“Huh? Paella? Isn’t that when a company pays off a deejay to play some band’s records?” asked the friendly teenage worker at Crowder Brothers Hardware.
“No, that’s payola,” I explained. “Paella is something else.”
“Oh, I wondered why you would need a pan for that,” he said.
He wasn’t alone. In my search for a paella pan in a small Florida town, few seem to know how to pronounce it, much less what it meant.
“PAY-EE-da pans? No, we don’t carry those.”
“Maybe we used to carry those PEE-a-LA pans, but I don’t think we have none in stock now.”
Paella, properly pronounced PIE-AY-yah, gets its name from the flat-bottomed skillet-like pan with handles on each side in which it was traditionally prepared in southeast Spain over open fires. That’s the most complicated part of the dish. Essentially, paella is nothing more than a rice casserole that combines any variety of seafood and meats such as chicken and pork. It’s said that if you ask 100 Spaniards what really goes into paella, you’ll get 100 different answers.
Paella started out as a poor fisherman’s supper in Valencia, south of Barcelona on the Spanish coast. After a hard day of fishing, the men would clear out their nets – a few shrimp, some fish or squid – and the family would mix it together with the rice and vegetables from nearby fields. The earliest paella included small snails, green beans and eels. The Spanish ate it with whole onions rather than bread.
Most modern paella recipes call for ingredients more in line with American palates. Many employ chorizo, a spicy Spanish or Mexican sausage, while others may include only shrimp, fish or mussels. However, olive oil, garlic, onions, tomatoes, peppers, rice and saffron are typically employd to give the dish its distinctive flavor.
For many of those ingredients, the Spanish can thank the Moors, the conquistadors and Christopher Columbus.
Muslims from North Africa, the Moors brought with them rice, fruits and spices such as saffron when they occupied the country 711 A.D. to 1492. They also introduced the concept of irrigation, particularly vital in the sunny country where the average rainfall can be as little as 15 inches a year. After the Moors cleared out, Spanish conquistadors such as Hernando de Soto and explorers such as Columbus brought produce, including tomatoes and peppers, from the Americas.
With its combination of seafood and saffron – the most expensive spice in the world – paella has evolved from a poor man’s supper into a relatively pricy entree at good Spanish restaurants.
“We have the best in town,” says Chef Felix Arizpe of the Miramar at the Sarasota Quay. As proof, he notes their version even captured the attention of Food & Wine magazine.
Not so fast, says Homero Gutierrez, chef at The Colubmia on St. Armands Circle, which has served the dish since the 1950s. Their version, he says, “is second to none…the best in town,” Gutierrez insists. “He doesn’t know what he’s talking about.” He notes that their paella earned a write-up in Gourmet.
Each restaurant certainly sells enough of the stuff. Both say that during the tourist season, they sell at least 200 orders per week. “We go through a minimum of 40 pounds of rice alone,” Arizpe said.
For the home cook, the list of ingredients in paella may seem daunting. However, with the combination of rice, vegetables and seafood, it can be a dinner party dish until itself. The mix-and-match nature of the dish also makes it flexible for fussy eaters, those with food allergies or cooks on a tight budget. Don’t like squid? Leave it out. Not into meat? Skip it and go solo with seafood.
Paella does not require cooking skills beyond the ability to devein shrimp and sauté vegetables, but the prep work can be time consuming. So take a clue from the Spanish of Valencia, where all family members take part in preparing the dish. “Paella may seem to take a long time, but in the end, just making it is kind of an event. Do it once and you’ll realize it’s worth the effort,” Gutierrez said.
Sidebar: About Saffron
Food coloring can mimic the color, but no spice imparts the strong, extoc flavor of saffron. Unfortunately, no other spice costs as much, either. A small packet of saffron cost about $3, a full pound $400. Why? The spice comes from the dried stigmas of the flower crocus sativus. It takes 75,000 flowers just to make one pound, each painstakingly picked to avoid damaging the valuable plants. From there, then the stylus and stigmas are carefully detached. When using strands of saffron, try toasting them first for a couple of minutes on a piece of foil in a low oven. This makes them easier to crush. – KF
Chefs from Sarasota’s Miramar and Columbia restaurants suggest preparing all the ingredients for paella before you begin to cook. Meats and seafood, once cut or otherwise prepped, should be stored in the refrigerator until needed.
Paella is best prepared in an ovenproof low casserole or skillet can transfer straight from stove to the oven. A large, flat skillet or sauté pan can mimic the traditional paella pan. (Writer’s note: Paella pans can be easily found online these days at Sur La Table, Amazon.com or Chef’s Catalog.) It can also be cooked outdoors on a barbecue grill. The first recipe below is derived from the recipe used by Felix Arizpe, chef at the Miramar restaurant. He says that first-time paella makers tend to undercook the chicken and pork, so be sure to brown it well before proceeding with the rest of the recipe.
