grain rice that balloon up to three times their size and can absorb an impressive amount of liquid. They’re also just the right balance of fluffy and sticky and granular that you really shouldn’t skimp here.

I get my rice from Amazon, and because I’m a Prime member I can get it in about two days. I buy Calasparra rice at about $1.60 a pound – pricey, but well worth it for your results, believe me. A single bag has enough for at least 10 people. I’ve easily fed 16 people off of a single 2.2 lb bag of Calasparra rice. Plus, I hear it makes dynamite risotto, though I haven’t yet tried it. They say to use 1/3 cup of Calasparra rice per person – in the heat of the moment, I’m not that much of a measurer, so I just pour out half of the bag right into the paellera when it’s time. That gives me a paella big enough for about 6 people.

If you don’t want to buy Calasparra rice – why not, seriously? It’s really convenient, you get it delivered right to your door… – you can go ahead and use an Arborio rice. My first few paellas were made with Arborio, and they were delicious. The Calasparra really took me to the next level, but I understand if you’re commitment shy.

Flavor Base and Sauce

Traditional paellas are made with green beans, onions, garlic as a flavor base. I – being more Caribbean focused, and because it was meant to flavor rice dishes – go with the traditional sofrito of Caribbean cuisine: onion, bell peppers, garlic as my flavor base. My people aren’t big fans of green bell peppers, so depending on who I’m cooking for I use red and orange bell peppers. I do like the colorful pop that green bell peppers add, though, so every once in a while I’ll sneak some in.

Anyhow, to do a traditional sofrito you dice up an onion, dice up a couple of bell peppers, and a few cloves of garlic. I tend to use a good amount of garlic – four or five cloves, at minimum – but you can stop at three if you’re garlic phobic. (Also, who are you? I bet you don’t even have a cast iron!) You fry your onion first in olive oil for about 5 minutes, then you add your bell peppers for another few minutes, and finally add your garlic, which you really don’t want to cook for more than a minute, because garlic does burn easily and can turn your sofrito bitter.

You could, theoretically, use a French mirepoix – two parts onion, one part carrots, one part celery – and come out fine. Or if you want to do something more Southern-inspired (which could be fun now that I think of it) you could do the traditional Cajun holy trinity – two parts onion, one part celery, one part bell pepper.

You will then complete your sauce with the introduction of grated tomato. I do one medium or two small sized tomatoes for my standard paella. This is all you do: get your box grater, a paper plate (one of those nice sturdy ones that won’t immediately soak through with liquid), and a tomato. Slice a thin bit off the bottom of the tomato.* Put the grater on the paper plate, so that whatever you grate ends up on the plate. Holding the tomato by the uncut end, you introduce the sliced end to the teeth of the grater. Push firmly on the tomato and grate until you’ve removed all of the pulp from inside the tomato. Don’t be too scared – the tomato skin is tough as leather, and will protect your hand from being chewed up by the grater. The paper plate is for easy transference, as you can bend it into the shape of whatever vessel you want to pour your tomato puree into. The skins you can just toss in the garbage.

*Note: Some people recommend you take out the seeds and liquid from the tomato first. I’ve done it both ways and honestly can’t tell the difference. But some people say they find the seeds of a tomato to be too bitter. Fine. Before you grate your tomato just dig your finger into the pockets of the tomato from the cut end and dig out the juices.

Add your grated tomato to the flavor base of your choice and voila!, you now have a flavorful base that you can fry your rice in and help jump-start the process. But before we get there, we want to consider some spices.

Spices are important because they flavor your dish and bump the flavors up a notch or two. I stick to the traditional paella spices – bay, saffron and paprika – but have on occasion used herbage (oregano works really well, rosemary could pair well with some of your gamier meat options), as well as cayenne pepper (if I want a bit of heat), Aleppo peppers (they have a sweetness I quite favor), and even, once, accidentally, cinnamon. (I used Mexican chorizo instead of regular chorizo, which I had no idea contained cinnamon. It was quite nice, if a bit strong, in that punch-you-in-the-face sort of way that cinnamon has. Definitely a good choice if you like cinnamon.) For now, let’s keep things simple: to your sauce you will add paprika and bay leaves, and you will infuse your cooking liquids with saffron.

