Paella occupies a special place in my heart. It was the subject of the first food story that I ever had published. Determined to get the recipes from the dueling chefs that I interviewed right, I ended up making paella more than nine times in the course of three weeks. When I invited friends over, they started asking, “Is it paella again? Yes? No thanks.”
After we got engaged in Barcelona, we headed down to Valencia for the annual Fallas festival, a celebration in which a massive paella cooking competition figures prominently. Hundreds of people started small fires on the streets of two city blocks, then set up paella pans over the top. They say that if you ask 100 Spaniards how to best make paella, you’ll get 100 different answers. Over the course of those three hours, I couldn’t get enough of watching and learning all the various tricks. It made such an impression on us that we served paella at our wedding. (Courtesy of my friend Chef Ted and his enormous pan that feeds more than 40 people at a time).
As we stopped at Palma de Mallorca, I signed up to join about two dozen other people for a paella demonstration. (Meanwhile, Mike went into town to hunt for a small paella pan that would work on the culinary center’s induction burners.) We hit a market with the local chef, and then drove out to his restaurant situated in a former farmhouse. His crew lit white-hot fires under a small pavilion and set up a massive pan for the paella, and roasted three pigs. He built a classic paella, starting with cut-up pork bones, adding chicken, then onions, peppers, rice, stock and finishing with green beans, peas and roasted red pepper on top. Despite the searing heat, virtually everyone took a turn stirring the big pan, even a guy in his walker. Afterward, the small group shared a lovely meal over wine, paella and roast pork.
The next day, I did my own paella demonstration on board the Noordam – on the 4th of July, our wedding anniversary. As we served a bit of paella to the 200 guests, I offered up the most interesting detail that I learned from the chef on Palma de Mallorca – eat a bit of green pepper before tasting paella to enhance the flavor. I tried this, and it works.
Traditional Paella Valencia
Paella takes its name from the wide flat-bottomed pan in which its traditional cooked. Alter the ingredients to whatever you prefer or have on hand, but keep the base of vegetables, rice and stock. Any kind of fatty, flavorful pork sausage or hunks of pork ribs cleaved into small pieces will work here. Traditional paella includes shrimp with the shells left on. For ease of eating and to invigorate the flavor of the stock, I’ve shifted to shelled shrimp. If you’re game, try cooking this on the stove top. Paella pans are typically sold by centimeters; a 30 cm pan typically feeds four. This recipe is designed for a 38 cm to 40 cm pan to serve six or eight.
1 lb. pound medium shrimp, peeled and deveined (shells reserved)
6 cups fish stock or chicken broth
¾ cup olive oil
1 ½ to 2 pounds chicken thighs and legs
8 ounces pork sausage, cut into one-inch pieces
4 cloves garlic, minced
2 bay leaves
1 large yellow onion, chopped
1 large tomato, seeded and chopped
1 green pepper, peeled, chopped
1 pinch of saffron threads, about ½ teaspoon, crushed
2 cups uncooked long-grain rice
Salt, pepper to taste (at least ¼ teaspoon each)
2 oz. roasted red pepper, sliced
1 14 oz. can artichokes
8 oz. medium scallops, cut in half
8 oz. ounces grouper or other white fish, filleted, cut into chunks
1 dozen mussels, bearded and cleaned
1 cup fresh or thawed frozen peas 2 lemons, cut into wedges
Heat the stock in a large pot. Shell and devein the shrimp; cover and set aside in the fridge. Place the shrimp shells into the stock and let simmer while you finish the recipe. Clean and prep the vegetables and meat before beginning to assemble the paella.
Preheat oven to 450 F. Add the olive to a traditional paella pan or wide shallow sauté pan over medium-high heat. When hot, add the chicken pieces and brown carefully for about 10 to 12 minutes or until cooked. Add the sausage and sauté about 3 minutes. Then add the minced garlic, bay leaves, onions, green pepper and tomato. Cook and stir occasionally for about five minutes until vegetables soften. Meanwhile, strain the stock to remove the shrimp shells and add the saffron to the stock and set aside. Add the rice to the softened vegetables and cook, stirring, for about five minutes. Add the stock to the rice along with a few cranks of black pepper and ¼ teaspoon salt. Bring back to a boil. Cover the pan with aluminum foil, transfer to the oven and bake for about 20 minutes.
Add the shrimp, scallops and fish, pressing into the hot rice. Return to the oven and continue cooking until the seafood has cooked through, about 10 minutes. Add the mussels in a ring around the edge of the pan, toss the peas over the top and cover. Put back into the oven for another four to six minutes until the mussels open. (Discard any mussels that do not open after cooking.) Remove from the oven and let stand, covered, for a few minutes before serving.