When I think of paella, I think of setting sun over a rocky coastline; a celebration of food, friends, family and natures bounty all nestled in one large round pan.
It’s an occasion. An event. A meal to anchor a shared memory with the people I hold most dear.
It’s truly a blessing to live in a city so similar in passion, and an abundance of seafood to the birthplace of this dish (Valencia, Spain).
These are the days of summer I live for in Seattle. Who doesn’t want that? (seafood squeamish folks aside).
I have eaten paella a handful of times (and have fallen deeply in love with it), but have never had the chance to make it myself. I asked for a paella pan for my birthday, determined to try my hand at it, if others were willing to eat the result.
Both Katie’s parents and mine came over for dinner a few weeks ago while my folks were in town for an art show. I had neglected to tell them all that they were to become guinea pigs for my food obsessed experiment that evening. Luckily for me (and for them, yay no food poisoning!!), my research, planning and ingredient sourcing paid dividends in what turned out to be a fantastic meal. With summer winding down, I couldn’t think of a better meal to make, have fun with, and share with my friends and family.
I read through nearly 50 different paella recipes, watched countless recipe videos (many in spanish), and was relieved to notice that while there is a generally agreed upon way to make it, there is some flexibility in the ingredient list (sofrito and rice style aside). I could still use whats in season, without straying far from authentic. This is my kind of dish.
No matter what kind of paella you’re making, the basic steps are the same I have discovered.
I turned to Saveur magazine, an authority on authentic recipes, to guide me through the homemade paella process. From all of my research, I felt this was the most complete list for Paella amateurs such as myself. It was instrumental in my cooking process, and most importantly, yielded fantastic results!
According to the recipe developers, there are six principles to achieving fantastic paella. The ones I found most important to the overall results were steeping the saffron at the very beginning, and sautéing the seafood in hot oil to build a strong flavor base. “The key is to build flavors from the bottom of the pan up,” the editors emphasized. Paella pans are designed for this purpose, though a wide skillet of the same size will work, too.
I wont ramble on too much longer, just know that a side of great bread, a glass of white wine, and a little flan will go a long way to really capturing the experience. We might’ve been thousands of miles away from Valencia, but for a moment, we were there.
Travel safe, and cook with love.
- 2 lb extra-large head-on shrimp in the shell
- 1 lb cuttlefish or small squid, cleaned and cut into 1″ pieces
- 1/2 lb mussels (~6-8)
- 1 lb manila clams (~12-14)
- 1/2 lb small bay scallops
- 1/3 cup frozen peas
- 2 4″ spanish chorizo links (firm and sliceable)
- 16-25 strands of saffron
- 7 cups of water for the stock
- 1 small onion, minced
- 1 red bell pepper, cored and chopped
- 4 cloves garlic, minced
- 4 medium sized vine ripened tomatoes, minced
- 2 1/2 cups spanish paella rice, preferably Valencia or bomba
- 1/2 cup olive oil
- 1 Tbsp smoked spanish paprika
Quick Prep Directions:
It important to prep, chop, mince, clean, portion and set aside all of your paella ingredients before beginning the cooking process. Trust me, it will make your life easier.
For those of you who would like to make your own quick shrimp stock, simply remove the heads of your whole shrimp, and place them into a pot filled with 7 cups of simmering, lightly salted water. After about 20-30 minutes, the water will become a fragrant, flavorful shrimp stock that will be used to cook the rice later, and at virtually no extra cost to you. Once the stock is brewed, turn burner to low so that you can keep it warm for cooking the rice later. Before pouring the stock into the paella pan, make sure to strain out all of the heads and any other small fragments of shrimp.
Feel free to dine on those succulent shrimp heads now, a little chefs treat, as my old man demonstrates here (risking the burn of hot shrimp broth)
You will likely need to spend a little extra time cleaning some of your other seafood offerings. Depending on your seafood provider, be it a grocery store or local fish monger, some of these prep steps may have already been taken care of.
Pre-slice your chorizo before you are ready to cook, as well as your onion, garlic, red bell pepper and even the tomato. A neat trick I discovered for mincing and juicing the tomatoes was to use a standard old box grater, and using the larger circles meant for cheese, grated the tomato over a bowl. This left a sweet pulpy tomato base full of liquid with which to use for the sofrito. Also it was just more fun than using a knife.
Last prep step, but perhaps the most important, as we learned in the above principles of paella, steeping the saffron. Saffron is very expensive, very fragrant and very flavorful. A little goes a long way thankfully, but only if you can extract the oils from those thin, fragile strands. To do this, crush the saffron strands between your fingers over a small bowl and cover with 1/4 cup or so of hot water to allow the flavor to bloom and steep, like you would tea leaves, for 15-20 minutes. This will make a huge difference in the depth and flavor of your paella base.
(Adapted from Saveur Magazine’s Fisherman’s Paella (Paella a la Marinera)
- Heat olive oil in a 15″–18″ paella pan over medium-high heat (stove top will work, but this process is easier on a large grill). Once the oil is hot, and nearly smoking, add shrimp, lightly salt, and cook, turning occasionally, until nearly cooked through, about 5 minutes; transfer to a plate and set aside.
( we are slightly under cooking them so that when we bring the shrimp back to the party, they don’t become overcooked)
- Cooking the sofrito: This vegetable base (garlic, tomatoes, peppers, onion), cooked with paprika until the spice infuses the ingredients, is another important building block of flavor. The longer the sofrito cooks, the darker and richer the paella will taste. Begin the sofrito by adding the onions and red peppers to the remaining olive oil in the pan. Cook alone, stirring often for 2-3 minutes.
- Add the squid, scallops, paprika, tomatoes, and garlic to the peppers and onions and cook, stirring often, until onions are soft, about 6 minutes. Add the chorizo and cook down a few minutes until its juices and flavoring has released, they will become slightly crispy.
- Add reserved saffron mixture and strained broth, season with salt, and bring to a boil over high heat.
- Sprinkle in rice, distribute evenly with a spoon, and cook, without stirring, until rice has absorbed most of the liquid, 10–12 minutes. (If your pan is larger than the burner, rotate it every two minutes so different parts are over the heat and the rice cooks evenly.)
- Reduce heat to low, and nestle in clams and mussels hinge side down; cook, without stirring, until clams have opened and rice has absorbed the liquid and is al dente, 5–10 minutes.
- Add frozen peas and pre-cooked shrimp back to the pan once almost all of the broth is absorbed and allow the rice and seafood to cook together for 3-4 minutes longer, creating a little crust on the bottom of the rice.
- Remove pan from heat, cover with aluminum foil, and let sit for 5 minutes before serving.
I thought long and hard about plating this bad boy with flair and elegance, with the seafood geometrically spiraling outward like a piece of art. Then my stomach growled, and sun began to set, and as I stared at this gorgeous pan of rich seafood and rice, I felt a sense of accomplishment and ease at how it fell together as is. It may not be a feast for the eyes, but if you were there, smelling the meal as it cooked, you would know that this was as beautiful a plate of food there may be. With both Katie’s folks and my folks enjoying a plate of fresh bread and olive oil from Pikes Place market, I had a little window of time to snap a few pictures. But really, I was ready to put the camera away, grab a glass of wine and join them all. Paella was a great excuse for a dinner party, if only it took longer to eat.
Makes 6 to 8 servings.