You will, of course, be seasoning with salt along the way. I’ve neglected to mention this, as I’m just explaining methodology. I’ll be sure to include it in the full recipe below.

Meats and Vegetables

If the rice is the body of the paella, the meats are the paella’s soul. This is where the paella really starts to differentiate itself. I’m using meats here in a very broad sense – seafood, poultry, beef, game meats, hearty vegetables, all of them are included in this category. And it’s also the category that requires the most forethought on the part of the cook.

A true Valencian paella uses any combination of beans and any of the following meats: chicken, rabbit, snails, or duck. It’s spiced with rosemary, sweet paprika, and saffron.

A seafood paella leaves out beans and just uses seafood for your meats. Any kind of seafood will do: mussels, clams, shrimp, prawn, crab, fish, eel, even lobster. If it’s from the sea, you can throw it into the paellera to make a seafood paella, and you’re still technically in the ballpark. (You’ll want to slice lemon wedges for this paella, adds a delicious fresh zing for people to squeeze atop their fish and rice.)

I go for the more freeform mixed paella. Here, you can play around with your ingredients. You’re not bound by rigid tradition, and you can mix the best of both worlds (pork plus scallops, yes please.) The world is truly your oyster with the mixed paella. I tend to go for the following profile:

  • At least one sausage, for flavor and depth. I tend to go for chorizos and andouille here, because I love the spice and the bite of both. More often than not I’m using andouille, because true Spanish chorizo isn’t as common, but both work wonders. Last night’s 15 pound monster had both pork chorizo and andouille from Whole Foods.
  • Scallops, because they are pretty and delicious.
  • Shrimp, because they are delicious, and the shells allow you to make a great seafood stock.
  • Some form of bivalve – mussels or clams are my go to.

I’ve also added chicken or chunks of pork to my paella to great success. But if you want a simple paella, look to the profile above. Figure about a half pound of meat per person, total – so if you’re looking at my standard six person paella, I do a pound of sausage, a pound of shrimp, twelve scallops, and a pound of mussels. That about works out to three pounds of actual meat.

Cooking Liquids

The liquid in which you cook your paella is very important, a place to infuse your paella with flavor, essence, and body. You’ll want to use stock – chicken stock works well with pretty much everything, being relatively neutral in flavor but heavy in body. Fish or seafood stock works fine, but it’s milder than chicken stock in both flavor and body, so your mileage will vary.

I buy shrimp with the shells on, peel them completely (I know you’re supposed to leave the tails on but I honestly hate having to pick out the shrimp tails while eating so I just peel them whole, screw the aesthetics), and throw the peels into a pot of water with a little bit of salt. I bring this to a boil once all the shells are in, then reduce it to a bare simmer for at least 30 minutes. This creates a beautiful shrimp stock that I add to all of my paellas (that contain shrimp, anyway).

I also use clam juice. You can buy bottled clam juice at the grocery store. I use this regardless of whether or not my paella has clams in it. Why? Because it is delicious, and gives it a massive hit of fish flavor and umami. One bottle will do you for a 6 or even a full 12 person paella.

You should also add some kind of alcohol – no more than a cup – in order to get some of those alcohol soluble flavors mixing. White wine is recommended, but I’ve heard of people using beer. I honestly don’t use alcohol as much as I probably should – I never seem to have any white wine around – but when I have used it the alcohol greatly improves the drink.

You’ll want to figure about three cups of liquid per cup of rice. You might need to use more, so work out four cups of liquid per cup of rice. That means, for my half-bag portion, you’ll want to have at least eight cups of liquid at the ready.

Finishing Touches

These are mostly aesthetic choices which you’ll add at the end for color or just to make your paella beautiful. We’re talking anything from asparagus spears, roasted red pepper strips, green peas, large shrimp, preferably with the head on. Anything that’ll make your paella pop and make it visually impressive.

I tend to go for green peas and really big shrimp – I’m talking larger than jumbo here, in the U-9 range (that means any number of shrimp from 1 – 9 per pound of shrimp – these are big bugs.) The green peas you buy frozen and throw them in after the rice is done cooking, there’s plenty of heat left over to warm them up to temp. The shrimp you cook in the beginning, with the rest of your meats, but reserve to lay them out on top.

