I remember trying paella for the first time a few years ago and being fairly unimpressed. The paella was a too-bright kind of yellow and had bell peppers in it, which at that time I was still learning not to hate. Unfortunately, this is the kind of paella often found not only throughout the US, but in popular all-inclusive beach resorts throughout the world and in tourist hot-spots in Spain.
So please, discard those memories of soft, oily paellas past, and get acquainted with something a Spaniard might recognize.
Paella originally comes from Valencia, a port city in southeast Spain, a 3 hour drive down the coast from Barcelona. Its history is long, considered by food historians to be one result of the mixing of Arab and Roman traditions. The story of paella continues to evolve, and in fact paella making has changed significantly over the last half a century as Spain became a tourist destination. Traditionally cooked outdoors over large, wood burning fires, paellas were brought inside to be cooked on stoves by restaurants interested in serving the dish in indoor settings to the growing numbers of visitors. Serving sizes also shrank from enormous, family sized platters to those more reasonable for an individual.
These changes to paella actually make it an ideal candidate for a one-pot family meal. And there is a lot of room for experimentation so long as a few basic principles are followed.
First, the paella must start with a sofrito, which is just a mixture of onion, garlic, and tomato that is sauteed prior to adding the rice. The longer a sofrito is cooked, the richer and more intense the flavor. You can also make the sofrito ahead of time in large quantities, store in the refrigerator or freezer, and use for other rice dishes.
Also, a paella need not have seafood. In fact, the traditional paella Valenciana has both rabbit and snails. Regardless of the kind of meat or seafood you’re using, brown these ingredients before starting the rice.
Most traditional paellas also use saffron both for coloring and for flavor. But that shocking yellow color often seen at mediocre restaurants likely comes from turmeric or other coloring. Steep the saffron in warm water before adding to the pan.
cook time 50-90 minutes, 30 minutes if the sofrito is made ahead of time
I often like to include a bit of chorizo in my paellas because the smokiness gives the dish a deeper flavor. But don’t overdo it otherwise the flavor can become overwhelming.
Also, the rice doesn’t need to be stirred very frequently. Agitating the rice too much can lead it it being more like risotto than paella.
I like to keep the shells on my shrimp since I think doing so imparts more flavor. But feel free to de-shell if you prefer.
Sofrito (makes about 1 cup), adapted from this recipe from Ferran Adria
4 garlic cloves, minced
3 tbsp / 45 ml olive oil
1 large yellow onion, roughly chopped, about 2 cups
½ tsp dried thyme
4 ounces / 110 grams tomato purée (canned or fresh will work)
½ tsp salt
10-12 threads of saffron
2 oz / 60 grams grams chorizo
3 cups seafood stock, plus extra if necessary
2 tbsp olive oil
¼ lb / 125 grams fresh squid
½ lb / 250 grams very large shrimp or prawns, 8-10
½ lb / 250 grams mussels, rinsed in cold water
1 tsp smoked paprika
1/3 cup / 80 grams sofrito (recipe below)
1½ cups / 430 grams short grain rice
- Mash garlic into a paste using a mortar and pestle. Alternatively, finely chop it.
- Heat olive oil in large skillet over medium heat and then add the garlic paste. Meanwhile, add the onion to a food processor and blend until it resembles a smooth but thick paste.
- Add onion to the pan and lower the heat. Add the herbs and continue cooking until the onion is softened and has turned an even golden color (but do not brown).
- Add about ¾ of the tomato purée and cook for 30 minutes. Add the remaining purée and cook for another 30 minutes. Season with salt and pepper to taste. If short on time, you can add all the tomato puree at once and shorten the cook time to 20 minutes.
- Remove sofrito from pan. Sofrito can be refrigerated for about 1 week or frozen for 6 months.
- Steep saffron in ¼ cup warm water.
- Rinse and pat the squid dry with a paper towel. Some hard pieces may remain on the tentacles; if so, remove them with your fingers. Slice squid into ¼ inch (~1 cm) wide rings. Cut the tentacles into shorter pieces if necessary.
- Cut the chorizo into small, ¼ inch cubes. Sauté chorizo in large skillet over medium
heat for about 5 minutes, until a lot of the fat has rendered. [Tip: use the same skillet for the sofrito for fewer dirty dishes]
- While the chorizo is cooking, heat the seafood stock in a large pot until it boils, then
reduce heat so that is remains at a low simmer. This is so that the water does not take as long to come to temperature and be absorbed by the rice once added.
- Add the olive oil to the chorizo, and then when hot, add the squid and shrimp. Fry over high heat for 1-2 minutes, until the squid golden in places and shrimp shells have turned red. Remove seafood from pan.
- Add the paprika, saffron and its water, and 1/3 cup of the sofrito and cook for 5 minutes. Add a tablespoon of water if the sofrito sticks to the pan. Add the rice, stirring to evenly mix with sofrito and fry for about 10 minutes, stirring frequently with a large wooden spoon or spatula.
- Add about ½ cup of heated seafood stock, stirring constantly. When the stock has been absorbed, about 5 minutes of cooking time, add the remaining stock and reduce heat to low. Cover with a lid and cook on low heat without stirring until the rice has absorbed most of the liquid, about 8-10 minutes.
- Add a few tablespoons more stock or water if the rice appears dry. Arrange the shrimp and squid in the pan. Nestle the mussels into the rice. Cover and cook another 4-6 minutes, until the mussels have opened up. Season with salt and pepper as desired, then serve.