Columbia chef Homero Gutierrez suggests leaving the chicken bones intact. Not only will they add extra flavor, but they will keep the chicken from drying out. His recipe is for the more ambitious cook, and includes his own specific recipe for fish stock. Using homemade fish stock greatly enhances the flavor of the final dish, but take care not to use a strong flavor fish, such as mackerel or salmon. Traditionally, “bomba” rice is used in paella, but arbrorio or any other short-grained rice will work in its place.
If serving for a dinner party, pair it up with Spanish olives and cheeses as appetizers, and a simple green salad as a side dish.
Seafood Paella Valencia Miramar
1 cup olive oil
1 ½ to 2 pounds chicken thighs and legs
8 ounces cooked chorizo, cut into bite-sized pieces
4 cloves garlic, minced
2 bay leaves
1 large yellow onion, chopped
1 large tomato, seeded and chopped
1 green pepper, peeled, chopped
4 cups fish stock or chicken broth
4 strands saffron, about ½ teaspoons, crushed
2 cups uncooked short-grain rice
Salt, pepper to taste (at least ¼ teaspoon each)
¾ pound medium shrimp, peeled and deveined
One pound medium scallops, cut in half
16 ounces grouper or other white fish, filleted, cut into chunks
A dozen mussels, scrubbed and debearded
Preheat the oven to 450 F. Add the oil to a 12-inch or larger shallow skillet or paella pan over medium-high heat. When hot, add the chicken pieces and brown carefully for about 10 to 12 minutes. Add the sausage and sauté about 3 minutes. Then add the minced garlic, bay leaves, onions, green pepper and tomato. Cook and stir for about five minutes Add the fish or chicken stock and saffron and bring to a boil. Add a few cranks of black pepper and ¼ teaspoon salt. Stir in the rice and 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 to 12 minutes. Remove from the oven and let stand, covered, for about five minutes before serving.
Columbia’s Paella a la Valencia
18 to 20 medium shrimp, shelled and deveined
For the fish stock:
16 ounces water
4 clams in their shells
¼ to ½ pound mild white fish, with bones
1 teaspoon garlic, minced
A few peppercorns
¼ cup white wine
For the tomato sauce:
12-ounce can crushed tomatoes
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground pepper
¼ cup white wine
3 tablespoons olive oil
4 chicken legs or thighs
6 ounces lean pork loin, cubed
2 green peppers, chopped
1 large tomato seeded and chopped, (about 1 1/2 cups)
6 ounces fresh grouper, snapper or other whitefish, cut into bite-sized pieces
8 clams, in the shell
6 ounces squid, cubed
8 ounces short-grain uncooked rice
2 hard-boiled eggs, halved
4 asparagus spears, steamed
1/3 cup peas, steamed
8 strips of red pimentos or red peppers (garnish)
1 lemon, sliced
Parsley, chopped (garnish)
Preheat the oven to 450 F. Peel and devein the shrimp, reserve the shells.
Prepare the fish stock: Combine all the ingredients plus the shrimp shells into a large pan. Turn the heat up just until it begins to boil, then reduce to medium. Reduce by half, about five minutes. Add the saffron and turn heat down to simmer for about 20 minutes while you prepare the rest of the ingredients. Strain before using.
For the tomato sauce. Combine the tomatoes, salt, pepper and wine in a saucepan. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer for about 10 minutes.
In a 12-inch or larger heavy ovenproof frying pan or paella pan over medium-high heat, add the olive oil. Salt and pepper the chicken pieces, then brown on all sides, about 10 to 12 minutes.
Add the pork, and stir to cook another three or four minutes. Then add the chopped green peppers, onion and tomato and sauté another five minutes, stirring frequently.
Add the strained fish stock and bring to a boil. Add the tomato sauce, bring to a boil again. Then add the rice, stirring it to the bottom. Bring just to a boil.
Cover with aluminum foil and bake for about 20 minutes. Remove from the oven, add the seafood, pushing it into the hot rice. Add water if the rice is too dry at this point. Cover again and bake for another 10 minutes to 12 minutes until the seafood cooks through. Remove from the oven and let rest, covered, for five minutes.
Transfer portions from the pan to individual plates and top each with the cooked peas, hard-boiled eggs, asparagus and pimentos. Serve with a lemon wedge.
This originally appeared in the Sarasota (Fla.) Herald-Tribune in April 1995. The Miramar restaurant is no longer operating, but you can still try the paella at any of The Columbia restaurant’s three locations. They have an alternative paella recipe on their site. That hardware store still doesn’t carry paella pans.