A Final Note

One of the things I really dig about paella is that it’s a good opportunity for the chef to practice a wide range of kitchen skills in one beautiful medley. Your prep will allow for plenty of knife work, having a good mise en place, and having a good understanding of flavor profiles and combinations. Take this time to really work on your skills so you can put them to good use in other dishes.

And, finally, the Recipe

This is the recipe for my typical paella mixta, aka mixed paella, which I make about three times a year, or as demand requires. This feeds about 6 people.

Ingredients

(Notes: I will assume you have salt for seasoning on hand. I won’t tell you how much to use, because I’ve never found those measurements useful. I will also assume you’re cooking this on a heavy cast iron in a stove top. If you have access to a charcoal grill, and you’re cooking outdoors, awesome – get yourself a nice fire going and have at it!)

Meats:

1 lb. shrimp, in the 26/30 range

12 to 18 (depending on size and appetite, of course) scallops

1 lb. calamari tubes

1 lb. mussels

1 lb. andouille sausage

Rice:

½ bag – or two cups – of Calasparra rice

Sauce:

1 sweet or Vidalia onion

5 cloves of garlic

2 bell peppers – any combination of red/green/yellow will do

1-2 tomatoes

A pinch (6 – 9 strands) of good saffron*

1 tablespoon of sweet paprika

3 bay leaves

Liquids:

Water, to make stock – about 4 cups

1 bottle of clam juice – about 1 cup

1 quart of chicken or seafood stock – 4 cups

1 cup of white wine – you’re looking for a dry, cirtusy wine; make it something you’ll want to drink too (optional – not necessary, but it’ll give your paella a bump)

Finishers:

I like 4 large, U/9 or “colossal” shrimp

½ bag of frozen peas

Process:

