Paella! I never thought I’d have an opinion about Paella. After 10 days in Spain I do. I don’t like it. By definition Paella is: A Spanish dish of rice, saffron, chicken, seafood etc., cooked and served in a large shallow pan.
When we first got married my husband told me of his love for Paella – magical Spanish rice and seafood dish, perfumed with saffron. He spent the summer in Barcelona, for the 1992 Summer Olympics. As a young bride, 19 years ago, I decided to make him my paella. So I made a version that I had found, in some cookbook. It had the obligatory saffron and was a seafood and meat mix. It was good, but I could never capture the exact flavor he was looking for. I added more seafood, less stock, more meat, more stock and any variation I could trying to take him back to those happy days in Barcelona (please pronounce bar th lona).
As we were planning our trip, I came across a tour through the famed Bouqueria Market, in Barcelona, followed by a cooking class with a local chef. One of the menu items was paella. I quickly booked the tour and told my husband of our plans. He was excited to have that joy of paella back again.
The class was great! The wine was flowing and each dish we made tasted better than the last. It was amazing! When it came time for the paella we were invited to sit down and serve family style. More wine was poured, crusty tomato bread was on the table and the big pan of paella was presented. We had all taken our turn adding what the chef instructed us to and cooking the paella and that added to our anticipation.
The big first bite came and I made that face you make when you try something that just doesn’t feel or taste right to you. Was it just me? Apparently, yes it was. I don’t think anybody LOVED it but nobody had quite the aversion to it that I did. Even my husband, who was so looking forward to it, said it was “OK”. Where was my crunchy rice on the bottom? Why was it so fishy? We decided we would try Paella again as we moved through Spain. This wasn’t very hard to do. It is served on every street corner. Seriously, it is the cheeseburger of Spain!
In Pamplona, we had cones of paella, from questionable street vendors and with lots of Sangria. In San Sebastian, we had paella pintxos, as we walked through the very laid-back seaside village. Finally we ate a whole paella meal in Madrid, at a restaurant owned by the same family for 45 years. We even met the 93-year-old grandmother. We had the seafood paella, the chicken and chorizo paella and, of course, the seafood paella. We were even invited into the kitchen where the cooks took pictures with us and offered to sell us their paella pans for $300! All of them were “good” and my husband loved the meal in Madrid. However, I need to keep in mind that if you set your expectations too high, they may never be met. I came back undeterred. It became my mission to make paella that fits the classic definition and that my husband and I can love together.
I couldn’t believe that this recipe from, the actor, Stanley Tucci, is the one. In this recipe he takes the time to pull out the sofrito in the preparation and cooking. This is such an integral part of Spanish cooking, and I love that he seems to honor that. The proteins are all seafood, although you can easily add some chicken or chorizo, but he still uses a mix of fish and chicken stocks. I think that was one of the problems of the paella we made in class. It was too fishy. Finally, he specifically talks about the socarrat, the crunchy rice on the bottom. That is one of the best parts of paella.
Paella - adapted from Stanley Tucci's recipe
Peel half the shrimps and put aside. In a paella pan or shallow saute pan, heat 1 T. olive oil over a medium heat. Add the un-peeled shrimp and cook for just a couple of minutes, until they are just starting to turning translucent. Set aside.
To make the sofrito, in the same pan heat 2 T. olive oil over a low heat. Add the onions and shallot and cook gently to soften them, but not browning them. Add the garlic and peppers and cook over a low heat until they are also softened. Stir in the saffron and paprika. Add the tomatoes and bay leaf, then season generously with salt. Cook until the whole mixture has softened, about 7-10 minutes.
Now you are starting to build your paella. Raise the heat medium high and add the rice and white wine. Stir everything together until the alcohol has burned off. Add both stocks and bring to a boil.
Lower the heat to a simmer and spread the ingredients, in the pan, evenly about the pan. You kind of want it to sit like a pancake, across the whole pan. Cook for 15 minutes, or until the rice has absorbed all the liquid.
Arrange the clams, mussels and all of the shrimp on top, do not stir and continue to cook until the clams and mussels have opened. The shrimp should be cooked through. This should take 5-10 minutes.
If at this point, the rice still looks "wet", raise the heat for a few minutes to evaporate the liquid. Ideally, the rice will now have a golden crust on the bottoms, which the Spanish call the socarrat. You can lift a piece of the rice to check.
Remove from heat and serve directly from the pan, with lots of crusty tomato bread. Enjoy!
To toast the saffron, place a generous pinch in a small dry saute pan and gently toast over a low flame until it becomes fragrant, Do not burn.
You can used canned crushed tomatoes, if you must. Please make sure they are a great quality. Be generous with the white wine and don't forget a little for the pan and a little for the chef.
You can create your own paellas by adding whatever proteins you like. Try chorizo or other sausages, Rabbit is very popular in Spain. You can add different seafood too, like scallops. Really whatever suits you. Enjoy!