  • Prepare your mise en place:
    1. Begin by dicing your veggies into small cubes. They don’t have to be expertly diced, but it helps to get small chunks. Separate them out into onions, peppers, garlic.
    2. Grate your tomato as discussed above.
    3. Slice your sausage into rounds, about ½ or ¼ inch.
    4. Slice your calamari tubes into calamari rings. Make sure you remove any quills inside the squid, sometimes they’ll still have their backbones. (Note: you can use full calamari here, with tentacles and all, but some people find the tentacles off putting; I like them, so chop them up into bite size chunks if you like.)
    5. Pat your scallops bone dry with a paper towel, then lightly score the top and bottom with a paring knife. I do three parallel cuts one way, then three cuts perpendicular to those. Season your scallops with a sprinkling of fine sea or kosher salt, both sides.
    6. Peel and clean your shrimp. Save the shells by putting them into a sauce pan. Once all your shrimp are peeled, cover the shells with water. Add a small pinch of salt. Set the proto-stock on a burner on high heat until it boils. As that comes to a boil, season your shrimp with a couple sprinkles of salt and about a teaspoon of paprika. Once your proto-stock comes to a boil, reduce the temperature to maintain a simmer – you don’t need to make a clear stock. You should end up with *about* four cups of shrimp stock. It’s okay if it’s a little less than that, but don’t boil all of your liquids away.
    7. Put your mussels into a clean bowl filled with water, with ice on top. This helps to clean the mussels should they need it.
  • Set a 12 inch cast iron on medium high until it gets hot. You’ll want a good searing temperature – oil should ripple when it touches the pan.
  • As your pan is warming up, make sure all of your liquids are getting hot. You should still have your proto-stock going, turning into actual stock. But make sure your chicken stock is heated (not boiling, but not room temperature either). The clam juice and the wine should be added room temperature.
  • Add a few tablespoons of oil to your hot pan, it’s time to sear yer meats!
    1. You’ll sear each meat separately. Don’t crowd your pan. Be patient. Work in batches if you must. The idea is to create a good fond – that’s the brown crusty meaty stuff on the bottom of the pan – to get some good flavor into the sauce later on. Here’s some good tips:
    2. Sear your scallops first. Scallops are a delicate flavor, and you don’t want to funk it up with sausage fat. 1 to 2 minutes on each side is enough to develop a good sear if your heat is right – they should sizzle when they hit the pan, and release when a good crust has formed.
    3. Sausage is next. Sausage is as much a seasoning here as it is a meat. Let those flavors and fat percolate down into the pan. Remove when a good crust has formed on both sides.
    4. Calamari is next. Calamari cooks quick, so toss them into the rendered sausage fat, move them around until the rings firm up, and then remove quickly. You won’t be there for more than five minutes, so don’t leave the pan’s side when cooking calamari.
    5. Shrimp is last. Shrimp also cooks quick, but is a little more forgiving than calamari. They also I find contain more water, so they’ll take a little longer to cook. You don’t want them tough though, so keep turning them until they turn a solid pink, with no translucency. Then remove from the pan.
    6. Set aside all of your meats.
  • Very quickly, throw in your onions into the hot fat. You shouldn’t need to add any more fat at this point. Add a heavy pinch of salt, and toss the onions. You want to cook them until they’re “translucent” and look cooked, about 5 minutes.
  • Add your peppers. Add another pinch of salt. Mix well with the onions. Things will start to smell heavenly. Cook for another 2 to 4 minutes, until everything marinates together.
  • Add your garlic. Toss quickly. No time for salt. You don’t want to wander away. Within 30 seconds, your kitchen will smell perfect, because garlic. You’ll want to be ready to move on to the next step when this point hits.
  • Add your grated tomato, paprika, and bay leaves. Stir all of this good stuff around into a nice thick sauce. Add another pinch of salt, and taste. You’re almost at paella time. Adjust seasoning of required. Remember you’re about to add a lot of liquid and rice to this, so you’re shooting for a good level of salt so that the rice can absorb it all.
  • Strain the shrimp shells out of your shrimp stock, and add your saffron into the hot liquid. It should immediately turn bright yellow.
  • Part your red sauce, which should be fairly thick like a puree, like Moses parting the red sea. You want a big ditch right in the middle of your pan. Pour out your rice into the ditch. It should cover the ditch end to end. If it doesn’t, add enough rice to fill the whole ditch. This will tell you how much rice to use.
  • Stir together the sauce with the rice, and let everything fry together and percolate for a little while – three to five minutes – stirring gently all the while.
  • Add your liquids, starting with your wine (if using), clam juice, shrimp stock, and top it off with some chicken stock. You aren’t likely to need to use all, if any, of the chicken stock at this point, you want just enough liquid to cover the rice.
  • Bring up to a boil. Place your mussels on top of your rice. Once your liquids are bubbling nicely, reduce the heat to medium-low, and cover.
  • Wait patiently for 18 minutes.
  • Remove cover, and check your mussels. Did they all open up? Remove the ones that did, letting them drain their liquor down into the rice for added flavor, setting them aside. Toss away the ones that didn’t.
  • Taste your rice. Paella rice should be somewhere between chewy and creamy. You don’t want a risotto. But you don’t want anything to get in your teeth either. If it’s chewy, add some liquid – not too much – and let ride another 5 minutes. If it’s almost-perfect, turn off the heat, let it coast to temp. Either way, add half a bag of frozen peas at this point, stirring them in. Reincorporate your meats (except your mussels and anything you want to put on top) into the dish at this point, you want things to marinate together and let the flavors get to know themselves a little.
  • Make the paella look pretty by topping with the big colossal shrimp and your mussels.
  • Let your guests take pictures of your paella. Bask in the glory of what you have created.
  • Eat. Bask some more.

*There is a *lot* of bad saffron out there, so find a reliable source. I’ve had very well intentioned people get me saffron – honestly, three times out of four they’re getting ripped off. Find a good local spice purveyor – I use Penzeys – and make sure it works. How can you tell? Add a few strands to some warm liquid. It should turn a rich color almost immediately, and the saffron should not discolor. If the saffron discolors, you’re dealing with a fake dyed product. If the saffron doesn’t color the liquid at all, then it’s completely useless and you just bought fake flower stems. Just remember where you bought your fake saffron from and never buy from them again. Penzeys, as I said, has some of the best saffron I’ve found.

 

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